The word valor has been playing hide and seek in the wilderness of my mind, it’s annoying, but what can you do? I looked it up, it has something to do with courage in the face of uncertainty or danger, and for unknown reasons it’s become an unwanted enticement dangling from the tangle of my thoughts, as if catnip, but for people instead of felines.
June is the month of graduations, weddings, births, and heat waves. It’s impossible to avoid all the festive shenanigans, invitations flood the mailbox as if Harry Potter under the stairs, and there’s really no way to staunch the incessant flow. When much of life seems to be matriculating, a seasonal conspiracy if you will, something that screws with my deeply embedded need for routine, I sort of want to slip up to the lake house, and hide out until September, a total curmudgeon.
As academic institutions across America scramble to secure speakers in an effort to bestow words of wisdom, inspiration, and wise counsel on their graduates, I think it’s weird no one has called me? Robert Orben says a graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that ‘individuality’ is the key to success. Whereas Garry Trudeau says commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated. Just to be clear, I use quotes strictly for humor, not to be confused with my personal endorsement.
If you look up the word commencement you will see a list of synonyms, words such as beginning, start, launch, initiation, birth, dawn, origin. In my mind it has always been a word associated with endings. The end of elementary school, junior high, high school, college, graduate school, and yes the end of life as I know it, how is this a good thing?
News flash, some people like change, not only like it but prefer it above all else? It’s a dubious situation but we all can’t be Swedish now can we?
I’m not a total cynic, because as much as I cavil, I also acknowledge the privilege of celebrating my niece Sophia’s high school graduation last weekend. The University of San Diego will be her home away from home for the next four years and I couldn’t be more proud of my precious goddaughter.
I watched as her parents scrambled to host seventy some people in their home for this time honored matriculation, struggling to keep the entire extended family entertained, in beds, nourished, and hydrated, while setting up tables, organizing meals, arranging flowers, baking cookies, displaying banners, tacking up specialty lighting, hiring a taco truck, keeping the margarita machine filled, and wrapping gifts, all this in order to properly celebrate the accomplishments of our esteemed graduate, Sophia.
It was a worthy effort and one I can’t help but marvel because it’s totally outside my skill set. I’m like, “the relatives need to eat again? There’s a perfectly respectable Denny’s down the street, scadoodle people.”
As a kindness to our host, Larry and I slipped out for some libation before the party, landing in a quaint little bar on the other side of the freeway where no one was likely to find us. We spent the better part of an hour enjoying lavish deviled eggs with our Sauvignon Blanc. I challenged Larry to consider how he would advise one to succeed in life, when he became suddenly transfixed by the soccer game on the telly, and acted as if he was unable to hear me? I refrained from pouring my glass of wine over his head as that would be a waste of good wine now wouldn’t it?
One of the best commencement speeches I’ve ever heard came from the US Supreme Court Justice Roberts to his son’s ninth grade graduation.
Roberts said, “Now the commencement will typically wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and Ill tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a ways for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”
Damn, that’s spot on, and so applicable. This is where the post should naturally end, but to my chagrin, I keep writing? I sit here combing through my jumbled thoughts in an attempt to procure worthy words of wisdom for our newbie graduate? Clearly this is going to take the better part of the morning, I can kiss off working out, and gossiping with my sister before she heads to work.
After several pots of coffee, a block of cheddar, and an entire box of Wheat Thins, I came up with five facets for living with abundance (“I have come so that you may have life and have it in abundance,” John 10:10), maybe more prudent, than prodigal, but nonetheless. And let me just say this suffers not only imperfections, but is richly incomplete, feel free to pick up it apart out of earshot, I’m not only sensitive, but post menopausal. Enough said.
1. Relationships are vital, I’m not talking about the fifty people who signed your yearbook, I’m talking about those rare relationships that are authentic, enriching, mutual, collaborative, and trustworthy. Some refer to this as social wealth which can be just as powerful as financial wealth. Emotional intelligence is important and is often correlated with the caliber of the relationships you have brought into your life. If you are lucky enough to have one true friend than you are lucky indeed. These are the blessing you count on when you can’t sleep, when you have doubts, when your life is in need of Elmer’s glue. Breed healthy relationships, dump the toxic ones, I assume you’ve heard of Chernobyl? As Maya Angelo says people don’t remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel.
2. Extraordinary experiences, something millennials have made fashionable, and proudly post on their resume in lieu of work experience. This requires thinking outside the box. Maybe you don’t settle down to a nine to five job at twenty-two years of age? There’s a lot to explore and some people are opting for an Eat, Pray, Love* sort of adventure before they tackle their student loans. It doesn’t have to be a Mount Everest experience, but something that gives your life new perspective, or shoves you out of your comfort zone. Did you know you can play mermaid for a day in San Diego, learn how to use a chainsaw to carve totems in Oregon, or cat sit for someone in Tibet? Don’t let your life get too rutted, seek out new experiences, explore that which is unknown to you.
3. Moral imagination is a term coined by Krista Tippett. She says imagination is our gift as a species to move purposefully towards what does not yet exist and walk willingly through the unknown to get there. It has the power to change what seems impossible and so to shift what becomes possible. Bradley Whitford says we all go through life bristling at our external limitations, but the most difficult chains to break are inside us. Tippett say stay curious, even about your own convictions. To me this has everything to do with flexibility, a sort of mind limbo if you will, how far we can go when the possibilities are not limited by our fossilized ideas.
4. Life long learner, yeah sorry, not sorry, but you’re education is never complete. Sylvia Plath says, “I want to taste and glory in each day, and never be afraid to experience pain, and never shut myself up in a numb core of non-feeling, or stop questions and criticizing life or take the easy way out. To learn and think, to think and live, to live and learn; this always, with new insight, new understanding, and new love.” This is a graduation outcome for the students of Notre Dame and a tenant I attempt to live by myself. For goodness sakes I raised a bushel of kids in my thirties, went to grad school in my forties, started to teach high school in my fifties, no wonder I crave routine?
5. Giving Back to the system you have been suckling from for the last twenty years. Krista Tippett says love is the most reliable muscle of human transformation, the most reliable muscle of human wholeness. And although the term has been wildly overused, Brene Brown says our wholeness—even our whole-heartedness—actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences. This is a challenging practice, it requires not only intelligence, but courageous public displays of affection, yes that’s right, Tippett calls it public love.
I realize you have inherited some real problems and sadly I won’t be around to help you clean them up. You have a limited about of time to leave your mark on the world, spend it wisely, as Denzel Washington says you will never see a U-haul behind a hearse.
What is most important when it comes to living fully? I suppose it has something to do with how you will change the course of human history with your relationships, cultured by extraordinary experiences, in service of a moral imagination, that is in a perpetual state of transformation, but always and forever informed by love. Live your life with valor Sophia, courage in the face of uncertainty, and that my sweet girl will make all the difference.
* Eat, Pray, Love is a novel by Elizabeth Gilbert describing her adventures as she ate her way through Italy, learned to pray in India, and found love in Bali.
I’m Living in the Gap, drop by anytime, we give our whole heartedness a much needed check-up.
Anecdotes: (I choose 5 from a blog post by Laura Garnett on 15 of the greatest graduation speeches of all time)
1. Joyce DiDonato, Juilliard School (2014)
“One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, right here, right now, in this single, solitary, monumental moment in your life, is to decide, without apology, to commit to the journey, and not to the outcome.”
2. Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University (2009)
“It was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is, is to be true to yourself. Ultimately, that’s what’s gotten me to this place. I don’t live in fear, I’m free; I have no secrets and I know I’ll always be OK, because no matter what, I know who I am.”
3. Steve Jobs, Stanford University (2005)
“I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
4. Jeff Bezos, Princeton (2010)
“There’s a difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice.”
5. J. K. Rowling, Harvard University (2008)
“I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”