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Fighting the Loneliness of “Graduation Paralysis”

I confess that when I look back on my life, the fear of graduation paralysis often amounted to nothing at all.

I never imagined myself hunting deer across the steppes of Asia. And I’d never trade my favorite pair of jeans for a tunic made of bison hide. Yet I and so many other young adults are living nomadic lives. We wander from high school to college, then move cross country for graduate school or an entry-level job. Then we pack up and move again for that promotion or spouse.

This wandering life is painfully lonely.

Transient American Lives

Sometimes it’s our fault. As young adults, we’re often tracking the migrations of the “lifestyle herd.” We set off in search of that elite, coastal university. We move to cool cities like Portland or Austin and spend half our paychecks on festival tickets. Or we wander the nation looking for a fulfilling career.

But this transience isn’t completely our fault — it’s built into the very fabric of American life. Graduation is the perfect example.

As more and more students choose to pursue a college education, many American teens end up leaving home after high school. This means a new city. Perhaps a new state. We see our best friends two or three times a year, if that. No more living with parents. The ritual of graduation says, “Your old life is done. An entirely different life is beginning.” It makes us into nomads.

Then moving and saying good-bye happens again after college graduation and again for career changes.

At first, you’re optimistic when you or your friends are leaving. It’s like the end of summer camp — “We’ll keep in touch!” and “We’ll swap phone numbers!” But this rarely happens.

Your optimism fades with each new goodbye. Under your breath, you say, “We both know you won’t call.” Sometimes it just hurts less to nip the friendship in the bud.

My Story

My own life was full of goodbyes long before graduation. When I was 6 years old, my family moved from Dallas to a small country called Albania to serve on the mission field. Talk about change! Five years later, we moved back to Dallas. After high school, I attended college in a city two hours south, then headed all the way to Oregon for graduate school. And most recently, after spending another five months in Dallas, I moved to Colorado.

Confused yet? I was. By the time this last move came around, I was sad and exhausted. At 24 years old, I was done starting over. I would lie in bed and pray for a home that didn’t have an expiration date. I wasn’t meeting friends, and I wasn’t working on job skills — I was lying in bed.

Graduation Paralysis

I suffer this “graduation paralysis” whenever I face a major transition. Maybe you do, too. And though I like to call it “graduation paralysis,” it doesn’t have to stem from graduation — you can face paralysis before any serious, all-or-nothing deadline. Maybe it’s career-related.

This paralysis is a defense mechanism. Let me explain. I might see a flyer for a local disc golf club. Someone might recommend a new Bible study to me. But then I think, Why make the effort if I’m leaving in three months? Why make new friends at all?

I’m constantly deciding between what hurts more. Do I be intentional and make an effort, but then lose close friendships? Or do I keep my distance and protect myself, facing loneliness?

Looking to Christ

My favorite example is Jesus at the Last Supper. He knows He’s about to die and depart to be with the Father. This also means He must say goodbye to His best friends, the disciples. But He doesn’t protect himself through detachment. He doesn’t leave dinner early to feel sorry for himself. Instead, He’s vulnerable. He eats with His friends, prays for them and intimately washes their feet. He fully embraces this final opportunity to love His friends.

Whenever I face a good-bye, I need to remember Christ at the Last Supper. He not only opened himself to the moment — which I need to do — but He also kept an eternal perspective. Christ knew He would rise in glory from the dead and be reunited with the disciples. Moreover, He promised all believers, including me, that we will be reunited with Him in heaven. With this eternal perspective, Christ didn’t fear saying goodbye.

Neither should I. And I confess that when I look back on my life, the fear of graduation paralysis often amounted to nothing at all. I don’t regret my short-term friendships. I don’t regret laughing with new church friends over breakfast. I don’t regret calling up an old college buddy to catch up over coffee. I don’t regret rejecting the ugly “What’s the point?” that so often paralyzed me before.


T.J. Neathery grew up as a missionary kid in Albania. He now lives in Colorado Springs where he collects vinyl, drinks coffee and works in nonprofit communications.

Copyright 2018 T.J. Neathery. All rights reserved.

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