Originally published in August of 2006 at Real Live Preacher.
The big day is finally here; you’ve made it to college. You’ve worked hard to get into Cornell, and I assume you are giddy with excitement. Almost drunk with it. This is the beginning of a modern adventure that is almost mythic for our culture, and I hope you see it that way.
I went off to college in the fall of 1980. Sure, the world was a different place then, but I felt much the way you do now. If I recall, my main concern was not looking stupid. I knew I was a freshman, but I didn’t want to look like one, you know?
The first thing I want to say to you is that you should relax. You’re just as clueless now as I was in 1980. It’s okay. Being a freshmen, you’re supposed to be clueless. People expect it of you. And there is a certain freedom that comes with being clueless, so enjoy it. Take advantage of it. Run around the campus poking your head into buildings and asking dumb questions. Feel free. If you try to look sophisticated, you’ll spoil the atmosphere of the campus. Every campus needs a freshmen class, so play your part, okay?
Next year you can pretend to know everything. You won’t, but by then you’ll know enough to LOOK like you know everything. That’s called being a sophomore.
Now up until last Spring when I visited your campus, all I knew about Cornell University was that Carl Sagan taught there, and that it was a fancy, schmancy, sciencey, engineering kind of place. You guys are good with hard knowledge and cold facts. It’s your specialty. That’s cool. The world needs thinkers like you, so play your part.
It’s likely that you have an analytic kind of mind, so what I’m going to say next should not surprise you.
The future is closed to us. You can’t know it. You can guess at it, but that’s about all you can do. If the time interval between a point in the future and the present is short, you might make a pretty good guess at what that future moment will look like. But if the point in the future that interests you is more than a few months away, forget about it. It’s a crap shoot. No one really knows what’s going to happen.
So we don’t know what’s going to happen to you over the next four years. For some of you, the next few years will be wonderful. For others, I’m sorry to say, there will be unexpected grief and even tragedy. I mean, we just don’t know. We don’t know details, but there is one generalization that I think will be helpful for you to keep in mind.
Listen. This is the only thing I can tell you that is almost certainly going to happen to you. You are going to change. You will not be the same person you are now. I know that technically that’s true of everyone, but the next four years are going to mark MAJOR changes in your development as a human being. It is likely that you will never again undergo as much change in so short a period of time.
If you are basically a conservative person – politically, socially – then you will be challenged greatly. You will question those time-honored tenets and traditions that you cling to with such hope and faith. If you are basically a liberal person, you will also be challenged greatly. You will wonder what made you think you were smart enough to so flippantly set aside the time-honored tenets and traditions of your parents and your culture.
Whatever you are now, if over the next four years you do not question everything – your past, your parents, your worldview, your faith or lack of faith in God – you will have thrown away an incredible opportunity. Never again will you have this much leisure to sit around and talk about Truth. If you make it through your Cornell years with no angst or fear, you will have fought very hard to remain just as you are. You will have played it safe.
Please don’t do that. It breaks my heart to think that you might do that. No, no, no. Please be silly, clueless freshmen this year. Let your curiosity be as tender and fearless as a budding shoot that tears away brick and mortar to make a place for itself in the world. As sophomores, take up your new passions and hold your banners high. Be arrogant and a little rude. Think that you know everything. Who knows, maybe you do. As juniors, let the future whisper in your ear. Let the future call you to become a little more serious. But for God’s sake, save room in your heart for a panty raid or two.
Your senior year will be here before you know it. You will actually have a measure of wisdom and sophistication by then. You’ll know some things. It’s kind of sad to think about it.
And after you leave Cornell, years will go by, and if you continue growing as a person, one day you will smile and discover the truth. You are and have always been a small and silly person on a very beautiful planet in a fairly normal solar system on the edge of a vast, spiral galaxy that floats in an ocean of a universe that is completely beyond our comprehension. The search for truth is much bigger than you or I can imagine, so the best you can do is play your part. Playing your part is the best that any of us can do.
Lean in close now, my new friend, so that I can whisper something in your ear. It’s a secret, and I want you to know it.
We are all freshmen. Always. All of us.
Note: I was asked to write a simple address to new freshmen at Cornell University by Taryn Mattice. I’m sure some Cornell students will come by and read this, because she might have mentioned it. I’m not sure about that. But this is not an official address given at the invitation of the school administration.