Farewell Column: Automatic pilot

(Photo via Chris Sacco)

“Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now”

—Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”

Before leaving on the last day of high school, my Latin teacher handed out bookmarks to graduating seniors on which she’d printed quotes, each selected individually. My quote, often attributed to St. Augustine, read, “Do not go outside yourself, but turn back within, truth, dwells in the inner man.”

That August, I began my college career in New York. Before coming to Storrs, I had, as my father would later describe, three weeks and a cup of coffee at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Though brief, that month or so I spent at NYU offered me more perspective than all previous 18 years and the nearly five years since.

I kept up a facade, over the year prior to move in at NYU, convincing enough for most that I was fine while a growing sense of depression and anxiety crept slowly to the foreground. I had been in what Marlon Brando once termed “automatic pilot,” hoping that NYU would provide a restorative jumpstart.

When asked why I chose Stern, I would ramble off statistics such as acceptance rates and post-graduation salaries. It was a naïve attempt to leave creativity, hobbies and passions for nights and weekends and to dedicate the next 30 years to a world I loathed, if only for financial gain and stability. It made perfect sense with all the collected wisdom of an 18-year-old.

As move-in approached, that sense of concern pushed its way to the surface. Not typical, pre-college concerns, but a sense that I was doing something so thoroughly wrong and lasting that it created a claustrophobic sense of immobility. I quickly came to resemble a close approximation to Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” as Brando’s automatic pilot failed.

Several things combined to break the colloquial camel’s back. A scholarship, chained to Stern and a GPA standard functioned as a restrictive boat anchor and iron lung. Over those few weeks, New York, a vibrant concrete jungle, became deadening and isolating. The inability to relish the most enjoyable city itself became part of the problem and added to an enormous sense of regret. As the depressed often struggle to articulate, bright skies and busy people paradoxically bring new lows.  

Needless to say, I left NYU, deferring for another year before deciding to reapply elsewhere. After leaving, a high school English teacher laughed when I said I had been committed to studying business. It was plain for most to see that this was a comically incompatible mold, with enough hubris to make Icarus wince.

Later that fall I toured this campus. By April, it became apparent that UConn would be my sole choice, creating a sense of bitterness toward Storrs that would never really abate. No city or town can rival New York, especially not a desolate (but perhaps bucolic) corner of New England. Even with a negative experience, the allure of New York grew as I found myself in Storrs for a four-year stay.

Any illusion that I could use some plan to map out my life with exacting detail died in Union Square. A few years removed, I am grateful to have had that experience so early in life. It certainly worsened an extant cynicism and bitterness; yet those problems are hopefully a set of reactive emotions to be worked out through time.

Luckily, that false start checked my self-assuredness, forcing me to reckon with the immutability of self. It’s easy to confuse that with a pessimistic platitude—you are what you are. But that’s a freeing thought, formed on some basic foundation of self-respect. It’s not an unbreakable shackle to the past or pragmatism, but an indelible sense of self.

In a private letter to a friend, Hunter S. Thompson offered an updated translation of that earlier St. Augustine quote, saying, “…We must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal.”

Any interview with Thompson reveals a man opposed on a cellular level to living within a box. He certainly didn’t mean to caution against taking risks or breaking habits. Instead, I think—like St. Augustine—he meant only to caution that to lie to oneself would be, in the end, fatal.

This is tired advice, but endless repetition has had no impact on its truth. Unfortunately, it seems to take stepping on one of life’s many landmines to come to terms with that. I’ve come to relish those course corrections and their ability to force a broadened perspective. In the midst of rudderless drifting, it is these electric shocks that snap reality back into focus.


Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.sacco@uconn.edu. He tweets @ChrisPSacco.