A Letter to College Graduates: Beware the Noise

Dedicated to the Holy Cross Softball class of 2016: Colleen Ahern, Kelsey Christensen, Gen Durham, Becky Geddes, Emily Jarvis, Sarah Kane, and Hailey Mullen.

 

To my girls:

I want to write to you to tell you about one thing that I was not prepared for upon graduating college.

You have not experienced it yet, but upon the turn of your tassel, you will all enter and begin contributing to something I’ll call Noise. Noise is a combination of many things, but before I describe it, you need to understand that you are a part of it.

Noise is the collection of people’s thoughts, actions, and habits popularized and glamorized by our culture that advocate for a disconnected existence. Noise is a focus on the material, the immediate, and the perceived. It is characterized by skepticism that what we do here on Earth has consequences, let alone actually matters.

Think of noise as smartphone addiction, mass accumulation of personal wealth and property, consumerism, overt and obsessive concern over celebrity, and shameless self-promotion. Noise is the triumph of “things” over all else.

Noise often attempts to drown out meaningful understanding of our world in order to replace it with mindless inoculation to reality. This mindlessness breeds a disdain for anything that makes us actually think, and an affinity for distancing ourselves from the gritty realities of life that often expose our flaws, insecurities, and existential ignorance. Because of this, Noise also distances us from those who need advocates. It blinds us from people and things who are not like “us.” Whoever us is.

That is to say, Noise takes us far away from what it means to be human.

At first, you may not hear your contribution to Noise, because Noise is not composed solely of voice. Noise is also composed of action, and absence of action.

You will contribute to that Noise. You will say things you will regret, and people will say things to you that they will regret. You will also not say things when you need to. You will forget birthdays. You will use busy-ness and exhaustion as excuses for more than you can imagine. Right now, you probably doubt that you will. But if and when life goes unchecked, you will.

Noise will also convince you to hold fast to the idea that everything is a competition. It will highlight the success of others and draw you further into an existence solely concerned with yourself if you let it. This is exactly what Noise will urge you to think: that amongst the billions of people in this world, you matter and you deserve the most. Never forget that you matter; however, resist the temptation that you are the only one who feels the consequences of your actions.

Noise will deny you the distinctly human privilege of taking responsibility for the world that you find yourself in. You cannot take responsibility for what you refuse to acknowledge.

In college you are given the platform to express your voice, thoughts, opinions, and experience daily, and examine the voices, thoughts, opinions and experiences, of others. Those platforms do not exist in life outside of college if you do not build them with your own hands. If you do not know this–as I did not at first–it is dangerously easy to wait for a platform that will never be built. Noise thrives on idleness. If you do not hit the ground running when you graduate, after two or three months you will begin to feel dumber. For six months after graduation I literally thought that the world was making me dumb. It wasn’t. I was allowing it to dull me. Noise will lull you into a sleep if you let it.

Amidst it all, there are still things that are louder than collective Noise. Love is louder. Thoughtfulness is louder. Honesty is louder. Curiosity is louder. Action is louder.

Leaving college does not mean that these habits of character you have always regarded as “good” are now optional because you have more freedom. They are actually more necessary than ever, because Noise defines the world you are stepping into; it will be hard, but you must exhibit vigilant adherence to those “good” things, as they determine the person that you are. The person you are determines the shape of the world during your brief time here, and after you leave. You will not be perfect, but this is one of the rare times I will say that as long as you are trying, then that counts as much as succeeding.

My biggest piece of advice is to resist the temptation to allow Noise to paralyze you. Noise makes it easy to believe that image, money, and all of life’s superficialities are the stuff that life is made of. When we pay the majority of our attention to these peripheries, they no longer become peripheral, but central to the backdrop against which we make all of our most important decisions. You are in control of which values constitute your backdrop. Do not forget that.

The question is, how do you resist paralysis? You do. You read. You think. You have conversations. You make decisions. Because when you “do,” you will inevitably stumble, and not often–but sometimes–you stumble into something or someone that could change everything. In the early pages of her book At the Existentialist Cafe, author Sarah Bakewell wrote that when philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre decided to leave his schoolteacher profession, “To write what he wanted–novels, essays, everything–he knew he must first have Adventures.”

Your greatest Adventures will be on the days that you choose to spend living out the love, thoughtfulness, honesty, and curiosity that you were given opportunity for every day in college. The only difference is that your Adventures will be worth that much more (both to yourself, and to the world) because you will act these out on the stage–and against the backdrop–that you built yourself. In spite of the Noise.

It is your privilege and duty to not just live among the noise, but to live in spite of it–to listen critically and make sense of it, and to act in ways that are contrary to it.

My friends, the truth is that you do not have the choice of whether or not you contribute to a world defined by Noise.

But you do have a choice of what you contribute.

Love,

Sarah

 

Image courtesy of Shilan Sed, Flickr Creative Commons

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