By Sebastian Barajas

Graduates are a lot like cicadas. For the first 17 years of life, they are parasites, neither capable nor deserving of doing anything but lying underground, sucking on a tree root. Then comes graduation. They emerge from the Earth, climb from their exoskeleton, and fly off into the sunset.

This idea makes everyone happy. It makes graduates happy because they are tired of parents telling them no. It makes parents happy because they desperately want their child to make something of himself. There is no clear consensus on what this means, but it is mutually exclusive with living underground, sucking on the Earth's arboreal teat.

But this idea is also misleading. For one thing, hardly anyone becomes financially independent straight out of high school - or even straight out of college. For another, when cicadas finally do fly off into the sunset, they typically end up on another tree nearly identical to the one they left, and spend the rest of their lives drinking sap from the branches, rather than the roots. In our society, this small difference is known as "independence."

Similarly, in 20 years, most graduates will be "independent" - as powerless to quit their new life as they once were to quit high school. Whether they are supporting a family, working in a difficult job market, or simply accustomed to a certain lifestyle, their livelihood will be held ransom by a succession of authority figures.

True, they may be compensated: the flat-screen TV, the stainless-steel kitchen island, the caffeine drinks specially marketed to their newly discovered food intolerances. These things may cause temporary happiness, but their pursuit is more likely to suffocate than fulfill. Fame, superiority, and obsessions will doom them to a life of servitude and dependence, the same kinds of limitations and indignities they faced from parents and teachers.

Independence is not some oversized novelty carrot dangled before one's eyes and then presented when a person turns 18. It has always been available. What keeps it at bay are the imperatives people assign themselves: I have to find someone to marry; I have to start a family; I have to get into a high-ranking college; I have to have my own apartment; I have to be the smartest, most successful, or most attractive person. These are luxuries, not needs.

What is independence, if not the ability to do without luxury once in a while? What is independence, if not the ability to sleep in your apartment, in your parents' basement, or on the earthen floor of a Guatemalan covacha, and be at peace with the unique comforts of each?

For each thing one obtains, one trades something: the single life for a spouse, freedom for routine, a rainy-day fund for a tricked-out motorcycle. True independence is the ability to see all possibilities, and the courage to choose the right one. No choice is perfect. No choice is guaranteed.

To make it work, you have to be at home everywhere you go. See the beauty and possibility of every moment. Practice this way of thinking until it becomes natural, and you may find that people no longer have so much power over your life. You may wake one morning - sprawled on a biology textbook, lying in an emperor-sized bed, or nestled in the branches of a sapling beside a gas station - and realize, for the first time, that you're free.