by Michael Angerer
Every end is a new beginning, they say. I have always found that a little ominous – as if there was something not quite right about accepting an ending for what it is, as if we imperatively had to hasten on to the next chapter with no space for pause or respite. In this regard at least, the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic may recalibrate our perception of endings: after all, if there is one thing we have collectively been hoping for during this pandemic, it is for it to finally come to an end. Here is one ending to look forward to, although it has so far proved elusive; other possible endings may come to mind, as we struggle on towards the end of the academic year or the end of our degrees. Before we begin looking for a new beginning, might the ending not turn out to be an end in itself?
Of course, we are not usually inclined to view endings as something inherently positive. On the contrary, the end is often a proverbial source of fear: the end of your rope, the end of life, the end of the world. At the prospect of the sudden cessation of the familiar, all we see is a yawning abyss. This also applies to our time at university: if you find safety in the structure of your degree programme, it is difficult to look beyond final exams and face the uncertainty that lies beyond – particularly in this pandemic-ridden economy. If you enjoy university life, it is no great comfort to be told that all good things come to an end. The end is where good things go to die; how much better, then, to immediately start looking for new beginnings.
But that is not all an end can be. The word itself, after all, may as well refer to an ending as to a purpose. This is eminently logical: a purpose is something we work towards, and when this purpose is accomplished, our work is at an end. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this use of the word is attested in English from the early fourteenth century, maybe in analogy to the Latin finis and the Greek telos. Greek, incidentally, also gives us the word teleological, describing a way of approaching things by focussing on their ultimate purpose. Teleological thinking is not necessarily healthy – it tends to find purpose and destiny where there is none – but it still helps us to appreciate ends properly. There can be comfort and stability in progressing with an end in mind.
This kind of end is hardly some sort of unavoidable impending doom. It sets safe boundaries for our lived experience – artificial, perhaps, but salutary. The end of a university degree is not a cliff; it is a purpose, a finish line, an occasion to pause and celebrate. Imagine what the end of this pandemic may be, if there ever is one of course; this hypothetical point in time when we may finally say: it is over, it is finished, this is the end. This would not exactly be the right moment to look for new beginnings. In fact, perhaps it is time for us to look for endings instead. The prospect of an end in the future certainly makes the present more bearable, even if we do not go as far as to say ‘all’s well that ends well’.In this way, the beginning and the end go together, wherever we decide to set them. Together, they give meaning to our degrees and our lives, just as they give meaning to all texts and stories; together, they create a clear pattern for understanding, as it is set out by Charles Dodgson alias Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: ‘“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”’ What meaning could there be in beginning something without knowing when to stop? How could we hope to discern meaning in a world without end? Nothing comes quite close to the essential stability of knowing that every beginning has an end. Let us then rejoice – the end is nigh.