This is a love letter, but not even I know to whom or what. Perhaps ostensibly addressed to Penn State, a farewell to the arms race known as collegiate life. But both you and I know that love letters contain layers, and that one ode inevitably leads to another and so on.
But such is the fractal, intertwined nature of love for you. Prismatic to the core and liable to reflect what you least expect.
Enough about abstractions, though. They only get us so far. What interests me is the concrete, the touchable, the breathable. And in this regard, Penn State has delivered things and peoples of extraordinary value.
Professors who enlarge your mind and fill it with wisdom, warmth and practicality. Friends who you love and trust and will continue to do so until Old Main cracks its final bell. Sights and sounds teeming with the urgency of life; expansive vistas, cardinals perched and chirpy upon community gardens, gorgeous graffiti scrawled across private property, reminding you that human beings haven't really changed since the days of cave drawings.
But we do not live in a perfect world, not since our eviction out of Eden. Beauty must always be tempered by brutality and delight by drudgery. There's always an unspeakable angel with their flaming sword fully drawn, waiting to greet us on our departure out the land of contentment.
Penn State also bequeathed rejection after rejection — maybe in matters of career and definitely matters of romance. Hearts were broken and left aching. Sometimes life became a giant compressor slowly crushing you. And even though you hope a diamond might result, you have a deeper conviction that only a lousy piece of coal will be left.
I lost both my grandmother and grandfather in a four-month timespan. First my grandmother while I was locked away in Air Force boot camp, and even though I was released early for her passing, the plane arrived just a tad bit too late — I missed the entire funeral. The last time I said goodbye to her was in April of freshman year: She died in July. Four months is a long time to go without saying goodbye.
And then my grandpa passed in November while I was studying at college. I made it to his funeral. Somehow it didn't feel enough.
So my time at Penn State has been marked just as much by regret as by rejoicing. Hearts swell and soon break. The giant compressor swirls on and its grind never stops.
But we have the power to welcome the pressure, to not resist compression and instead allow it to remake us whole again. Diamond or coal, it matters little. The process is the point, transfiguration is the target. It is only by giving up our life that our life finds meaning, and then the trail lightens, and the path becomes clearer, and life teems with urgency all over again.
Penn State was also the place where I recovered my faith from the lost and found bin. My freshman year, I used to spend my Sunday afternoons watching Christopher Hitchens, now I spend them in solemn Mass services — a real "every sinner has a future" type of deal.
As part of this recommitment, the process of reconciliation has once again become a fixture of my life. Formally approaching a minister of God and asking for forgiveness might appear quaint, but considering the awful sway guilt and vindictiveness hold in our world, people should not knock it before they try it.
And if this senior column is going to contain a valuable life lesson — and the genre dictates it must — let it be this: Life and mistake-making go hand in hand. We hurt the people we love most and inevitably hurt ourselves tenfold, but after we repent we must relent. Holding onto the guilt so it sears and marks us is unnatural, nothing less than inhuman. It ensnares and enslaves us, and we are turned into cattle herded by the most psychopathic of cowboys.
I have seen the best minds of my generation ruined by guilt or their past actions and misdeeds. I often fell into the same trap. If only I took this one class… If only I applied to this one internship… If only I loved them more before they departed...
But we are not cattle. The Master hit the nail on the head — as befitting a former carpenter — when he based his entire ministry on forgiveness. Forgiving the trespasses of others can only occur if we're able to accept and repent of the trespasses committed by ourselves.
I made a lot of mistakes — wrong turns, misjudged detours and what people in the olden days might call sins. But as God told Julian of Norwich in her ecstatic visions: "It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
Notice the triune repetition. If everything in the cosmos shall be made well, why think our own precious lives must be the exception?
So current and future students of Penn State, take heed. Is this a love letter to the university? Probably. But it's also a love letter addressed to everything good and just and pure and righteous in the world, along with everything terrible and rotten and no good. It’s only through loss that we find life. Notice these gifts and cherish them while you can.
And when you falter as you must, focus on such goodness. All shall be well, including and especially you.