Song of the day: “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel
I suppose watching The Graduate is a time-honored tradition by now for people at a crossroads in their lives. For me, going to Lake Tahoe on a family vacation with no clear way to earn a living wage when I return was the proper moment. It’s been just over two months since I bade Vanderbilt farewell, and since then I’ve wandered around Europe and slowly begun looking for ways to apply myself in the working world. So far I’ve got a few writing opportunities, but that’s about it. With a sterling resume and a bright future through the door ahead, I really haven’t turned the knob yet.
So watching Benjamin Braddock fend off the successful adults congratulating him for his accomplishments and pressing him about his next step was almost like looking in a mirror. I’m about Benjamin’s height, our academic careers through college are probably similar, and we both came home from school agonizing over how to transition into the adult world. People ask him when he’s going to graduate school, encourage him to get into plastics, and coddle him with a ridiculous scuba suit without asking him what he wants to do…and if they asked him, he’d probably respond the same way I would: “I have no fucking idea.”
Instead of pushing forward and throwing himself out into the working world or continuing his studies, though, Benjamin spends the next several months getting a real adult education from Mrs. Robinson and completely checking out in all other facets of life. And I can’t really blame him for that. Mrs. Robinson is really attractive, and once Ben gets past the initial (extreme) awkwardness he probably learns more about life from sleeping with her than from first twenty-one years combined. He sees what the adult world is like for many adults: a dreary, daily slog devoid of passion, where people who don’t lose themselves in their work and the cult of success lose themselves in alcohol and meaningless sex. At one point he even calls out Mrs. Robinson for being this disgusting shell of a human being, but that’s what he’s slowly turning into as he wiles the days away drinking by the pool before his nightly sojourns at the Taft Hotel. Benjamin Braddock, thrust ahead all his life by external pressure and his own crippling fear of failure, has finally discovered that none of what came before truly matters–and, what’s more, his desire to find something truly meaningful has vanished in the process.
This is my greatest fear: to devolve into Benjamin’s nihilism and passionless existence. It would be so easy in the short run just to give up, declare life meaningless, and simply waste away. All it takes is someone to show you that fleeting pleasures can get you by. But I don’t have a Mrs. Robinson to be that guide, and whenever the thought of becoming that type of hollow man enters my head I get anxious, because I know how profoundly unhappy I would be and how badly I would feel for disappointing everyone who loves me. So instead I think about the other type of passionless existence, the one that Benjamin has to escape at his graduation party–that of starting a job about which I do not care. I know that after a thorough job search I could find a way to make decent money in consulting or advertising, get my own place in the city, and spend my days doing work that leaves me with a desire to numb my mind each night. But would that be worth the risk of forever quelling my search for a true passion? Would I end up settling–and worse, would I ever forget that I settled? My heart tells me that now is not the time to take that chance, because my true passion is still out there, it’s still worth searching for, and when I find it I will reach a new level of happiness called total fulfillment.
Benjamin only discovers the power of true passion when he falls in love with Elaine. Of course, his affair with her mother has made winning her over damn near impossible, but that’s what is so beautiful about the second half of The Graduate. Ben’s transition from jaded rebel to dogged Quixote happens almost immediately and all of a sudden everything matters again–or rather, one thing truly matters and that one thing becomes everything. And even if Ben had failed to get Elaine back after his disastrous confession to her, even if he hadn’t stopped her wedding and beaten down her fiancee and her father and carried her off into the sunset on a bus, his failure would have been beautiful because it was failure in the pursuit of meaning. It’s the sole thread that unifies all existentialist philosophers–no matter whether true meaning is found in God, or in the manifestation of the will to power, or in the radical freedom and individual responsibility we hold in a godless world, all that matters is that we create our own values and find the reason to get out of bed every morning. And so we can’t help but respect or even envy people like Sir Benjamin Braddock, Knight-Errant of the California Coast, who so fully subsume themselves in a goal that they measure their life solely by its achievement (as long as the goal isn’t malevolent). They cause us to reflect upon our lives and consider whether we care about anything enough to go to the lengths that these shining examples of meaning did.
And that’s what I’m doing here in Lake Tahoe–reflecting. This is a unique time in my life. I’m not yet tied down by any responsibility except the one I have to myself, to find what I really care about. That isn’t to say that I don’t care about my family and friends, because I very much do; it’s just that I don’t feel fulfilled solely off of their love. So starting now, surrounded by beautiful mountains under a bright blue sky, I’ll spend the next few years on a quest for that ultimate fulfillment. All I want is to have something or someone to ride off with in the back of a bus, to have that “oh shit what’s next” moment, and then to realize that what’s next doesn’t matter, because I’ve found what truly matters to me.
For this week, though, I think it’s fine if I do that while drinking a beer at the pool. After all, Benjamin Braddock turned out alright, and he was a little worried about his future too.
*An aside: The Graduate may have the best soundtrack of any movie ever. I adore Simon and Garfunkel.