Screaming All the Way Down: The Great Heights Paradox – A Grad’s Blog

When I was a kid, there were a few activities that I relished more than anything else: getting gold stars, correcting my classmates’ spelling and pronunciation, and, quite unaccountably, scaling to the top of what I believed to be great heights. Whether I was tripping over other children as we rushed to the top of a schoolyard snow bank, running along gravelled campground pathways to jump off a “gigantic” cliff into a murky body of water, or declaring myself queen of the proverbial castle, I always wanted to be taller, higher, more daring than everybody else. I always wanted to be “number 1.” (This is probably why I abandoned track and field as soon it was no longer a requirement to pass phys-ed.)

My extreme jumping and climbing days ended around the time that a couple of friends and I decided it would be smart to jump off a bridge into the water holding hands (an arrangement which ended with me and another girl landing on top of, instead of beside, each other). But many of us don’t lose that summiting impulse with age. In fact, for some, the heights just seem to get higher, the dares more daring. We are at a point where multinational companies like Red Bull are willing to sponsor the adrenaline junkies among us to jump 120,000 feet from the stratosphere – just because they can. There is no other discernable reason for partaking in such an activity (well, okay, aside from the mercenary motives of the company itself): it is pure human achievement, an opportunity to revel in the swelling sense of immensity that comes from exerting mastery over the environment – a cliché that seems to remain a part of our collective consciousness from birth to death. We love our metaphors of overcoming and defeating, of controlling and taming. We can’t get enough of that autonomous human spirit.

But it seems to me that this ubiquitous habit of celebrating supremacy and transcendence is never without an accompanying anxiety over our ultimate smallness. Once the neurochemical euphoria of achievement has worn off, we are left with only ourselves, worrying the hems of our bedspreads as we listen to the muted, electric humming of late-night traffic, wondering how we might regain that sense of significance. When – if ever – will I feel “big” again? At what point will I look out over my social landscape and feel like I have found my place in it? Will I ever feel really, truly accomplished? These are the questions that dog our steps as soon as we are given a jarring and indifferent shove to the brink of adulthood and dare ourselves to look down. At least, these are the questions that have dominated my waking hours ever since the morning of May 24, the day after I handed in the last exam of my undergraduate degree.

I had been dreaming of “the end” for months. On more than one occasion, the knowledge that it was almost over was the only thing that kept me on track. I must admit, though, of all the emotions I imagined I would experience upon the completion of my undergrad, profound isolation and fearfulness were not among them. Something achieved, large and tangible and shining, another great height successfully surmounted, were more what I’d had in mind: not a slow-burning recognition of my youthfulness and naiveté. Not a cowering sense of inadequacy. In the moment, and for several days after, I became once more the four-year-old girl who, the night before starting junior kindergarten, cried her eyes out because she didn’t know how to read. As my favourite musician Laura Marling once described it, I felt like I might as well be “a letter in a word on a page in book in a library in a city in one country in this enormous universe.” Whatever I had to offer the world, it was too meager and meaningless to count for much of anything. So I slept. And slept. And slept some more. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was working until obscene hours at my catering job so that I could be tired enough to sleep, and sleep, and sleep some more. Anything but face some variation of the existential crisis that has been playing out like a critically despised but nonetheless heavily syndicated television program since my early childhood. Anything but confront the creeping sense of deficiency that would not scuttle away no matter how often I attempted to shut it out through frequent dips into unconsciousness.

This is the Great Heights Paradox: the imagined sense of “bigness” that, upon reaching some literal or metaphorical summit, is swiftly eclipsed by a sharp sensation of being, in fact, infinitesimally small and ill-equipped. Neither extreme is particularly useful when it comes to navigating this post-grad world that I’ve recently entered into, brimming as it is with reminders to “sell myself” but not to forget to “keep my career goals realistic.” But, like the unnerving phenomena of airborne stasis that I used to experience when taking a running plunge off a cliff, I continue to hang suspended within this paradox, between an awareness of my potential and a fear of failing to meet it; but also between being known and loved and cared for and being unknown and forgotten in a strange city.

At the end of August, I will be moving away to start graduate work at McMaster University. The city of Ottawa has been my home for the entire 23 years of my life. I can count on one finger the number of times I have moved houses, and even the distance between those two locations takes less than 10 minutes to drive. I regularly come in contact with community members who have known me since before I was aware of my own being. And there’s a part of me that is increasingly annoyed by that fact, or, if not annoyed, at least dissatisfied: I want to know what it’s like to be the new girl nobody has met before. I want to choose the time and the place that I introduce myself to people. I want to be in control of my identity. And, most of all, I want to meet people who are just as new and just as determined to inhabit themselves and their lives in ways that they have been unable or unwilling to before. I want to begin again in the company of strangers.

At the same time, there is something so incredibly safe about being surrounded by the same faces and voices that I’ve known since I was a child. It feels like an almost unspeakable fault of my character: I’m in my early 20s. I’m not supposed to look upon safety as being a positive or productive state of being in the world. I’m supposed to seek out minimalist road trips to Laurel Canyon and freelance writing jobs in the hipster paradise of Brooklyn, where I light my industrial-chic shoebox of an apartment with mason jar candles and have late-night, wine-infused debates on vague and philosophical-sounding issues, like the nature of authenticity. In keeping with the Great Heights Paradox, I am supposed to find infinite possibility in my youthful indeterminacy. But, as I’ve started to contemplate packing up my belongings and gently unstitching myself from the varied and intricate network of interpersonal ties that I’ve built up against the backdrop of this perfectly familiar city, I’ve come to realize just how much of my sense of self has depended on the existence of these faces and voices that I now need leave. Right now, it feels as if to leave them is to leave myself behind, to start again, but without the reassurance that I will discover the greater purpose behind my pursuits or, at least, a set of arms that will be there regardless of what the answer to that question is. For the first time in my life, I am going to be on my own. And I can’t wait until I feel secure enough to take this risk, because it is going to scare me half-to-death until I do it. I have to be alone and I have to be uncertain and I have to carry on anyways.

Whether, like me, you’re starting grad school in September, or carrying on at a job that you’ve had throughout your undergrad; whether you’re moving home to begin your first post-grad job search or you’re moving to a new apartment in a new city; whether you’re absolutely certain of your career trajectory or are having a hard enough time picking a paint colour for your bedroom, let alone picking a vocation, every one of us is in the process of disengaging from a world that we’ve grown to know so intimately over the past four or five (or six or seven) years. Even during those terribly long summers away from campus, we knew we had a place in our little academic cosmos. We knew we belonged somewhere, had somewhere to return to. We had our brand of coffee (and beer), our hidden study spaces, our secret places where we went to cry when things got to be too much (personally, I preferred the benches behind Dunton Tower). We discovered our favourite databases and felt an overwhelming rush of gratitude every time we received a long and detailed email back from a research librarian. When we got lonely, we knew there was probably a professor on campus who would be ready and willing to chat about pretty much anything. We found unique ways of making Carleton our own, of mastering its institutional and architectural idiosyncrasies, or at least accepting them, like we would those of an eccentric family member. And, in doing so, we discovered a safety, a security that we will be leaving behind as we walk across that stage at Convocation and onto new and uncertain pursuits.

The thing with culturally prescribed milestones though is that they can often obscure the fact that the transition and development symbolized by 15-second transactions like the bestowing of a diploma occur entirely outside of ceremony and formal celebration. What is more, they break up our lives into meaningful but ultimately artificial timelines that belie the reality of personal progress: which is, in fact, far from linear or uniform. We repeat lifelong behavioural patterns and occasionally we break them if they cease to be productive; we throw ourselves headlong into our professional and personal goals, but also stand paralyzed by fear or hurt, and sometimes we do both at the same time; we get the jobs, the scholarships, the reinforcement that we need to “get to the next level,” and sometimes we stay in the same place, enduring isolation and a crippling sense of loneliness, until we figure out what it is, exactly, that we want: a process that can take weeks, or months, or years, or an entire lifetime. We can feel both bigger than we expected and smaller than we ever imagined. And while a university degree certainly places us in the privileged position of being able to capitalize on the academic and professional opportunities that matter most to us, the amount of emphasis placed on the formal act of obtaining a degree can make the “next step” into some imagined state of fully-formed “adulthood” seem more drastic than any we’ve experienced before. As a result, instead of seeing “real life” as something that we are constantly re-negotiating, we end up perceiving it as something at which we either pass or fail: a game that we can only ever win or lose. It is no wonder then that so many of us are afraid of starting anything at all. It is no wonder that there are days when we would rather just sleep, and sleep, and sleep some more, in a perpetual state of postponement.

And yet, this is precisely why the symbolism of Convocation is so inescapably necessary. To be sure, after four-or-so years of hard work and late nights and personal crises and scholarly triumphs and many, many tears, we deserve to partake in the ceremonies and rituals that such an accomplishment affords. But, more importantly, I think, is the accompanying shove that such a celebration gives us; a kind and magnificent shove into a world that we will never be prepared for if we continue to stand along its edge, waiting to understand it, hoping we will eventually feel capable and competent enough to enter the fray. Because no matter how many credentials we accumulate over the course of our lives, they will never be anything more than valuable tools with which to navigate this Great Perhaps: a term which French Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais allegedly used to describe the ineffability of his impending death, but which I believe applies with equally forceful acuity to the post-graduation state of being, defined as it is by the fragile gifts of anonymity and inexperience.

Though my extreme sporting days may be over, right now, on the brink of what some people call “adulthood,” I feel a curious desire to recapture the spirit of the eight-year-old me who stood atop those “gigantic” cliffs and thought nothing of the potential dangers they presented. At 23, I have become adept at locating nothing but pitfalls and shaky foundations and safety hazards. This is, in part, a result of becoming a functioning member of society who isn’t going to risk everything for the sake of indulging an impulse. But it also results in its own kind of risk; the risk of risking nothing, of living a life that is dictated by fear and prudence, instead of embracing the free-falling anxiety of personal ambition.

As I stand here, toes curled tentatively around the edge of my own Great Perhaps, the weight of every doubt that has managed to entangle itself in my ever-winding skein of anxiety is felt with a particular poignance. Every possible variant of the first-person negative is scrambling over the others to make itself heard with a stinging clarity: I shouldn’t, I didn’t, I can’t, I won’t. I feel singularly and spectacularly unprepared for everything that I know and don’t know is coming. But I have gained enough courage to dare a look downwards. Now, it is just a matter of stepping back, taking a running jump and screaming all the way down.

Olivia Polk is graduating from Carleton University with a Bachelor of Arts (honours) with a Major in English with High Distinction and is being awarded a Senate Medal.

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