One thing I do miss about going into the office each day is that I tend to spend my limited commute talking to myself about things. It used to be mainly about gaming, which lead to my “In the Car” vlog series that I did for a while, but it very well could be about anything that I had heard on the radio, on TV, from friends or family, or from social media.
I did go into the office today, and I picked up where I had left off with my monologuing habits. This time it started with interpersonal connections: people we know, knew, or thought we knew, how connections persist and why they fall away, and what we do that fosters new relationships, or what we do that prevents them.
My touchstone for was my time at college, which I consider to be one of the best times of my life. Academics aside (I have a B.S. in Biology, yet have spent 20+ years as an application developer, so that speaks volumes on that subject), I believe that going to college is one of the best things a high school student can do for themselves for one very specific reason: it’s the perfect place between responsibility and irresponsibility, when young adults are still technically under the care of their parents and The System, but are also left to their own devices to succeed or fail on their own. I admit that I didn’t take advantage of this situation myself to its full potential, but I am thankful that I was around people who did which, by extension, allowed me to go along for the ride to some extent. I met a lot of new people in college, and had relationships there the likes of which I had never had before, and very few which I have had since. Despite the crushing uncertainty I had in my senior year knowing that I had zero prospects of putting my degree to work, and other, more personal disappointments, I always look back on that time with those people with great fondness.
But where are they now? Regarding most of them, I don’t know. There are two with whom I have a direct line of contact to. A few others I know where to find should I want to talk to them. As for the rest, well, they could be anywhere in the world right now, alive or dead, but I will probably never hear from or about them ever again. Back in college I had thought we were all friends who shared a similar set of circumstances in a shared environment at the same point in our lives and the same point of time in humanity’s existence, and that this should mean something to us all that no one else could understand, but with hindsight it turns out that I was wrong. Even though I still get nostalgic when I hear certain songs of the time, or hear a name mentioned, or even get physically close to the campus we all inhabited, I realize now that we fill a lot of holes in our memories with what we want to believe happened when the truth of the matter is a lot harder to accept. We were all friends of convenience because we were in the same circumstance in the same place at the same time, all of us trying to figure out our lives going forward, and we helped one another during that period, but it was never really friendship of the type we all wish to have.
College was a massive life-change for me, and maybe for you if you attended, or maybe there are other milestones in your life which afford you similar circumstances if not. I will sometimes get this very sharp, very present feeling these days of having been transported back to a time in a way that I simply cannot conjure on demand no matter how hard I try. There’s a lot of ephemera that goes into our daily experiences that I don’t think we pick up on until much, much later in life. We recognize it when we are reintroduced to it, like finding out later there had been another person in the room that we had never seen, and that trigger can be a scent or a place or a song or literally the most incongruous detail we wouldn’t have otherwise paid attention to. For me, when I get into that state about my time in college, I am flooded with nostalgia, but in retrospect I couldn’t really put my finger on what I was nostalgic for.
This was only part of my self-discussion yesterday afternoon, because I somehow segued into the whole progression of possibility, and I realized that college, as a time of transition between childhood and adulthood, was all about possibility. I was a bit terrified to go to college because unless you have an experience to the contrary, there’s no reason to believe that any bullshit you had to deal with in high school wouldn’t continue ad infinitum. But it wasn’t like that; everyone was in the same boat. We were all a bit freaked out about so many new people, a new place to live, the responsibilities of our school work and how it was intended to prepare us for a career, and the dizzying array of new social situations that would present themselves. Every single person we would see every single day was a potential friend, enemy, lover, casual acquaintance, or study partner. Or maybe none of the above, but every status was possible.
Up until yesterday I had always thought that the thing I enjoyed the most about new experiences was learning. It’s why I ended up playing so many games throughout the years; because I love learning new systems, but I never really liked doing what those lessons had prepared me to do. Now I understand that the “newness” that I love so much isn’t about the act of learning, but about the possibility that learning implies. It’s the same feeling I got when I started college, and is the same feeling I get when I start a new game I know nothing about. Learning illuminates possibilities in the future.
As I was approaching the office, though, a dark thought occurred: possibilities are only possible until reality hits. At some point, there is no more learning, and that there is nothing left but to put those lessons into practice, and when those situations arise, the possibilities begin to diminish. Patterns emerge. There’s less and less freedom to use what we’ve learned in ways we dream of because the game can only offer so many open opportunities for a solution. Even the most open world games are bound by a limited set of mechanics and rules. Whereas we might see how a solution might be had when we’re figuring out our way in a new game, eventually there will only be one, valid, often uninspired, and eventually rote solution.
I think this is why, as we get older, we don’t see life the way we did when we were younger. Sure, times change. That’s an external factor we have no control over. I got access to The Internet when in college and have lived with it ever since, but I remember phone books and rotary phones, video rental shops, newspapers and magazines, and all kinds of things that have been superseded by a faster, more technological equivalent. The world our kids encounter at 13 years old is not the same world we encountered when we were 13; times change, and with it the circumstances that affect our lives. I think that as kids we looked at our current situations and saw the possibilities. As adults, though, we’re past the stage where anything is new anymore. Our possibilities have segued into application.
Why that is, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we’ve got less time in which to adapt to a changing world. It is harder to keep up with change as we age, and completely without scientific backing I believe that this might have to do with the fact that we’ve spent all of our lives building up these lessons, putting them into practice, and seeing the results that we simply don’t have the bandwidth to allow ourselves to believe in possibility the way we used to. We might say that “we’ve seen some shit” that has beaten the dreams out of us, but I don’t think it’s that dramatic. Instead, I think we’re just piling up our life’s experiences, trying to juggle the years and years of experience in order to maintain what we’ve come to think of as our identity.
Identity is kind of hot right now because everyone is expected to identify in some way, socially, politically, sexually, or professionally. We stake claims by declaring our identities so people know where we stand in relation to wherever it is that they stand. Choosing identities begins way back in grade school, as kids start to understand their interests, the value of who they hang out with, and what things like that say about them to other people. These are the possible times, when identities are in flux to varying degrees. I took the opportunity of college to reconfigure my identity, and while I didn’t take it as far as I should have (in retrospect), I know that I changed without the weight of my history following me. We like people to know who we believe ourselves to be, even when who that is still changing, because knowing us is how humans relate to one another.
There comes a time, though, when I think our identity…stops changing. We settle into who we are going to be for the rest of our lives. I don’t think we do it consciously, or at the same time…or even at all. Again, it’s a circumstantial thing. If we’re in a situation where we no longer have the input that we needed when we were younger, or we simply have too much going on in our lives to allow for a radical change, we just…stop. We accept who we are because we can’t act to the contrary, because it’s easier, or because we’re surrounded by people who accept us, and the further we age, we don’t just accept it, but we double-down. I believe that this is one reason why we see so many violently opinionated elderly. They are the culmination of their singular identity build-up and haven’t had the kinds of experiences that could modify their identity. While anyone would say “Sure! Exposure to people, places, and experiences different from us help up grow” that’s never a given; people have to want to incorporate those possibilities back into their lives, and not everyone — especially those who are getting older — are willing to do that.
The reason I got down this rabbit hole is because I wondered if, in this age of social media and all kinds of information of ours being online, anyone I knew from college has ever tried to figure out what happened to me. I know I have gone looking for people, and in some cases I found a few, but not all, and even those I did find, I am not in regular contact with. I might know if they die because of six degrees of separation, but I don’t chat with them or even know what they do for a living, where they live, or if they have families. I then wondered if Gen X is just split on the issue of technology. Some of us embraced it, live with it, and choose to live through it, while others believe that they grew up without always being connected through social media and don’t see the point of using it beyond what modern society or their professional lives demand. I try to embrace the possibility of technology, but I don’t know that everyone of my age group does; have they solidified their identity as “pre-internet”? Or maybe knowing me at a specific point in time wasn’t meaningful enough for them to care at this point in their lives.
That thought makes me sad, because it gets into the whole idea of how solid our relationships are. With the rise of social media we have the idea of “parasocial relationships”, which is basically “people you meet online and how you feel about them”. Our social circles used to be limited to people we could see and (appropriately) touch, which gave a lot more weight to the idea that we “shouldn’t say anything to anyone that would get you punched”. Now its easy to find people with similar interests and we like to think that this is a fine basis for a friendship in the traditional sense of the word. We will chat with like-minded people, learn about them and let them learn about us (hello from this post!), but in the end, are we really “friends”? I know that I have had a rocky time with some relationships I’ve had online. Sometimes I get in a state where I wonder if anyone is aware of me and decide that no, they aren’t, and wonder what it would be like to slip away (from social media entirely, not everything!). Other times I need to hear from as many people as I can manage, just to know they’re still alive. There are many people with whom I no longer speak, despite having known them for years online, and others who also seem to indulge in the occasional need to take a social sabbatical; I sometimes feel bad when they return, and I didn’t even know they were gone. Sometimes, I don’t feel anything either way. The question of how solid our relationships are — and more importantly, how and why — is a question I would like to know the answer to. More importantly, how can we turn that kind of knowledge to our advantage, to make real friends in person and on line, and keep them forever.
That’s why I have such fond memories of college despite its many ensuring tragedies. It was fun sitting the dorm hallways with people, just chatting. We had decided at 3AM one weekend to go out and find an abandoned satellite dish in the nearby forest. I remember getting a cigarette accidentally thrown at me while waiting in line at a campus food truck one night. We watched movies together, went to class together, laughed and cried together, played games together, and it was good at the time, but it was great in hindsight. Even though the connections now seem so much more ephemeral than I remember them, I prefer to rely on what I think it all meant rather than what I’m now sure it did mean, because it was a time of possibility back then, and I really like remembering that feeling when it presents itself.