At my alma mater, the University of Queensland, it is around this time of year that Brisbane’s jacaranda trees start to blossom their distinct purple bloom. It is a sight that I miss immensely, but back in my university day, the purple haze of the jacaranda around my hometown always aroused a slight sense of dread, signaling impending end-of-year examinations. At Oxford University, my second alma mater, the same sense of anticipation pervades the “gown” part of town at the end of each short term (Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity), but instead of jacarandas, carnations are the relevant bloom. Following an old tradition, students attend examinations with carnations pinned to their academic gowns – white for the first, pink thereafter, and red for the final exam (these colors are rumored to represent the blood, sweat and tears that go into a degree.) I remember the trepidation and excitement with which I pinned on a white carnation, and the feeling of joy and freedom of walking out of the Examination Schools on red carnation day.
Here at Marquette, leaves are falling, the clocks have been turned back, and the reading room fireplace has been lit, all sure signs that students here are also anticipating the forthcoming examination weeks. This has me thinking back to those UQ jacaranda and Oxford carnation days, and reflecting on ‘happiness in hindsight’. It is easy to feel nostalgic about law school in hindsight, now that the memories of confusion, pressure and late nights grappling with elusive doctrines and verbose cases have faded. Tim Kreider writes about this phenomenon in his piece “Averted Vision”,
“I wonder, sometimes, whether it is a perversity peculiar to my own mind or just the common lot of humanity to experience happiness mainly in retrospect. I have of course considered the theory that I am an idiot who fails to appreciate anything when he actually has it and only loves what he’s lost. Or perhaps this is all just what Michael Chabon called “the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past.” … Maybe we mistakenly think we want “happiness,” which we tend to picture in very vague, soft-focus terms, when what we really crave is the harder-edged intensity of experience.”
Kreider goes on to compare moments of in-the-moment, conscious happiness with the type of happiness that is not a goal of itself, but an aftereffect of “having lived in the way that we’re supposed to – by which I don’t mean ethically correctly so much as just consciously, fully engaged in the business of living.” I find this a useful perspective in moments where life seems more busy/overwhelming/pressurized than “happy,” and hope that as our staff, students and faculty look ahead to the last few weeks of semester and the associated long nights, there is a sense of satisfaction and contentment, if not necessarily constant joy, in being fully engaged in the business of law school.
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