Jenna Rink, Heaven And Hell: University Is A Form Of Purgatory

 Ed Farley

In 13 Going on 30, 13 year-old Jenna Rink, dismayed at balancing her childhood and teenager-hood, makes a decision.. then subsequently, a discovery. Being not a child or a teenager, she relies on the idea of completion. So, without assessing what she has, she wishes she was older, away from the tribulations that face her immediate and close future. She wakes up, is a 30-year-old. She has all she wants, but realises no matter her age, she’s going to want either side of her life, regardless of its stage. What has this got in common with university, or a religious state? In some ways, we’re in Jenna Rink’s shoes. We’re not teenagers, but are we adults? We now walk around campus and realise University is a form of purgatory. A transitional state where we await entrance to the world we’ve been awaiting with god-fearing apprehension. University is also a state where we leave the past of school systems, teenagerhood and dependence behind. What’s left between these two things is the world we find ourselves in now, painstakingly putting in the work to see where our fates lie.  

Entering my third year, the “end” is in sight, with the past still in my peripheral. In my pursuit to cleanse the sins of the past, and work myself for a better future, I’m haunted with the realisation that university, the entity that has been my entire being – is perhaps the shortest amount of time I’ll ever have left to muse and dream about who I will be. We are always growing, finding new desires and hopes. I don’t mean to deduce that these things go after we leave, but in such a short time, we’re expected to grow, stop – and be mindful of the past at the same time. A concentrated environment that is often worrying and confusing.  Regardless of what job I get into, I’ll be behind the curtain, the mystery of the future will be at least temporarily be gone for the first time. I know that life’s path has hills, roads, potholes, and mountains. It’ll never be linear, and I’m sure they’ll be more drastic changes awaiting. But I will be “grown up”? I’ll be facing the mirror with the voice of my younger self asking me “well, what now?”. 

Success means different things to different people, but a unanimous idea of it should always be that it equals happiness

We worked to get through secondary school. We worked to get into sixth form or college, and then to university. We worked alongside a grand design, a system that at least for me, felt monolithic enough to keep me grounded and dependable on a higher power. It told me what I was doing, and with something waiting for me ahead, it told me what I would be doing next. That time is almost up, and one thing about knowing a higher power is that you also know your own mortality. University has the promise of a secure job, a promise that’s dipped in a well-rehearsed PR considering the perils many graduates face. Yet, once you’re in those perils, or even in a comfortable employment situation, your work is completely, fully your own, mediated by your own decision making.  

There’s a pressure to get everything we’ve worked for as soon as we leave. Regardless of if we enter an entry level job for that goal, achieving our dreams is like awaiting heaven. If we do what we’re told, if we’re good enough; our dreams, the sweet end to a period of uncertainty will be rewarded for a life lived in accordance with these demands. If we don’t do that? It’s hell. It’s cruel, it’s twisted and untrue to think it’s the be all and end all. To believe that life is smooth sailing and easy is naïve. It takes pain, and trials to get to a place of certainty. We will never know what’s coming next, and as frustrating as it is- it’s also comforting. We are allowed to be messy. We are allowed to take the time to know what we need. Success means different things to different people, but an unanimous idea of it should always be that it equals happiness, and self-assuredness to the journey that’s at hand.   

We cook for ourselves, we travel, we research, we form new groups of friends, all in the process of figuring out what adulthood means

It’s hard to see that success a lot of the time as a university student. We live a life of our own creation in a city that’s away from the places we’ve grown up in. It’s hard to sometimes enjoy university, knowing full well the home you’ve built there will no longer be there once you’ve left. It’s also strange to reconcile that your childhood home on some lens, will forever look different as you grow out of it. Home will always be home, a safe space if you’re lucky.  But the knowledge that it’s emblematic for a time that has past is, at least to me, sometimes puzzling. I am the 8-year-old doing maths homework. I am the 16-year-old doing my GCSEs at the table. I am also the 21-year-old sitting at the same table looking at internships, making decisions that will drastically change the outcome of my immediate future. My soul is fractured in two different directions. How can I balance both worlds, and be two versions of myself, when I’m going to throw myself into an entirely new one at the end of it?  

We’ll eventually melt these things into one. But at this stage, we are products of things that haven’t yet met. It’s the compassion for our experiences that, at least for me, acts as a form of comfort. These thoughts are scary as we often look at the big picture. But we should understand that little brush strokes are what all big pictures are composed of. To break it down, the life we’ve made at university is the result of our perseverance. We cook for ourselves, we travel, we research, we form new groups of friends, all in the process of figuring out what adulthood means. To be that person, we’ve had a whole life of experiences beforehand that has put us in that position. Whether that’s nature or nurture, we’re like Frankenstein’s monsters. We’re stitched up and animated by a variety of sources, limbs with muscle memory that work in accordance to different situations. At its core, there’s the spirit that’s expected to adapt to all these changes at dizzying speed. We have too many deadlines, not enough time to do them; to a point that we think the weeks are going too quickly.  But in the same breath we need a break, and then the weeks feel long. These conflicting versions of how we view our time and existence come to a point where question if it’s all real at all.  

We forget that existing is hard enough, and like it or not, we must continue to do so to keep working for what we each desire

Jenna Rink’s development in the film perhaps is the same. She can wear all the Versace dresses she wants, live in the apartment of her dreams… yet at her core, the same 13-year old soul exists that transcends the demands of a calendar. After life as a 30-year-old, she returns. She knows the future that lies ahead – is only rewarded if she appreciates all versions of herself, and the environments she finds herself in. It’s not easy, but if we want to have a good conclusion, we must do the same. Living a story arc within the parameters of university often makes us downplay such progress. When we have been so used to equating our successes to grades, a series of letters and percentages, money- we forget to attribute it to these other factors. It’s integral to look at the lessons we have learnt outside of the system already. We forget that existing is hard enough, and like it or not, we must continue to do so to keep working for what we each desire. If we focus on the vessel that will take us to the various physical and spiritual destinations of our futures, we’ll be fine. We must ride it out, continue to sin, continue to pay for them, and do it again, until we find the version of heaven we’re striving for.  

Ed Farley

Featured image courtesy of Ed Farley. No changes were made to this image. 

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