Going off to college is a new chapter in the life of every young adult. It is the opportunity to begin anew, to have a fresh start; which can be simultaneously intimidating and thrilling. I remember my first day stepping foot on the pavement of UNC Charlotte in the fall of 2015 as a freshman. I was filled with both excitement and expectations for the coming semesters. Like most, I felt prepared for what I assumed lay ahead of me; yet, gradually, I came to the realization I was not as prepared as I had once believed. I was surprised by something which most students do not anticipate and was forced to battle through for nearly four semesters.
When a graduate asks for advice about the university life, the feedback received always circles around matters such as the workload, the professors, the rigors of test week, etc. However, despite the college survival guides, blogs and memoirs available, almost none of them prepare college freshmen for the internal challenge which they are likely to face: the existential crisis. The crisis, at its core, is a re-evaluation of the substance of one’s life – most specifically, their fundamental beliefs and their place in the world. You see, universities are known as facilities where “students find themselves.”
What this tagline infers is aside from being an institution where young Americans acquire the necessary skills for a career, is it a place where students can shape themselves into individuals. The university is a much different realm from what graduates have known, for not only is this is a sphere where ideas and perspectives meet, it is a time in a student’s life when they take on a greater level of independence; essentially gripping the reins of their own lives to become who they will. Yet with this new-found independence, follows a sense of vulnerability.
The chief soft-spot of the college freshmen is (assuming they are not well-grounded) their belief system. Being dropped off into a new world where individuals must now stand on our own, where it is tacitly expected for everyone to know where they stand and why is very daunting. Observing others within class or debate-settings take strong opposing positions supported by detailed facts is unnerving to one who is not well-grounded. When confronted with this, individuals begin pondering questions such as: “Am I wrong or am I correct? How do I know if I am correct? They seem pretty knowledgeable, do I have any evidence that my position is accurate and not theirs?”
It is within the third question posed where the root of the issue lies. Our beliefs – be they political, social or religious – are what comprise our personhood and behavior. When we begin to question those beliefs and are uncertain as to why something is worth believing in – especially if this belief is a major “pallor within the structure of our worldview,” a depressing weight of confusion gradually begins crashing down upon us. Consequently, individuals attempt to winnow through the shattered remains of what they thought to be true, hoping to re-identify the structure of their own existence.
It is from this point of crisis, where young men and women can fall into one of three traps.
The first is retreating into circles of agreement: either by isolating themselves within the boundaries of bias news outlets and You-Tubers or staying within the confines of like-minded groups which only serve to echo back and re-enforce their own perspectives.
The second – similar to the first in that the individual predicates his or her values based on the group’s – is to simply follow the ever-changing beliefs of the majority by “going with the flow,” regardless of whether those beliefs hold the weight of reality or not.
The third trap is to allow apathy to take hold and forego any attempt to discover what is true and what is not; simply throwing up their hands to state they “do not care anymore,” because they feel there is no point in even trying.
All three of these options are equally destructive in their nature, but while the latter option merely holds individuals in a state of stagnation. The first two possess the propensity to plunge them into baseless ideological militancy, which may, ultimately, reject true diversity of thought- a common problem on college campuses today.
I, myself, fell into the first pit late within my first semester. Being an over-zealous political science major, I had entered my classes assuming I was firmly grounded in my stances and knew exactly why I took those positions, I clearly did not. At this point, the most contested Presidential race in our nation’s history was slowly creeping its head around the corner – it was perfect timing for the crisis to hit me with full force.
Every day, every second, Americans were confronted with the question of whom they believed should be the next leader of the free world. With both parties divided between the candidates, it appeared to me most students on campus just ended up just taking a position for superficial reasons: this candidate is tough and speaks his mind, this candidate is a woman, he is Cuban and this candidate wants to give us free college and marijuana! (I heard this one a lot).
They just took a side and stuck with it and I pretty much did the same when I began doubting myself. Thus, because of my uncertainties and fear of losing my values, I retreated into the confines of familiar beliefs. Though I did not reject those who disagreed with me – I welcomed their company – I had begun delving into “political apologetics,” so to speak, researching on a regular basis as to why my side was correct and why the other side was wrong, preparing for any “debate” which might have come my way.
Whenever I detected slight disagreement in a discussion, I would either pounce – hoping to get them to see things in the “right way” – or remain silent, in fear of losing a conflict of intellect and citation. Enormous insecurities about my beliefs consumed my thoughts. I consistently watched “agreeable” political analysts, somewhat consciously expecting them to tell me what to believe.
Yet, I soon began to see things differently after listening to a then-recent speech given by the journalist Ben Shapiro on the subject of winning political arguments. Deep within his talk, he informed audience members that: “just because someone is on ‘your side’ [it] does not mean you have to defend them – just because they are ‘your guy,’ you do not have to defend everything that they do – there is no such thing as ‘your guy’[or ‘your side’], there are only your principals.” Though I cannot report there was an immediate change from hearing those words; the statement had, however, begun slough off the notion that the identitarian politics which I was and other students were, engaged in was even remotely rational. It is, itself, a deception to assume that because X person or Y position is a part of Z group, they must, therefore, be good or bad and should be defended or attacked. Once a person has been disillusioned of this group mentality, they begin looking at things in a far different light.
As individuals, we need to understand the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of our stances. When we are beyond the mindset of discovering truth via the collective’s narrative, we internalize based upon the observations and the facts which we are able to gather. Our innate ability to reason demands us to seek and understand the reality in which we reside. In the case of God, for example, one cannot simply state that they know God exists if they do not know why it is true or how it can be true.
Similarly, one cannot stand firmly within a political discussion, asserting one candidate is better suited for office than the other if they do not even know the proposed policies of both contenders. We are obliged to think both philosophically and realistically about those views which we hold so dear; when we do not, the malaise of the crisis forces us to. To quote the film Sing (2016): “When you hit rock bottom, there is nowhere to go but up.” Such is true with the lowest point of the existential crisis – for here, individuals rebuild the structure of their worldview piece by piece; attempting to find the truth within the rubble. As such, recovering from the existential crisis holds equal weight in avoiding it.
It was apostle Paul, from the Biblical text of Thessalonians, who wrote the words, “Examine everything and hold fast to what is good.” Such exceedingly wise words are effective for all. To overcome the existential crisis, one must begin at a point of intellectual humility – a willingness to acknowledge they do not know everything and are uncertain about many things. Simultaneously, they must be sagacious enough never to accept anything at face-value, but be prepared to research and verify. In my own period of militancy, I had foregone an important lesson imparted to me by my mother: always look at both sides, think about the points made and come to your own conclusion based upon the core facts.
Today, I stand, not only as UNCC student but as a “student of the world.” One who is prepared to listen and observe; who knows seeing things in ‘black and white’ terms is a delusion. I can see things from both sides of an issue, yet my own conclusions are not tethered to one side or the other; rather, they are based upon the facts and the strongest cases made.
My four-semester decline and ascension have taught me so much. I have become a better, stronger person; and though plenty of my views remain the same as before, I have also developed some new perspectives which are different from ones previously held. I am an individual. As an individual, I understand more than ever that, throughout the course of our lives, human beings change. Their personalities, their habits, and their beliefs possess the tendency to shift or vary slightly depending on the time in their lives’, their experiences, and the information they acquire.
The crisis is simply a part of that process – this does not, however, indicate we should be unprepared for it. By understanding our beliefs, we gain a stronger understanding of ourselves and how we perceive the world in which we exist. My advice to students is to never fear uncertainty, for even those beyond the crisis – who appear to stand strong in their convictions; who we may or may not admire – still hold some doubts about their stances. This is natural, it is a part of being human. They do not allow apprehensions to undermine their confidence in themselves.
We should, likewise, never allow doubt to discourage us from acting, speaking or learning. We should use our reservations as a propellant to move us to seek fact. The university is the perfect environment for this. In this “brave new world,” young men and women are forced to do this on their own.
One of the first things which captured my attention on the first day, was a statue of a tall man, with a chisel in one hand and a hammer gripped in the other, carving himself out of a slab of marble. This sculpture – known as the “Tribute to Self-made Man” – is a possibly the most fitting emblem of the arduous journey on which college students embark. For with the tools of knowledge and reason gripped in one hand and the will to use them, young men and women may carve themselves into the self-made individuals of tomorrow.