I’m currently living in the neighborhood of what is called one of life’s milestones. It’s also a place someone has called a pre-departure area. I’m about to graduate from college.
I’m bracing myself for all the changes that society associates with these personal eras of transition. I expect quite a number of my living parameters to swing to new lows and new highs: amount of free time, financial dependence, and the importance of doing homework, among other things. We lose some things and gain others. It’s okay, they say, because change is simply always bittersweet. But what they don’t tell us is that it’s more of bitter at first, and the sweetness is only an aftertaste—because the pain of losing is stronger than the joy of gaining.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what people mean when they say that to enter the working world is to enter the real world, which is a phrase that I’ve always complained about. It’s as if they want to say that school is an illusionary world. Of course I haven’t really worked (the sum total of my full-time working experience is the one month of internship I took last summer), and I don’t have the age and experience to have any certainty about the meanings and contingencies of being a working person. But I realized that I’ve been grasping the wrong sense of ‘reality’.
The concept of the ‘real world’, perhaps inspired by connotations of a Marxist hell of a brutal, dog-eat-dog, capitalist-dominated society, is not concerned by reality in terms of authenticity or concreteness. It’s real because it’s real in its consequences. Anyone’s years of schooling are just as full of meaning and true experiences as anyone’s time of being in the workforce, but school is a utopia next to the uncertain world of work.
In school you only have yourself to tend to. You can attend classes, or you can skip classes; you can dedicate yourself to studying in the library or you can go out, party hard, and wake up in who-knows-whose-house. But when you work, you have your kids to put through school, your parents are retired or gone, and you have a reputation and a dignity to defend. Failure in school is a benign red mark on a report card; failure in the ‘real’ world is perhaps your wife and kids gone and the cabinets empty in the morning, or the murderous seeds of thought of committing crime just to make ends meet.
The real world is real because it’s dangerous. When you fall, you fall a long way down. But, before entering this reality, when you fall you just bounce back. It’s a lot simpler to restart.
This dimension of the concept of reality, of having the capacity to truly harm, I realize informs another important real/virtual dichotomy: that of the online versus the offline. Authentic reality, as opposed to virtual reality, can hurt us. Virtual reality is a Disneyland, where we Like but where we don’t Love.
Well, in that case, as I leave this neighborhood to settle in the jungle of the ‘real’ world, I only hope that I would at least be able to retire from liking and commit more to loving.