Dropping out: life on the slow track

THIS is the month the younger crowd seems to split into two crowds, or more accurately, a crowd and some fragments. There are the graduates, with a diploma under one arm and a commencement speech ringing in their ears, who hit the world on the run, heading for the fast track. And then there are the dropouts.

Sometimes the dropouts are undergrads, taking off a year or two -- or three -- before they graduate. Sometimes they are the fast-track graduates of last year, or the year before. But for reasons that are mysterious -- like almost everything about dropping out -- June is a favorite month to head for the slow track. Perhaps it's the rhythm of 17 years of summer vacation, carrying over. Perhaps it's a reaction against the inspirational rhetoric of those commencement speeches, inviting them to ``go for it.'' Maybe it's just the weather.

If it is impossible to explain dropping out, it's hard even to define. Sometimes a dropout drops out of activity altogether -- studying, working, everything. Sometimes a dropout just drops out of the activity for which he or she was presumably destined -- like a college graduate taking a blue-collar job.

Most dropouts want more peace in their lives -- less noise, less hustle, fewer people. But requirements vary. Some dropouts want to Get Back to Nature -- but in the company of other dropouts. Some dropouts want no company but a diary -- and a room in the city will do. Dropouts are people with tiny time-bombs inside them. They reach a certain age, or a certain point in experience -- who knows when or where? -- and the bomb goes off. The dropout is as surprised as everybody else.

Dropping-out is so mysterious a process that friends of dropouts may be misled about what's happening -- and so may dropouts. The most common misapprehension is that the dropout is taking an ego-trip, obsessed by the question, ``Who am I?'' More often the question is: ``Why am I doing what I'm doing? Why is the whole world doing what it's doing?''

Something here doesn't make sense, and if something doesn't make sense, you should stop and take your bearings -- this, roughly, is the manifesto behind dropping out.

Nothing is further from the facts than the assumption that dropping out is a signal of defeat -- that the dropout is a quitter. In more cases than not, dropping out is a sign of ambition. The dropout wants more, not less from life. You're strategically interrupting a course that is not bringing out the best in you. Dropouts often work harder at dropping out than they did at working. There's so much to think about when none of the choices are made for you by daily routine.

The illusion of the working person is that he will be able to do his thinking -- like his eating -- on the run.

The illusion of the dropout is that, by setting aside space to do nothing but think, he will come up with The Answer.

Dropping out can be an act of romantic folly as well as an act of courage -- and it's hard to stop. But if there were no dropping out, there would be no great religions, no important philosophy, and many fewer works of art.

Every dropout takes on a bit of Charlie Chaplin. They seem odd ducks to us. We seem pretty funny to them. They know that what we regard as the norm is not as normal as we think. Even when they return, dropouts retain something of this skewed view on ``regular'' living.

After a war there are dropouts, not by choice -- people who simply can't pick up the thread again. After one war, before the cautious, almost-neutral word ``dropout'' had been invented, a couple of young men found themselves -- well, dropping out. To avoid disgrace in a period when the only word for dropout was ``bum,'' they worked on a euphemism to describe their state to inquiring relatives, friends, and strangers. They certainly had the time. The core of the experiment was to discover an answer to the question, ``What are you doing now?''

For a while the two responded, ``I'm not doing, I'm being.'' But this sounded pretentious even to them -- besides being ineffective. Why offend people as well as perplex them? And so the two dropouts stumbled upon a happy phrase, full of hope yet with a quiet undertone of meditation: ``I'm between things.'' And aren't we all?

A Wednesday and Friday column

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