The other day, I had one of the more interesting conversations I've had in a while in the most unlikely of places: a wedding.
The youngest attendee by far, I sat down next to two gentlemen just past middle age, both looking a tad weary of the world. As soon as I took my seat, I realized that they were openly lamenting something - perhaps, I thought, the sad state of music today (who are those noisy Spice Girls, anyway?) or the sleaziness of politics in the age of Clintoniana - and I prepared to present a tired defense of my generation and its times. But it turns out I had more in common with these two than I thought.
"I'm so sick of hearing the question, 'So, what are you going to do now?' all the time," one was saying. "Yeah, why can't I just be for a bit," his friend responded, "I've been working for 30 years straight."
It turns out the two of them were about to retire, and - heaven forbid - they hadn't yet decided what they were going to do next. Their conversation sounded eerily familiar. Just listen to any graduating senior around the country these days, and you'll know what I mean. We are asked that very question - "What are you going to do next?" - all the time. To escape the query and all that it implies is futile: College is over, and your life is about to start. You'd better start doing something, and quick.
In response, I've come up with what I call my "dinner party" answer. It needn't be the least bit accurate, trust me. In fact, sometimes, the less accurate, the better. I tend to vary it depending on the crowd and my mood. One day I'm a corporate lawyer, the next a forest ranger. For, in truth, people don't necessarily care what I'm doing next year - they just want to know I'm doing something.
The tidy symmetry of my situation and that of the wedding guests surprised me: While I'm retiring from student life, they were about to graduate from the working world. Of course, they've got money, and I have nary a cent to my name, but in essence, the transition is the same.
One book that sits on my bookshelf here is "Essays in Idleness," a collection of thoughts written by the Japanese Buddhist priest Kenko in the early 14th century. It's a book I've picked up over the past four years when I needed a brief respite from the harried pace of university life.
Kenko wrote his essays at a time of great turbulence in Japan, when the nation was undergoing a violent power struggle between the emperor and a rival family. While the ruling elite experienced much anxiety during this period, Kenko was just sitting out in the middle of the woods, "with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head." He wandered from topic to topic, without any express purpose. In fact, he wrote expressly without purpose.
In America, a society in which we are all defined by what we do and rarely by who we are, making transitions that involve uncertainty is remarkably difficult. While Kenko wondered "what feelings inspire a man to complain of 'having nothing to do,' " we are forever searching for something to do next. And while we are uncomfortable with the empty space that lies beyond graduation, retirement, or any major life change, Kenko advises: "The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty."
I'd never thought too much about the similarities between graduating seniors and retirees, groups that to most seem quite opposite. But as Kenko wrote, "In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting." I rather think we should join together in response to the incessant queries about next year and beyond, and say, with certainty: "What we do next is unimportant. Start worrying about who we will be."
* Brett Dakin is graduating today from Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.