I attended my 2nd Princeton Reunions last weekend, and like last year, I’m experiencing a poignant bout of reflection that I think will be best expressed and cultivated through a blog post.
This year, I was struck with a thought during the annual fireworks display. As Journey’s beloved anthem Don’t Stop Believing was thundering over the outdoor sound system, I realized how much the song embodies the ethos of Princeton alumni. This is most obvious when alum return every year for Reunions and re-immerse themselves in a frenzied whirlwind of orange and black—with slurred, beer-laced nostalgia never in short supply.
I’m going to venture a guess here and claim that for many alumni, Reunions indeed proves to be a “streetlight” in an otherwise chaotic, stressful year. Regardless if an alum graduated last year or 30 years ago, there is always release and relief during Reunions. Using Journey’s imagery from Don’t Stop Believing, Princeton alum are “streetlight people” insofar as they hunger for the light and connection they feel when they return to their alma mater each year. No matter how young or how old an alumnus/a may be, life outside the “Orange Bubble” the other 362 days of the year is rife with challenge, flux, and trials.
This is a foreign concept that’s hard to swallow when you’ve been bred by parents, teachers, and mentors you’re whole life that you are the master of your destiny, and that “nothing is impossible” if you “just work hard enough.” In this year’s Class Day address Brook Shields ’87 offered a sobering dose of realism when she warned graduating seniors that “You will no longer have a syllabus to follow, you will no longer have an adviser to consult…You may never be this protected again.”
David Brooks touched and expanded on this idea in a recent column. He argues against the conventional wisdom that life after college is all about “finding yourself.” In fact, Brooks seems to think that the reverse is true. The self is only found (i.e. developed) through lived experience, much of which includes uncertainty and hardship. Brooks underscores this idea when he claims that “Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”
The rugged American individualist in me is a bit disturbed by this cosmic reversal of the advice that I’ve repeatedly received and tried to apply so far in my life. But I think there is something extremely valuable here to learn. I will take a stab at it and say that life is a complex tangle of tremendous joys and unbelievable soul-rending suffering. But there is an undeniable human yearning in each one of us to press on, to get back on the horse, to search for the “streetlights,” to “hold on to that feelin’.” There may be after all, a great Story into which we’re being written and weaved. If that’s the case, I guess that we’re all “streetlight people” who may be lucky enough to see a day when there won’t be any need for streetlights anymore.