The Fourth Year Angst


The other day, my friend sent me a text after she was done her last exam of the semester and it read: “7 semesters down, 1 to go!” And that just sent me over the edge. It brought on a wave of anxiety; it’s what I’ve been calling fourth-year angst. The quarter-life crisis, deep existential angst. The “I-don’t-really-know-what-to-call-it-so-I’m-just-going-to-call-it-angst” angst. It wasn’t the first time I had experienced this feeling.

Back in the second semester of Grade 12 – after university applications were finally handed in and after I officially stopped expending mental energy on calculus – I kept having the feeling that I needed to do more. I felt this itch to try everything, to do everything, to meet everybody. I remember writing in my journal at the time, “I haven’t lived yet.” It was a combination of feeling annoyed with how superficial school felt and a yearning to experience more of life – solo backpacking trips and those Eat, Pray, Love moments. High school (and my hometown) at the time felt like a bubble that didn’t give us enough exposure to the outside world, and I wanted so much more out of life, even knowing that I was just 17. I grew so restless for those last few months of high school.

Flash forward to about a month into the first semester of my final year of university. I felt the angst coming back and I was almost shocked with how early in the year I was feeling it. Maybe it was senioritis, maybe it was the fatigue I was experiencing with Zoom. Maybe it was knowing that the pandemic was “destroying the potential of young people.” But that same thought came back to me: “I haven’t lived enough yet.” I was confused as to why I felt that. I do think that I’ve done a lot with my life since that last year of high school four years ago – three months abroad for exchange, a countless amount of funny stories to tell my future generations, and new friendships. I do think I’ve had my fair share of Eat, Pray, Love moments. So I kept asking myself, “Why am I still feeling this longing for more?”

I think my angst had two parts to it. The first was just that feeling of “I need more.” Growing up, my mom would tell me this Chinese fable about a frog that lived at the bottom of the well. He’d look up and think that the circle of sky he saw – a fraction of the universe – was all that was out there in the world. Because he thought that the well and the circle of sky was his whole world, he was content. But one day, he’s forced to venture outside his well and he discovers that this whole time, there was so much world – meadows, marshes, trees, flowers – out there. I feel like I’m the frog in the story. The world that I knew in the 12th grade is not the same world that I know now; I’ve been exposed to so much more since then. And maybe I just continue to yearn for more because in these past four years, I’ve learned that you can live for 100 years and still feel as if you’ve only lived one-tenth of the full human experience. You can be happy, yet continue to feel a desire, or even a feeling of greed, for more.

The second part of my angst is the fear of what comes after that diploma arrives in the mail. I think many of us are now realizing that we haven’t ever not gone back to school in September since kindergarten. For us, the end of August and the start of the back-to-school sales has always marked the beginning of a new cycle. Another turn on the carousel. Everything has always been structured for us, in terms of timing. First, it was school from September to June, and then later, September to April. We had defined summer breaks, winter breaks, and reading weeks in between. There was always a clear breakdown of semesters and what courses you were doing in each semester. I laugh when I think about how in elementary and high school, they even told you that lunch time started at 11:19 a.m.

But the end of fourth year marks the end of structure. Once we’re done with school, everybody is on their own path. There’s a lack of big, common milestones that everybody in your year is working towards. There’s a lack of certainty over where you are headed, or where you’re supposed to be headed. You have people going off to do more school, you have people starting fancy careers. You’ll have people getting married and having babies, and you’ll also have people who are still living at home with their parents, not yet ready to move out.

In Brandon Stanton’s Humans, he features an interview with a young adult – female – living in Berlin, Germany. For her piece, she says:

“It’s like a little moment: two days, maybe three. When you can forget about life and all the pressure. The clubs are really, really beautiful. The music is so good. There are people from every age and background. And everyone takes drugs. Nobody cares what you do. You can have hairy armpits. You can have a girlfriend. Nobody cares. Everyone is just so happy to be there. We all dance together and everyone is so kind. It’s such a beautiful thing for an eighteen-year-old girl to see. It’s the feeling I was looking for. So I held onto it. These people became my family. But it was all an illusion. They turned out to be lost like me. They were just as vulnerable as me – but some of them were twice my age. My friends have lost jobs from partying. One of them lost his kid. And deep down I know they’re sad because they didn’t do shit for themselves. They missed something in their life and they know it’s too late. So they just wait for the weekend. Wait for that moment to come again. And it always comes again, for two or three more days. But it never lasts. Because Mondays exist. You wake up and you’re like: ‘Oh shit, it’s over.’ But that’s OK, because in five days it starts again. Then one morning you wake up, and seven years have passed. And you’re twenty-five. And you still haven’t gone back to school.”

I know she’s speaking more about the pitfalls of substance abuse and reckless partying, but I also thought about how derailed a person’s life could get without some sense of structure. There’s no more hand-holding. There’s nobody telling you to eat lunch at 11:19 a.m. and there is no longer a bell that rings at the end of each day, telling you to pack up and go home. It can be so easy to unravel and lose sense of self in this crazy, crazy world. How is that not enough to scare anybody?

A lot of what fuels my own angst (fourth-year angst, yet more so general life angst) is the thought of the possibilities and fears of a life unlived. A few years ago, I began to have this realization that at any one point in our lives, there are an infinite number of “unlived lives” that we could have had. Another person we could have become, a reality that could have been ours. I recognized that each choice in life – not even the big ones like where you go to school, but the tiny ones like where you might choose to eat lunch one day – has an opportunity cost and I think that after school, you feel those repercussions a lot more. You’re choosing careers, not courses. You’re choosing life partners, not project partners. You can embark on a career right out of undergrad and that’s great because you’re getting a steady paycheck and job security, but that also means you’re missing out on the chance to jump from job to job solely for the purpose of experimentation. You pick one thing and you give up 100 things – 100 possible lives – for it. And I know they say that thinking about the “what-ifs” are just a waste of time and emotions and that you’re meant to “live in the moment with no regrets”, but I think that is all much easier said than done.

The end of fourth year, the way I see it, marks the beginning of a world of possibilities, a world that will be wildly different for each and every person. The possibilities scare me. I think that’s what contributes to the “terrifying twenties.” It feels like the paradox of choice – there are too many options and so, instead of feeling freedom, I feel frozen. I feel unsure of what is the “best” path to take.

There’s this constant voice in my head asking, “Now what? Now what?” Now what, Julia? I hope that the answer to that question will eventually be clearer for me. And yet, maybe it never will be.