Commencement addresses have become a thing, like any other in this world – critiqued, reviewed, mocked, and admired. I wondered what I could say to high school or college graduates. What, at the ripe old age of 53, could I impart to a group of people whose adventures are beginning? Not much really, but I’m taking a swing at it.
Dear New-ish Humans,
Congratulations! You’ve reached a milestone. With luck, you will reach many more. Like menopause and cashing out your 401K. Maybe you’ll patent an invention or live to see your grandchildren graduate. Maybe you’ll travel the world and dive off cliffs or maybe, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll see the world from your armchair through observation and a lot of knitting.
It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it is your path, no one else’s. We live in a world where people advertise their lives and if you look long enough, yours will come up short. All lives look great with selective editing, but real life is a rough draft full of unresolved storylines and happy endings that only last a page or two before the next challenge arises.
The surprise ending is not really a surprise at all. It pretty much ends the same way for most humans. It’s the path on the way there that counts. Outcomes take up only a fraction of a moment. The process is where life is at – messy, complicated, wonderful, terrible – those moments when you are struggling are where the meaning resides.
I have had a messy life. Or I should say lives. Once I was a poor kid growing up in a rural town. Once I was a soldier. A college student. A janitor. A tutor. I became, for a longer term, a spouse and a parent. I traveled. I stayed still. I ran. I grew fat. I shrank. I trained in martial arts. I learned to abhor violence and guns. I briefly tried politics. I grew up evangelical. I became enamored of Buddhism. I went to therapy. I tried on personas, boyfriends, jobs, hobbies. Humans shed and grow almost 1,000 new skins in a lifetime. Why would anything about us stay the same throughout our lives?
And that’s what everything comes down to. Your generation knows this better than anyone, as you transition to new lives in the midst of a global pandemic. Nothing stays the same. Nothing was ever intended to stay the same. Change is constant. Unless you want life to be excruciating for yourself, accept this fact. Learn the skills that help you deal with change – resilience, adaptability, flexibility, knowing when to let go, when to move onto the next plan or idea.
We also live in a world where everyone has opinions and way too many ways to convey them. Outside entities want you to like and thumb and swipe your way through life. They want to elevate your sense of self-importance so that you volunteer every aspect of your life like wares at a marketplace. This is the nature of consumerism, the nature of data mining and advertising. This is not the nature you want to cultivate, because in the cold dark night, when you’re alone, none of those entities will be there for you. You must learn to trust yourself, to spend time in your own head, to be your own confidant and best friend. Know yourself best so that you might understand others more. Listen more than you speak.
Some of you will be embarking on relationships. Maybe one, maybe many. The secret to any healthy relationship is this: you bring out the best in each other. You like who you are with the other person and they like who they are with you. Friends, lovers, partners, spouses. The same thing applies. I’ve stayed too long in relationships where I was a lesser person, ashamed of myself, hyperfocused on keeping the relationship because I felt I was lacking. Even if your relationship is healthy, alas, change applies here as well. You grow along with a person or you don’t. The trick is knowing when to let go or when to dig in.
The lessons of generations before me eventually landed hard on my head. No matter what rights have been gained, no matter what ground has been covered, you can’t have it all. You shouldn’t have everything at once. To learn how to deeply appreciate one thing, one person, one moment is to learn how to better appreciate everything else more. To savor a moment is a luxury in a society that tells us to quickly want for the next. Defy the speed of the world around you. Slow down. Feel the joy of the moment. Be in it.
Lastly, but most importantly, there is the practice of kindness. What does that really mean? This practice is the most important thing you will ever do – it impacts everything. It shapes your relationships, it can protect the natural world, it can affect your job, it defines your role as a citizen. Operating from a place of kindness is not going to solve all the world’s problems. Sometimes it won’t even make the person talking to you be polite. You practice for the muscle memory, so even under duress, you choose to be the person you’d like to be.
Kindness is sometimes mistaken for weakness, but it takes a strong person to live in this world with compassion. Kindness is not agreeability or concession or surrender. It is approaching the world, your life, the lives of others, with curiosity and openness and compassion. It is one of the most powerful choices you’ll ever make, because it will characterize your life and inform your decisions.
The world is full of wonders and dangers and conflict and love. We often judge lifetimes by accomplishment, by enduring works of art or invention or unfortunately, wealth. Most of us won’t end up on a college reading list or in a history book or on a Forbes list. But we can have lives well-lived, make the lives of those around us better, ensure that we do more helping than harm. Life is an adventure of your own making. Make it well.