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(Wo)man’s search for meaning

senior column

In movies and books, when little girls day dream, they imagine themselves on their wedding days. They pick a beautiful, flowing white gown; they decide on flower arrangements and table charts. They dance alone in their rooms to Nat King Cole or Celine Dión. They wonder who will be waiting at the end of the aisle.

I’m sure I did this at some point in my life, but I really don’t remember. By the time I was in middle school, my fantasies were about something else: my college graduation day. I’m sure most of us at Duke were the same. We imagined what we’d wear under the cap and gown, what we’d say in a speech, how our parents would cry with pride and disbelief. Over the past four years, it was the light at the end of the tunnel, the thing pulling me through—an all-nighter writing my thesis? Worth it, because it would mean making my family extra-proud on graduation day. Feeling distance from friends? Meaningless, because they would be by my side in Wallace Wade. That meant forever. 

I imagined it in different ways and with varying degrees of excess. But to be honest, the possibility of that day not taking place never  crossed my mind. Now, my daydreams are of a room with more than 10 people. I’m finishing out four years at Duke and four years of writing for the Duke Chronicle over Zoom. I’ll “Mark the Moment” in an online ceremony. I’ll pick up my diploma from the mailbox. 

It’s crushing that we’ll miss those final moments. No Myrtle Beach. No final glances at the Chapel’s towering spires. For us at the Chronicle, no last episode of Jeopardy in the hallowed halls of 301 Flowers. No chance to inhale the scent of those dusty volumes of paper and ink (with a light after-taste of Raid, because our office had an ant problem) one last time. But more upsetting than these losses—at least for me—has been the crushing, inescapable feeling of existential doom. Dread is how it feels to live through a pandemic. To watch thousands of people die every single day and feel powerless to do anything but stare at a tiny screen and mourn. To watch the unraveling of our democratic processes, or what remained of them, and the collapse of our already-crumbling healthcare system. To feel the weight of my privilege—my ability to stay in this safe, comfortable, healthy home—at all times, in all ways.

Ultimately, it all feels like one question: What was the point? What was the point of four years together when there’s no place to close them? What was the point of organizing for a better world if it turns out that it was too late anyway? What was the point of hundreds of op-eds written, thousands of op-eds edited, if each of them failed to predict the horrors that were to come?

Aimless is not usually a word I use to describe myself. But one day, I woke up in quarantine and found that aimless was all I could be.

Viktor Frankl wrote his first version of “Man’s Search for Meaning” in 1946, just a year after surviving the horrors of four different Nazi death camps. He describes his time trudging through the snow barefoot for hours, shivering from fever in barracks that stacked men like cans of soup on shelves. Through it all, he documents the humanity preserved in so many millions of lives through the most disturbing and violent degradation imaginable. He quotes Nietzsche to sum up his point: “He who has a Why to live can bear almost any how.”

I read his book a few weeks ago, feeling completely adrift from my sense of meaning. Feeling like the days were longer than the weeks. Frankl posits that, at the most basic and fundamental level, there are three ways we derive meaning from our lives: through creation, through love and through suffering. 

We can find purpose in the finiteness—the finality—of life, the same way we might find purpose in the too-short four (or 3.8) years we spend at Duke. Meaning is in the thesis that we spent years researching and writing; it’s in the dances we choreographed and brought into the world with our own visions; it’s in the politics that we developed and believed in, that guided our actions toward a more just world. These means of creating, among so many thousands of others, make each of our college experiences a unique, irreplicable contribution to our small community. Meaning is in the feats we accomplished—the moments we can look back on now and be proud of.

Meaning is also in the love that we built. It’s in the partnerships, the romances, the long walks, the long talks. It’s in the feeling of complete loyalty to a friend, complete admiration of a professor. Life—and college—are meaningful because of the ways we have recognized each other’s humanity, grasped it, loved it, honored it. Meaning is in the times my friends brought me an extra brownie or piece of pumpkin bread to class. Meaning is in the times they showered the vomit off of my noodly, flimsy body. There is meaning in that love, whether it existed just for four years or in fleeting moments, or if it remains for a lifetime.

Finally, Frankl says that even in the absence of love and creation, in the worst and most dire circumstances, there is meaning in hardship. There is meaning in enduring a challenge and rising to the occasion. There is meaning in sadness, in sorrow, in fear, in irreverence. There is meaning in these tragedies because they prove that our circumstances do not define us. We are defined by our spirit, our moxie, our attitudes, our laughter, our stories, our tears. There is meaning in this challenge: our personal challenge of being pulled away from our final moments of college, our global challenge of caring for each other and repairing the systems that allow for and make possible this level of devastation. There is meaning in the way we grapple with this loneliness, this involuntary solitude, in moments where we crave connection most desperately. 

Institutions will fail us. Structures will collapse or crumble—or insidiously, work exactly as intended. We can spend this time wishing we were still at Duke, wishing we could change things, waiting for change to come.

Or we can spend it reminding ourselves that college had a meaning, commencement or not. Our lives have meaning, disaster or not. We can write a sentence that feels like some type of ending, take a deep breath and start a new paragraph. That power is still ours.

Leah Abrams had the absolute honor of serving as the Opinion Editor for Vol. 115. She would like to thank Jake for his gorgeous toes, Nathan for his trivia prowess, Bre for her ability to sleep through anything, Mihir for being the best right hand man, Stef for all the venting and Frances for “another diary entry from your uninteresting life.” She is grateful to every single columnist, guest and commenter who felt empowered to create campus discourse this year.

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