Right Before the End
The blood orange nectar seeps across the sky, streaked with pink and gold. The moment right before the end, final and fleeting, the glorious last light of day. With no regard to the day’s work still unfinished, how much living could yet be done, the sun dips below the horizon. Silently, steadily, the orb of light disappears, no ripple or plunk as the last ray of transcendence drops below the ocean line. We set our cameras down, no photo could truly capture the burst. Our dire attempts to slow the sun, to grasp on to the light, completely in vain. We couldn’t prevent the end. We never could.
On the eve of my final fifty days of college, I feel this same powerless sensation. Nothing I do will slow the passage of time. The sun is setting on my college experience, the end is in sight, rapidly approaching. No matter if I try to clutch and collect every moment in these final hours of college, like when I sprinted down to the beach in Costa Rica to watch the sunset and fill my camera roll with photos, or choose to hide in my room, head below the covers and mind deep in denial of the end, it will come. Our human instinct is to resist change, to grip our routines and sink our fingernails into the familiar, holding on to the world exactly as we know it right now.
It makes sense, change is terrifying. Ripping down the structures we have spent the past four years building, the identity, the resume, the relationships, the memories- it stirs up dust and we become consumed by chaos. We fear that our life may never be better than it is right now in this instant, for all we know is what we have in our possession right now, the very things we are about to lose.
In economics, we learn about sunk costs, a quantity of money or time that has already been spent and cannot be recovered. The rules of economics say that these sunk costs should not be included when making a decision for the future, for they are gone and thus irrelevant. While this makes sense on paper, in the real world, humans struggle to leave the past behind them. According to my professor, economists worldwide live in a state of fury and exasperation at us real-life human beings and our attachment to our sunk costs. Off the pages of a textbook, humans are much more emotional than rational. We resist change because we can precisely measure all that we are about to lose, and have no idea what we might gain in its place. We hold dearly to our past, lugging around our baggage, afraid of what might happen if we let it go.
But sometimes, we are forced to let go. Reality as we know it is ripped from our hands and the only choice we are given is to surrender or suffer. We can become accepting or become agitated, the decision is solely our own.
After my senior year in high school, the largest transition period I have lived through until now, I felt a similar fear of change. Instead of resisting it, I chose to lean into it, cultivating an immense urgency to tear down the identity I had built through the four years of high school. Straight A student, captain of two varsity sports, student government vice president, I had spent four years playing it safe, controlled, and groomed for perfection and productivity. That meant I hadn’t kissed a boy since sixth grade, never took a sip of alcohol, simply did not relax and was arguably, the least fun person to ever walk the earth. Right before I went to college, I decided I needed to skydive.
See, not only was I pretty lame in high school, I was also extremely risk-averse. I lived in fear of failure, and I played small. I kept my aspirations reasonable and achievable and beat myself up when I did have small setbacks. The biggest risk I took in four years was asking my AP Chem lab partner to go to prom (he said no lol). Jumping out of a plane barrelling through the stratosphere at hundreds of miles per hour just wasn’t in my risk profile.
But I fell in love with this idea of skydiving and signed up, failing to actually think through the reality of what would happen when the plane went up in the sky. So this is how I ended up 14,000 feet in the air, begging to be taken back down. I looked out at the ground below me, blurred and out of focus because we were moving so fast. The guide threw open the door and the noise flooded the plane, like a turbo vacuum stuck in your ear, the wind rattling my entire being. My stomach in my throat, adrenaline lit up my body like a Christmas tree. See, in my half incubated notion that I should pay hundreds of dollars to jump out of a plane, I had forgotten that planes don’t just stop and hover and allow the skydiver to exit gracefully when the skydiver feels emotionally ready and prepared. No, the plane must speed forward to stay up and there are only a few moments when the plane is positioned precisely for the person to skydive. The plane pays no attention to the needs of the skydiver. You are one hundred percent at the will of the world.
The person strapped to my back was a great burly man named Dan and he didn’t care at all that I was formerly the world’s most lame person and was having an existential crisis. His job was to get me out of the plane. In extremely close proximity, he felt my tense agitation and tangible fear. He leaned forward and whispered some positive affirmations in my ear, “Either you are jumping out of this plane or I am throwing you out of it. Doesn’t matter to me, but you’re going through that door.” I near about fainted. My nails gripped into my hands, unconsciously squeezing my fists so tightly they drew blood.
Dan pushed me toward the hatch. The wind roared and screamed, pushing my cheeks below my goggles back into my face. I wasn’t ready. I would never be ready. I began to push back against Dan but he picked me up by my harness and placed me in the door as though I were a rag doll. The air howled and I screamed. NO NO NO! Dan shouted above the roar, “One.” NOOO! “Two.” A shove pushed my back. I swallowed my scream as the atmosphere enveloped me. Freefall, my body a torpedo headed straight to the ground as we somersaulted out of the plane.
Then nothingness. Weightless. Floating. For one moment in all of my life, I was nobody. No body, no mind. Nothing. Just a tiny speck of matter hurtling through the air.
Later they would tell me that they always do that, they have to push people out of the plane at the count of two. Because people are so afraid of the jump, they grab onto the sides of the plane on three and can break their arms because they hold so tightly. This aversion to change, it’s an inherently human condition.
When I went skydiving, I had a choice with how I would experience my change, and I chose to resist it. Instead of jumping gracefully, I had to be shoved out, screaming, legs kicking. But I still got through it. I landed. I’m alive. It wasn't pretty, but it is done. The same could be said for how one can graduate college. We can exit gracefully or be shoved out, holding desperately to the stair rail at Skeeps, insisting we need a fifth year. It doesn’t matter how we go, how we choose to spend these last fifty days in celebration or denial, because they are going to happen. We are all going to be fine. In a couple of years, so in love with the “real world,” we won’t believe that we ever feared the jump into the unknown.
While it was my decision to skydive, there are experiences in life in which we have no control. Such as the passage of time, the sun setting. The sun pays no regard to how much I enjoyed its light or that I could use just like fifteen more minutes to finish what I am doing. It sets and it goes. We can choose to dance under its fleeting light or grieve its absence. The choice is our own.
Someone I care about dearly gave me this quote when I was talking about my fear of graduation. It is from the movie Troy, and while it is pretty melodramatic, you get the jist. Brad Pitt's character says:
"The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”
Like the sunset, everything is more beautiful when it is fleeting, about to end. The fiery burst of the final firework, the last notes of the encore song trailing off into silence - may we savor and cherish what we have, even if it doesn't last, and especially because it doesn't last.
Fear used to make me small, and I shrunk in anticipation of loss, trying to prevent myself from ever feeling discomfort or pain. I thought that if I was less, I would feel less. So afraid of falling out of that plane, I balled up into a cannonball of agitation and panic. In the freefall, however, my arms spread wide. With my heart open and body expanded, the fear dissolved. I let the world lift me and I flew. Through my life's transition periods, I have come to realize that pain is just a signal. Like the sunset itself, it is the last beautiful thing, a flare to remind us that something is being shed and space is being created for a new beginning. May we grow under the blood orange, almost done sun, expanding ourselves and transcending our fear. With courage, we might live full of heart even with the realization of our own impermanence. Whether we sink or soar, we simply cannot afford to spend one more moment living small.