I’ll take with me
The Polaroids and the memories
But you know I’m gonna leave
Behind the worst of us
–Selena Gomez, Kygo, “It Ain’t Me”
There is a certain philosophy–most prevalently but not exclusively held by college girls–that I would like to put under the microscope.
It is a worldview which, correctly, observes that the early twenties is the period where people have an extraordinary amount of power. They have a sprawling labyrinth of options open to them. They are at their peak in physical beauty, at least if they are women. They have sudden access to financial resources, courtesy of student loans, which can be utilized for all sorts of only peripherally educational activities, such as traveling abroad to foreign countries or throwing parties in their dorms with other students. They are surrounded by friends and strangers in a similar situation, most of whom are sexually available, and who in any case might make for good company at a bar or a concert.
From such a lofty peak of artificial success (we might call it a “success bubble”), it is easy to look beyond graduation, and see that things will only be going downhill. You’ll have responsibilities, you’ll have to work around people significantly less attractive, less interesting, and perhaps even less safe than those around you now. In fact, you’ll probably be working extra hard to pay for the years you’re going to be experiencing anyways.
It’s as if death is coming at 23.
What do you do?
Live like you were dying.
This philosophy, which I will call the Instagram Ethos, says that we are in for a future of mundane and boring drudgery, preceded by a brief spat of glorious power and freedom. To optimize life, we should live life to the fullest in this brief period, accumulating “Polaroids and memories” which will hopefully last us a lifetime and keep us happy in nostalgic reminiscence into our old age.
As a worldview for rationally optimizing utility, it is actually quite understandable. It is a point which is made by, among others, the Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Church of Corinth:
If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die.
–1 Corinthians 15:32
The college sophomore is not quite as naive as Paul uncharitably characterizes the unbeliever; the student at least believes that there is life after school. But they have tacitly accepted a view which characterizes this life after school as something like purgatory. Carpe Diem is no joke, for tomorrow you may not die, but you will clock in and out at your boring job every day, which is a kind of relative death.
Take all the photos you can. #YOLO.
There is a problem with this philosophy, however.
The happiness of the traveling, college, or other “empowered” young life comes from living in the moment, and the ability of the individual to continue to derive joy from these memories is dependent upon a kind of attention and value placed upon these memories.
Notice that this value must be chosen at the expense of the current present moment. What is included in this current present moment?
Among other things, any beauty, quality, love, or meaningful relationships. In short, all of the things which gave the “college experience” and its various analogues their magical quality in the first place.
I am not saying that these things are unachievable. Far from it. But in ordinary life, outside of the success bubble of the early 20’s, these things must be worked for, often for long periods of time. For people who never experienced the success bubble, the hard work makes the reward sweeter. But for people who have not only come down from this artificial peak of humanity, but are now burdened with paying for it, this work makes the re-achievement look impossible or difficult to the point of not being worth pursuit.
The trouble with achieving quality, beauty, love, and meaningful relationships is that they take loyalty.
Patience is one of the most important qualities for achieving all of the above experiences, and patience itself is a form of loyalty: it is sticking with one thing, or waiting for one thing for some principled reason, despite having reasons to do other things.
Humans are even more demanding, and more personal in their need for loyalty. You cannot enter a healthy marriage without the expectation of loyalty. The sorts of friendships worth having, the kinds that give meaning to your life, require loyalty. Given the choice between helping a friend who’s stuck on the side of the road or staying at home and watching the game, only the weakest “friend” would accept you choosing the game over them. Relationships worth having are imbued with value demonstrated through actions.
The Instagram Ethos puts the young person between two competing objects of loyalty: your memories, and your present. No boy-(or girl-)friend wants to be second to your memories of the people you fucked when you were younger. No boss or employer wants your attention focused more intently on your glory days as the star of the team than on the work of the company, because it isn’t sufficiently “satisfying” for you. And no friend is going to want to hang out with you if memories of old buddies are more fond to you than they are in real life. Especially if you refuse to shut up about it, and keep bringing up that one story about that time you and your friends had that one crazy experience.
More likely than rejection by others is your own rejection of them, or at least the refusal to invest the time and effort to build those relationships, to work for the quality and the beauty and the long-term gain. Why bother? You already have this bank of memories to feed off of, don’t you?
Why forgive your friend and get things sorted out when you can think about your other “real” friends you used to have?
Why put in the extra hours of paperwork and dull research at the office when you can show off that A you got in that one hard class, the paper you keep just to remind yourself how smart you once were?
Why work hard to find a virtuous spouse and work through fights and hard times together to build a lasting marriage, when you can easily remember banging someone way hotter than them, and whom you could probably find some simulacrum for anyways?
Of course, the work required to achieve these things does make it inconvenient. It’s especially frustrating to have to re-acquire them after having already had them. Perhaps this is reason enough to avoid the more hedonistic habits of many undergrads.
But the difficulty does not make the good things in life unachievable. And as time goes on, others will achieve them; friends, fellow students, siblings and exes. Eventually, you’ll run out of excuses explaining why everyone else is somehow managing to live a satisfying life, and you’re not. The scrapbook doesn’t help you over failures after life in your prime.
In point of fact, there is no reason that the early 20’s is, or should be, the prime of our life. The quality of life is a matter of our experience in the moment, and this experience is derived from the web of relationships we have with others and to the world. When we let these relationships slip, or never forge them, because we are relying upon Polaroids and memories to keep us going through the purgatory of life, we can make for ourselves a desolate, lonely Hell of an existence, as lonely spinsters and basement-dwelling bachelors. And no one will care.
Above all else, guard your heart,
For everything you do flows from it.