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From 18 to 22 and all the time that’s left

<h6>José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian

I recently realized that come Dean’s Date, I’ll be exactly three months away from turning 22, and this provoked a mini existential crisis along the same lines of a question I’ve been asking myself all semester long: What do I want to do with the time I have left?

The more pressing version of this question asks me about the time I have left before graduation. Normally, the day I’ll graduate still feels very distant, but every now and then it feels like it’ll be tomorrow that I don my cap and gown. There’s the realization that I’m now closer to walking out FitzRandolph Gate, a newly-minted alumnus, than to when I last walked out of Blair 62, still a freshman, as pandemic life first set in. There’s the shock of already having to decide on leadership positions that’ll carry me to mere months before leaving this campus.

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If I let myself dwell on this too much, I’ll spiral down to the version of this question that asks me about the rest of my life. What do I want to do as a young alumnus? What do I want to accomplish by the time I’m 40 or 50? Who do I want to be as I reminisce in old age on a life hopefully long and well-lived? It’s scary, honestly, because I don’t yet know how to answer these questions — at least not definitively. I’ve already seen my previous, tentative answers change frequently and even dramatically — regardless of how sure I’d been of those answers.

The recent bonfire was a huge reminder of this. The previous time Cannon Green glowed with such towering flames, I was at home, recovering from surgery, watching through Instagram posts the very bonfire I would’ve been attending had I not fallen so ill weeks earlier. I think back to that 18-year-old me and see almost a completely different person — certainly someone with a different set of plans for the future. Had I managed to stay a ’22, I more likely might today be an engineer — and never would have written for The Daily Princetonian.

But that’s not what happened. Eighteen-year-old me would say life disappointed me. Soon-to-be 22-year-old me will say life surprised me — even gave me a chance to surprise myself as I became enamored with my French courses and my ‘Prince’ essays. Somehow, I’m the same person.

All this is simply to say that time confuses me. I’m here in the present, writing about my past and my future, yet I don’t fully understand what to make of them.

This uncertainty I carry is only exacerbated by the world’s own uncertainty as it too fell ill. Nowadays, every day seems to be filled with a simultaneous longing for the past and yearning for the future. Somehow, I can sense around me both an impatient, nearly desperate desire for life to return to the normal of the past, and I can also sense an equally impatient, often weary hope for life to move on, into a new post-pandemic future.

Yet both this desire and this hope are forced to exist now, excruciatingly stuck in a present that cannot access either a remembered past or an imagined future.

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What makes all this that much more peculiar is just how fast and slow time can feel all at once. I remember sitting at home during the last two summers, feeling like those 18 months I spent away from this campus were an eternity. Now, looking back on those months, it can feel like barely any time has passed at all.

Yet so much life occurred during that period of time. I went from being a fresh, new staffer at the ‘Prince’ with barely any bylines, to an associate editor with just enough confidence and maybe experience to take a shot — even if unsuccessful — at leading this paper. I went from near-total uncertainty about which concentration I might declare to near-total curiosity and resolve in my French coursework and independent work.

In that brief paragraph, I’ve summarized two massive personal transformations. They cover so much learning and growing, so many challenges, achievements, and failures. And not only can I boil them down to a pair of wordy sentences, but I can also look back on them only to find an astonishingly brief period of my life during which these transformations of who I am took place.

In some weird way, this actually provides some comfort that soothes any anxiety provoked by the questions at the heart of this essay. If anything, it helps me see that I shouldn’t focus so much on who I might be or what my life might look like at some particular point in the future. Maybe, instead, I should focus more on, and relish more in, all that I might experience between now and then.

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I guess that it is this journey in between that I want to set out on with the time I have left. It’s what has taken me from the 18-year-old with such concrete plans to the confidently, maybe even comfortably, uncertain 22-year-old I’m turning into.

José Pablo Fernández García is a junior from Ohio and Associate Prospect Editor at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at jpgarcia@princeton.edu.

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