As human beings, we are intrinsically terrified of the unknown. As young children, we fear the darkness that comes after our parents flip the light switch, leaving us at the mercy of the monsters that lurk in the shadows, just out of sight.
As we get older, we agonize over decisions that will shape and mold the rest of our lives; “What colleges am I going to get accepted into?” “Which college should I choose?” “What should I major in?” “Oh my god, college is over. Where am I going to work? How am I going to make money?”
While the enormity of many of these decisions can certainly be overwhelming, I would argue that it is not the magnitude, but rather the ambiguity that makes them truly fear-inducing. Even our educational system is structured around knowing. Instead of encouraging students to explore and embrace “not knowing,” we encourage flooding the brain with unsustainable knowledge so as to rid it of any shadowy, cobweb filled corners.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that when it comes to perhaps the greatest unknown of all, death, we have created many fantastical interpretations, sweeping away those dastardly dusty webs. Some of these iterations are beautiful, awe-inspiring, and comforting. Visions of Christian heaven – clean, peaceful, everlasting – or Buddhist Nirvana, eternal union with the universe, come to mind. However, these utopias have historically been contrasted by grotesque, horrific ideas of a “hell,” such as Dante’s disturbing epic poem and painting “Inferno.” How ironic it is that throughout our lives, our incredibly unique, precious lives, what happens after consumes our collective imagination more than anything else.
Since the beginnings of human civilization, we have created religions – vivid patches, filling gaps in the tapestry of human understanding. Over time, science, philosophy, epistemology, and literature have filled in where religion has become archaic.
Ptolomy told us that the sun and the rest of the solar system revolve around the earth, rather than being raised and lowered in the sky every day by Apollo’s fiery chariot. Now, thanks to Copernicus, we know that earth orbits the sun, rather than vice versa. As we move into the 21st century, the majority of the naturalistic claims and explanations offered up by religion have been directly contradicted by modern science. However, the one niche upon which religion still claims a monopoly, and which modern science has been unable to provide an answer, is what happens after death.
While some religions, like Buddhism offer up a fluid, cyclical interpretation of the soul, the majority of major world religions (i.e. Christianity, Judaism, Islam), offer dualistic ideas of life after death, generally “heaven,” “hell,” and some form of purgatory. While the idea of eternal salvation can be incredibly comforting to some, the way in which hell (especially the Dantean iteration) has been weaponized is, to me, deeply disturbing. In her play “Eurydice,” this year’s Symposium author Sarah Ruhl amalgamates these two juxtaposing imaginings of an afterlife into a simultaneously eerie and ethereal place, one which not only captivates the imagination, but embraces the unknown.
Now, you may be thinking at this point, “Jaden, what in the hell (no pun intended) is the point?” And while at first glance, comparing death and the afterlife to life after high school may seem to massively melodramatic, thinking about the latter in the same way Ruhl imagines the afterlife, can, in my eyes, provide some sense of comfort and ease in the midst of what is for seniors an anxiety ridden, stress filled time of year.
Similar to death, life after high school is a restart, a blank slate riddled with uncertainties. We will be going from having our lives organized, our friends solidified, and our home and family as a base to not knowing where we’ll be, who we’ll our friends will be, or even who we’ll be. Instead of having a fixed curriculum of academic courses, we will have freedom (some more than others) to explore existing interests and discover new ones. And while we may think we have our futures and our interests predetermined at the moment, they are sure to change along with us.
And while this may be the conceptual equivalent of standing in the middle of a pitch black room and staring out into the abyss, I would argue that rather than panic, ceding to the intrinsic human fear that accompanies the unknown, we should plunge ahead bravely into the darkness, accepting that we may not know exactly what lies ahead.
After all, what lies ahead is quite literally everything. College, new friendships, relationships, cars, jobs, houses, retirement and yes, eventually, death. Life doesn’t truly begin until after high school, after we are released from the restrictive shackles of the daily high school monotony. And rather than mire in anxiety over the undetermined, I encourage you to get excited. The best part of your life is coming up. And even though you may not know exactly what lies in store, it’s guaranteed to be one hell of an adventure.