By Tom Cohen
This started as a piece about student loans, aged as an art-history expose, and ends, predictably, with supplication.
I am currently 75,000 dollars deep in a hole called student loans. A bit like Hades, with compounding interest playing the role of Sisyphus, full of defeat. Where to go? Is there an escape?
That $75,000 hole was offered to me as an 18 year-old. Stupid and naive, much like Faust, an offer was made to me that I couldn’t refuse. I was old enough to vote, to move out of my parents’ home, and not much else.
I have two degrees. One is in the liberal arts, the other is in the humanities. Neither degree by itself would land me a dream job writing or teaching, but together they have conspired to get me a communications position where I copy-edit advertising verbiage and help edit pamphlets and event descriptions. Despite these setbacks —or perhaps merely the realities of the 21st century — I am not cynical about my future as a perpetual intern but neither am I pollyannish that my writing or career will take off. The unfulfilled promise of the American Dream hasn’t made me abandon hope. I do not laugh at my future like Sarah does when God promises her a child at the ripe old age of 90. But because I am not callous to my life and debts does not mean I am immune to them either.
$75,000 isn’t peanuts. It could have been a downpayment on a house or a pretty-nice car. Would I trade the two pieces of paper I have currently displayed above a book case in my dingy apartment for a low-end Tesla? I’ve certainly thought about it and, if that trade were a possibility, I might consider it at length. Ultimately, the reason I would choose the diplomas over their alternative wouldn’t be out of sentimentality for those years of friends, adventures, and boozing —although that wouldn’t hurt. The reason is that the knowledge I acquired from those years—and those life lessons from doting professors— is lifting and buoyant to a life in a way that a car or house never can be.
Up, up, up spirits can be lifted by quotes from Byron (Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright Meets in her aspect and her eyes). The pain of existence can be soothed by Shakespeare (“Our wills and fates do so contrary run, that our devices still are overthrown; our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.”). Sure, a silent cruise in a Tesla down a stretch of PCH sounds as freeing, as emancipating, as poetry but the fulfillment provided by things you can hold and touch is passing. Shakespeare’s words, and the words of many others, give me something that never passes. They are constant in their capacity to cool the mind or calm the soul.
So—beyond buoyancy— how can the humanities save our bank accounts? If only a diploma was more than a self-indulgent wall-decoration, if only the purchase of that piece of paper saved us from every kind of suffering. Unfortunately, they do not. A Liberal Arts degree does not save us from work or debt or failure. At least, according to those who hold the reins of our lives—and of our lifeworlds in the Habermasian sense— we have no purpose if we are of no use. We of ideas and arts have no utility beyond what we can hock.
I calmly acknowledge this. Not due to any inhuman serenity or any capacity for patience I have developed as a means for dealing with the traffic in this ugly city, or for remembering the stylistic differences between AP and Chicago, or even for calls from my alma mater asking for donations but because I have learned that life is many days and yet still too short to dwell on our misgivings. That life is how we meet many different people but in those people we always meet ourselves. That we pass through each moment in succession—which is to say we are unable to control our life’s direction.
Unknown outside art history circles, a 19th century romantic painter named Thomas Cole completed a series of paintings called The Voyage of Life: series of four oil paintings depicting the course that life takes.
The first painting introduces the subject: a voyager on a river. A child, floating gently on a river, is protected by an angel. Childhood is unique in that your needs are taken care of, you are an unwitting passenger. This is not to ignore the difficult lives of many people in the world, but just that children are relatively unaware of their circumstances. They are—so to speak—along for the ride.
The second painting depicts a youth with one hand on the rudder of the canoe that floats gently on a peaceful river while reaching into heaven. On the horizon a giant palace looms. Youth is idealistic and glowing. The young are the masters of their fates, they have time, energy, and have suffered relatively little defeat. The angel looks on protectively from nearby.
The third painting shows an adult whose canoe is buffeted by currents and endangered by sharp rocks. Calling for help and guidance, the subject clasps his hands in prayer as he has given up any attempt to steer his vessel. The angel looks down from on high, removed, apart, the clouds have gathered again and the sky is dark. The canoe is headed for a waterfall. There is chaos and dark colors, there are no lush forests or inviting beaches. Life is hard.
In the final painting, the waters have calmed and the storm has broken. The subject, now old and weathered, is once again comforted by the angel. No longer the youth who held the rudder fearlessly, no longer the adult who feared and begged for help, the subject is now at peace with the condition of being alive—the condition of being a subject. This is to say that life is not something to struggle against, nor is it something to command, it is something to live. We are merely passengers on a raft on a great ocean, an ocean that can be calm here and stormy there, humbled by our mortality, by the happening of our passage.
We do not know where we are going, but we will know it when we arrive. Although the sea swirls around me, poetically speaking of course, life is not something to be suffered, it is not something to be admonished or feared. Neither can a life be commanded or reprimanded. Only fools hold the rudder of their lives with any expectation of control. Sometimes we float, sometimes we row, sometimes we pray, and sometimes we despair. These are only human conditions. The words we use are only expressions of that human condition.
Regardless of an education, we all encounter the conditions of life: pain and suffering, love and joy. But because of an education we are able to express those conditions of our lives and share them. More importantly, we are able to understand and feel what others are going through. This means I suffer when others suffer; I rejoice when others rejoice. That is the ultimate lesson of student loans, of depression, of traffic, of people who cause us pain, and of misery itself is that suffering is not wholly dependent on your position in life but on life itself.