Battling 'premature nostalgia'

I’m a senior. I’m writing that just as much to provide some context for the editorial I’m about to write as to reiterate the fact to myself. In some ways being a senior feels normal, but in others it feels completely unreal. My time at Duke has flown by, and now that I’m looking down the barrel of the rest of my life, I’m beginning to feel what one friend of mine adeptly dubbed “premature nostalgia.” It’s an odd feeling, and the best way that I can try to explain it is to say that despite the fact that I still have three months left at Duke, I feel like I’m already looking back at the experiences that I’m having right now and asking myself things like, “will I remember this night five years from now?” and “what about this is going to make for a good story when I tell my kids about it?”.

On a surface level, these questions are innocuous. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with looking at your life from a birds-eye view; in fact, that kind of thinking can be useful and can help you keep things in perspective. But, at a deeper level, premature nostalgia is just a repackaged version of the depression that I’ve experienced all too frequently at Duke.

I’m not about to tell you that there’s a secret to handling depression in a college setting, because there isn’t one. Everyone’s experience with it is different. But one thing that I know for sure is that being depressed in college is hard, and not just because it can make it harder to handle schoolwork or to deal with job applications. Depression can do those things, but it also makes it really, really hard to have fun. And while multiple counselors over the course of my time at Duke have told me that not having fun isn’t the end of the world, it’s hard to accept their reassurances when everyone around me seems to buy into the oft-quoted saying that “college is supposed to be the best four years of your life.”

Despite trying for years, I still haven’t been able to resolve those two sentiments. In response to people who told me that I should be having the time of my life, I have wanted to ask: “Why isn’t it okay for me to just be scraping by? Is there really anything wrong with putting my head down and grinding through week after week of work, despite the fact that I feel like I lost my drive and I don’t even know why I’m working anymore?” And when other people told me it was alright to be depressed, I wanted to grab them by the collar and say “Look around you—where do you see any sort of validation for that statement? Can you point to a single movie, book, TV show or motivational speaker that says that being unhappy is alright?”

This cycle of thinking can be destructive in and of itself. I have witnessed the pressure from the social expectation of college being a wild, fun time drive both myself and others into harmful physical and mental patterns of behavior. I have personally spent months at a time searching for some sort of catharsis or satisfaction in quintessential college activities, often to find that people around me were having a great time while I felt unhappy or, even worse, empty. After repeating this cycle several times, I finally discovered that, at the end of the day, there’s rarely anything fulfilling about having someone else tell you that what you’re doing is fun.

Realizing the truth of this last statement was a huge turning point for me. I’ve gradually been getting better over the past few years, but the idea that I should be better than I was, should be having the time of my life, should be young and carefree was a huge roadblock on the path to combating my depression. Finally acknowledging that I don’t always have to enjoy the things people say I should (like sports, loud parties and Fireball whiskey) then led me to decide that it’s okay for me to enjoy things that other people might not (like cooking, science fiction and Guy Fieri, for whom I harbor a deep and burning passion), a decision that I believe has been instrumental in helping me to grow to become a much happier and more content person. And, ironically, it’s also helped me to have more fun doing “college stuff” because it’s helped me stop myself from holding my level of fun accountable to some disembodied idea of what college is supposed to be.

I’m honestly embarrassed that it took me until late in my college career to come to this realization, but I’m also not entirely surprised. As college students, everywhere we look we’re confronted with the notion that not only is college the best time in our lives, but that we’re doing something wrong if we don’t feel that way. And now that I’m coming up on my last few weeks in college, that mentality seems to be coming to a fever pitch, with people (including myself) saying things like “I need to do this now, I’m a senior!” and “we won’t be able to do this stuff forever!”.

As I write this, I’m still not sure whether I buy into these statements because I’m not sure whether I truly mean them or whether some subconscious part of me still wants to prove to myself and everybody else that my four years at Duke have been fun, despite the rocky patches. What I do know is that even though books, movies and TV shows rarely show that being unhappy at the end of a story is alright, the end of my time at Duke is not the end of my story. It’s the ending of a chapter, and I hope that it’ll be a fun one, but if it’s not that doesn’t mean my time here was wasted or that I’m doomed to be unhappy for the rest of my life.

And now, if you’ll forgive my abrupt ending, I have some “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” to go watch, and I just can’t bring myself to keep Guy Fieri waiting.


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