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Eternal Lessons from Final Exams

Penn-State-CC

Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 04/28/15

Predictable agony and possible glory are in store for all of us

“The forecast calls for pain.” That is the title of a song by blues guitarist Robert Cray that comes to mind now, as it does every year at this time, as I get my university students ready for the annual and predictable agonies of final exams and the bittersweet trials of graduation. Why is this time of the academic year such a time of high drama for university students? And what lessons can faithful Catholics learn from the experience of my students?

This is the last week of classes for us. Next week we will have final exams and then graduation. As predictable as the changing of the seasons, the students will schedule their crises, and act from, as one wit called it, “an intense case of the ‘needies’.” Why? I’m not given to quoting Ayn Rand very often, but one line from her is apt: “You can avoid reality, but you can’t avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.” Final exams and graduation make it well nigh impossible for my students to avoid reality.

Consequently, between now and graduation, I will have the following conversation with students repeatedly, as I do every year at this time: “Father, you know that thing you told me to do, or it would be a disaster? (Or, conversely, “Father you know that thing that you told me not to do, or it would be a disaster?”) Well, I didn’t do what you said, and now it’s a disaster. And I hate that you’re right. And I don’t want you to be mad, upset or disappointed. And I don’t want you to say, ‘I told you so’. And I want you to help me to clean up the mess and then promise to never speak of this again. And I want you to believe me that next time it will be different, even though I’m unable to give any indication of how it might be different.”

I mention this not to hold up university students to criticism. Far from it. I myself was a university student for a very long time (11 years) and am the survivor of innumerable final exams and several graduations. I too have more regrets from those days than I care to remember. And that’s the point—trying to avoid the consequences of avoiding reality is part of the human condition, and is not a trait peculiar to young adults in college.

We all kid ourselves. We nearly always start new (or even familiar) projects with the claim, “This time it will be different!” even though we have given little or no thought to how it might be different or what it will cost us to make it different this time. Eventually, life catches up with us. We don’t finish the project (at least not well); we don’t lose weight; we don’t quit smoking; exercise equipment gathers dust; apologies remain unoffered; thank-you notes remain unwritten, etc., etc. Someone, someone, even if it is only ourselves, will certainly know that this time it was not different. Our resolutions and potential were left unfulfilled.

Final exams and graduation leave my students no place left to hide. They will either pass their exams or they won’t. They will either graduate on time or they won’t. Perhaps not all of us will face such a super-concentrated exposure of success-or-failure on such a regular basis. But all of us—all of us—will one day face the ultimate, most complete and enduring revelation of our success-or-failure, and that is the time of our judgement before God.

Like some delusional university students, many humans tell themselves that there will always be enough time to do what needs to be done. We tell ourselves that tomorrow we will repent and acquire virtue and receive grace. Tomorrow, we will become what we were always meant to be, saints ready to glorify God in this life and enjoy Him forever in the next. We tell ourselves that we will get started on that tomorrow, because today there are just so many important (or pleasant or interesting or diverting or easier) things to do. We tell ourselves that being at the center of an earthquake, or aboard a sinking ship, or on the receiving end of a stray bullet, or in the headlights of a drunk driver, or finding out too late about that brain aneurism ready to explode—all that sort of thing happens to other people, usually far away, and not to people like me. Of course, that’s a fantasy, and maybe that’s how we are able to fall asleep at night. But we are not well served by such fantasies.

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