Irrelevant, therefore free: Why you don’t matter and why that is a relief| Mar 1, 2016
Food for thought: in six years, everyone on this campus will have been born in 2000 — or later.
I’ve sensed an existential tingle moving through the Class of 2016 these past few months. It’s come in waves throughout the year, but it hit an especially high frequency in February. Much like the sound of ripples in the fabric of space-time (shout out to that incredible human discovery last month), it seems the sound of thousands of seniors about to face their undergraduate mortalities is ringing across campus like a dog whistle.
Underclassmen, this observation does not exclude you. In fact, this is probably most relevant to you. One way or another, the senior class is about to work through this existential turmoil, and there is a non-insignificant chance that you will be a part of that process. You don’t even have to know any seniors — it can be a trickle-down effect! How exciting for us all.
I do not pretend to know the experience of every student on campus, nor do I claim to root the generalizations I am about to make in any kind of empirical evidence. All I have is four years of keeping my eyes open around springtime because I hate goodbyes and have always needed to get better at them.
But from what I’ve seen, I believe there is a scale that each student travels along from the first day of freshman year to the final day of Commencement, and that is the scale of relevance.
Being irrelevant is an incredibly terrifying, liberating concept for undergraduates. At first glance, it is something no one wants. People like our parents are "irrelevant" — not us. We’re in college! We’re the young generation! We’re just old enough not to be dumb kids but still young enough not to be soulless adults, which makes us the most relevant, most culturally central part of the American population! And, most importantly, that means we’re all relevant to each other — right?
At face value: sure. Being a student here means you are relevant to Princeton life and in a grander sense to the early-20-something culture of America. But that also means that on Day Two of your Princeton career, you were less "relevant" than you were on Day One. That progression continues until the day you are no longer an undergraduate college student. It spikes on weeks when you, say, host prefrosh for the first time your freshman year, realize you’re halfway done at the end of your sophomore year, watch some of your closest friends graduate your junior year, or relinquish all leadership roles your senior year. (Note that all of these things happen during spring semesters — hence the trickle-down effect.)
This may be starting to sound jaded. Let me prove to you that it’s not: break down your conception of "irrelevant" for a second. What is intrinsically negative about not being the center of social and cultural attention? Is it a desire to be in the spotlight? A general fear of aging? What about "relevant" feels good?
Personally, after four years of watching good and great friends move from one side of the scale to the other, I’m willing to claim that both relevance and irrelevance are ultimately neutral. Spotlights are fun but become exhausting after a while. Being older sounds lame but yields emotional clarity and depth you can’t know you’re missing before. Like pretty much everything about college, it’s not about whether you have any control over what’s changing, it’s whether you decide you’re enjoying the changes or not.
I think it’s fun to be on this end of the scale. You don’t feel a weird responsibility to represent the ideal college millennial — if you ever did. You can listen empathetically to undergrad concerns without the need to be personally invested. You can delete a lot of summer internship emails without feeling guilty that you’re not applying.
That’s the great thing about existentialism: it’s actually a theory of psychological freedom. To put it reductively, existentialist beliefs emphasize that nothing about the world is inherently meaningful — and that means individuals are completely empowered to assign their own meanings. It’s something a little bit more compelling than telling yourself to “look at it from a new perspective;” rather, it puts your perspective in the ultimate spotlight. You’re neither relevant nor irrelevant, because there’s no outside meaning to compare with yours.
Spring semesters might be a lot less emotionally jarring for everyone if we explored the possibilities of this existential tingle: as a moment to choose and remember what’s important to you. Hopefully, it’s something deeper than a love of 3 a.m. Frist pizza or a comfort in the ability to prox into any building on campus. Ideally, it’s even related to what happens when you’re no longer on campus at all. If not, you’ve got plenty of friends hearing that same dog whistle to talk it through with. But if so, it doesn’t matter what American or Princeton culture is centered around — because you’ve found your own center.
Victoria Gruenberg is an English major from Winter Park, Fla. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.