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Covid graduation season is the time to end the milestone-industrial complex

Skipping my own ceremony wasn't a loss. It allowed me to celebrate the process of getting there rather than merely its finale.
Photo illustration: A hand bursting a balloon against a background with hanging photo cards.
We’re primed by capitalism’s milestone-industrial complex to place a lot of weight on celebrating achievements when what matters just as much is each step along the way.Anjali Nair / NBC News; Getty Images

Like so many in the classes of 2020 and 2021, the ceremonial ends of my high school and college educations were anticlimactic. After finishing high school online, I didn’t have a graduation ceremony, and my commencement from college — a degree that I also completed online — happened to fall on a weekend I had to work.

It isn't that we should celebrate less. If anything, shifting our attention to small moments gives us more opportunities to embrace our communities, find joy and mark time.

When people ask whether I regret not celebrating big moments, I’m always surprised; it’s not as if the graduation didn’t count because the ceremony wasn’t there, or a lack of celebrating the traditional way meant not honoring those moments.

In fact, if it’s any reassurance to those who are holding socially distanced, video-conferenced graduations right now — or have had to miss weddings, baby showers, retirement parties or other life cycle events because of Covid-19 restrictions — skipping my own milestone ceremonies, albeit by choice, didn’t always feel like a loss.

Untethering the worth of the milestone from the complex that tells us it has to be marked on a certain timetable in a certain way can create new opportunities to bring celebration into our lives, and even shift how we remember moments that we cherish. Celebrating parts of our lives with people we love shouldn’t be limited to reaching a societally sanctioned accomplishment, just like those accomplishments shouldn’t define what’s a moment worth cherishing.

We’re primed by capitalism’s milestone-industrial complex to see life as a trajectory we have to stick to, where the single-moment culmination of years of effort and experience is the thing that really matters. We place a lot of weight on the events of growing up when what matters just as much is each step along the way.

It isn't that we should celebrate less. If anything, shifting our attention to small moments gives us more opportunities to embrace our communities, find joy and mark time — coupled with less chasing of “big” moments. Not to mention that those mega-moments signal that we should all have the same life events to celebrate, which inherently leaves out those who don’t have “traditional” milestones or community structures in which to share them.

Instead, we can ask ourselves: How do I honor the in-betweens, and celebrate the process of getting here rather than merely the finale? Growing up, my chronic illness kept me locked in a lot of bathrooms and home from a lot of parties, so I started acknowledging each day I felt OK. I’d grab an especially good scone or make a decadent pasta that wasn’t part of my everyday routine.

When I moved to a new city all alone, there was no housewarming party to throw — but I curled up on the couch and spent the evening calling old friends, which felt like a celebration itself. When my first book came out during the pandemic, a highlight of the entire experience ended up being my sister and mom making me a playlist and hearing from people I loved throughout the day.

It didn’t occur to me until the past few years that these things were celebrations — that they were about community, they cherished a moment, they marked a second in time I’d want to remember. It dawned on me that, for a lot of us, that’s actually what celebration is.

Jennifer Talarico, a cognitive psychologist at Lafayette College, explains that we intrinsically want memories. Human beings are designed to seek rituals; they mark meaning and time. That’s often accompanied by a desire for a singular moment, or singular marker, Talarico says, like a graduation ceremony putting a pin in an otherwise ambiguous transition of change. “Many of our transitions are, in fact, gradual,” she notes, but we turn particular elements of the transition — the big, overt, memorable ones — into “an avatar” of the entire transition by trying “to encapsulate transitional periods into singular moments.”

Consumerism has therefore found an eager audience to exploit. Whatever personal accomplishment you want to mark, there’s almost sure to be an industry that profits off it. A 2018 piece in The Atlantic notes that scholars and industry experts see an uptick in celebrations and parties for all occasions, piling on the pressure. (As if on cue, as I was writing these words, a message from an airline popped up in my inbox declaring “$50 fares for you to celebrate a big milestone.”)

Family and peers can buy into and jack up the stress as well. Leeza Jackson, 21, notes the common pressure — intensified by Instagram — that comes from friends and relatives: “The way I choose to celebrate never feels big enough or enough to my family.”

That’s particularly true when it comes to her college graduation. “It feels as if I have to go big on the celebration since earning this degree has taken so much time and effort,” which ties directly into feelings of staying “on track.” She opted to take on a heavier workload this year because of pressure to get her degree in the four years she said she would.

Others have pointed out that popping the “traditional” bubble of celebrations and ceremonies — which often involve public gatherings or travel — has actually made them more accessible. Some, like Joy Castro, 53, have opted to forgo those standard celebrations in favor of something that feels more attuned to the rest of their lives.

Castro was a teenage runaway who moved several states away to go to college, so she knew no one in her family would be attending her graduations. She lived under the poverty line until she was around 29, she explains, so there wasn’t much emphasis in her life on the “big stuff” side of celebrations.

Personally, she gets so restless she can’t sit still during ceremonies and speeches. “For me, creativity, play and paying attention to the people you love — all of which are free — have always been vastly more deeply rewarding than any planned ceremony ever has.”

For my own part, I think of all the times I put off celebrating until the big milestone: I saved baking cakes for an occasion; I saved bringing friends together — pre-pandemic — for a cohesive gathering; I even hesitated on resting or letting myself feel joy absent some milestone achievement for fear I hadn’t earned it. I can see now that was a significant waste of precious time. Worse, it devalued moments that were deeply meaningful.

Untethering the worth of the milestone from the complex that tells us it has to be marked on a certain timetable in a certain way can create new opportunities for celebration.

Castro tries to counteract this inclination by honoring small things: She has fresh flowers and a candle on the table every evening for dinner. She loves getting her husband little gifts like a card or chocolate for no reason, and enjoys tucking a flower underneath the windshield wiper of a friend’s car without mentioning it. On Friday nights, she and her husband get carry-out and watch a film — part of what she describes as “acts of perpetual celebration for no reason at all.”

Every day, there are a million little moments in which someone steps forward into a new phase of their life, a dozen transitions and triumphs that don’t come with a celebration, a ceremony or accolades. We’re more than our fresh starts and grand finales. There are glorious middles, and who is to say that the memories worth making are reserved for accomplishments as we bounce from milestone to milestone? We don’t need the milestone markers to celebrate. The moment we need is this one.