It’s never going to get any better than this, so we are told. Unless you happen to be over 22, in which case you’ve already passed your prime and have clearly picked up this student magazine in a desperate attempt to relive ‘the glory days’.
The life of an undergraduate offers an unquestionably enviable cocktail of perks – financial support, independence, eclectic social circles, a lack of responsibility, daytime T.V. and 10% discount at Superdrug – that are unlikely to be enjoyed in combination ever again, often leading to it being dubbed by nostalgic elders (and Bryan Adams) as “the best days of my life.” It’s all downhill from here then, as we brace ourselves for the harsh realities of adulthood: debt, commuting, Christmas work parties, mortgages, shopping lists and flossing.
For a third year student in denial that’s a pretty depressing thought, and it has often resulted in my inability to actually enjoy the present, for constant fear of what it is not. Attempting to measure up to the lofty idealisations of this supposedly peak-point in life – the terminal velocity of happiness – induces constant insecurities over whether I’m wasting the best days of my life, or just waiting for them to begin; a kind of stasis-like state of analysis paralysis that never leads to actual contentment. Living in the shadow of youth’s glorified reputation is a daunting experience.
As I stare despairingly into the void that is life after university, I wonder if there is such a condition as ‘pre-nostalgia’ [noun] – The constant romanticising of the present, and an obsessive fixation on how it will be perceived in the future. Symptoms include chronic inertia and short-term periods of disillusionment, with those affected often complaining of an inability to move on in life.
There’s a great scene in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995) in which the recently graduated and hyper-sentimental Max bemoans “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday, I begin reminiscing events even before they occur…I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory and I didn’t have a good time.” The film captures the apathetic melancholia of the purposeless graduate, begrudgingly dragged into the adult world. The characters prove to be emotionally incapable of forging out their futures after college and move back in with each other in an attempt to live out a desperate echo of their student existence.
Perhaps this anxious need to hold on to youth is what motivates that egregious breed of clubber who insists on taking 156 pictures on a night out, striking various poses beside towers of Jägerbombs and generally looking like they’re having an all-round banterful time. These Nikon Nazis, armed with their photographic relics seem to be constantly trying to grasp on to a momentary feeling that is, by its very nature, perpetually passing them by. The only souvenir I’m left with from a night out is two and a half inches of cold, sweet onion soaked regret, which I’d rather not remember.
Futile attempts to preserve the essence of a moment, by cataloguing it in Facebook photo albums and Instagram feeds (note: the need to remember a plate of food before it is eaten), often result in an inability to actually experience and savour what it is that is being obsessively documented. If one is too focused on how an event will be perceived in the future, too ‘pre-nostalgic’ if you will, then one fails to be present for the present. This is the issue I find myself facing when people incessantly warn “enjoy it now, they’re the best days of your life”, or “I remember university, never had so much fun in my life.” What am I meant to do with that information, pencil ‘suicide’ in my to-do list for the day after graduation?
Unless the older generation’s university experience actually was the three year drug-fuelled orgy that they make it out to be (and who am I to doubt, it was the 80s after all), then it’s unlikely that these truly will be the best days of your life. So these hyperbolic and rather worrying assertions are either barefaced lies, or simply products of misremembering the past.
Mary Schmich’s essay Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young, popularised by Baz Luhrmann’s musical adaptation Wear Sunscreen, warns that “Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.” Of course, nostalgia blurs reality and often makes the past appear better than it really was. We tend to gloss over the nights spent in Arena’s toilets. The very act of saying “they were the best days of my life” is a way of validating the expectation that has generated, which assumes youth to be the zenith of the life cycle, thereby continuing to perpetuate the myth of undergraduate hedonism.
There is no doubt that the glorious marriage of independence and irresponsibility that accompanies the life of a student is highly desirable and relatively unique. But the pressure to extract the most amount of fun possible from this transient period can often have the opposite effect. The compulsive documentation of the modern age is most rife among young students, though whether our motivations stem from social exhibitionism, insecurity, or a pre-nostalgic preservation of the present, is unclear. Anyway, I need to go have the time of my life, while I still can.