Oberlin Blogs

The future is but a soup

May 3, 2015

In Zimbabwe, my people—the Shona people—rely on maxims and proverbs to frame, explain and decode their life experiences. One of my favorites loosely translates to "an elephant can never be overwhelmed by the weight of its own trunk." The moral interpretation of the proverb is that one can never really be defeated by circumstance. It belies my people's unwavering belief in transcendence. Nothing, the proverb suggests, is too colossal a problem to the point of having no possible avenues for resolution.

My experience in America has been marked by reconciling myself to this maxim. Many a time, when things got hard, I have had to pep talk my way out of dead-end situations in order to transcend them. I always remember the elephant's dilemma. Two weeks ago, I was feeling waves and waves of anxiety. My thesis was in a state of disarray, I was feeling inexplicably unmotivated, and my search for a job was proving more and more fruitless.

It didn't help that the zeitgeist of the moment is pointing towards a doomsday scenario for the liberal arts graduate. The world is out to eat us alive, to pulverize our dreams into a pitiful paste. We will undoubtedly languish in the deep waters of perennial unemployment, regret, and student debt. Futures will be bleak unless we buckle down and learn "practical" skills. The newspapers say, learn HTML or perish.

Like the elephant and its burdensome trunk, I was luckily not overrun by circumstance. Despite struggling in the final moments, I persevered and finished my thesis successfully.

This eliminated any anxiety I may have felt about not graduating. Once I realized I would indeed be graduating, I picked up a new source of anxiety. The thing about graduating is that one feels compelled to assemble one's past and attempt to observe patterns and gather meaning from it. Even meaningless and benign incidents are assigned pivotal significance. It is a human impulse to try and form explanations. Lately, I have been indulging in regretfulness. I suddenly am awakening to the things that I did not take advantage of during this journey. The activities I never partook of, the people I never met, the opportunities I did not seek. I feel sad up until I realize the immensity of what I have gained. The things I did do. The people I did meet. The transformation I have undergone.

Another Shona proverb: "the forest eventually yields a catch to the hunters at the precise moment when they have tired of their quest."

A few weeks ago I called my mother in distress. I informed her that I was going to be booking a flight back to Zimbabwe immediately after graduation as I had been unable to find a job in the US. I felt as though I had failed in some fundamental way. She commiserated with me, and helped me to feel better when she told me she had successfully received a visa from the US consulate in Harare and would be able to attend my graduation.

The very next day, I received a job offer, the culmination of many months of applications, interviews and searing rejection. Like the hunters in the proverb, I succeeded at the very juncture when I had effectively given up. I don't know why we place such a high premium on getting jobs or getting into grad school in the culture. These things are good if or when they come, but they are not a referendum on us as people. In my tiresome search for employment, I often felt as though my inability to gain employment was an exposure of my weaknesses as a person. It was not. In retrospect, I see it as a necessary predicament in the arc to fulfilling certain aspects of my journey.

Yet another Shona maxim: "You must embrace uncertainty; look to the old woman who boiled rocks and somehow ended up with a soup."

To a certain extent, I have at least the next year figured out. Moving to a new city, abandoning the comfort of college life, and constructing a new life is, however, an endeavour replete with unknowns. I can only look back at the old woman and hope that out of the unpredictable rocks I have been dealt—a city, a job, a direction—I will be able to make soup.

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