Wednesday, May 24, 2006

To my students about to graduate

Here’s the situation: In a few days, in a matter of hours, your 4-year journey comes to a close. And so do the friendships that you’ve formed in those 4 years.
The realization won’t set in at graduation or in the next few days. It will only occur to when you go to say goodbye, really say goodbye, to your best friend--and you suddenly realize that things are never going to be the same again. It may only occur to you when you’re off at college or wherever you are and you realize that your friend who has always been at your side, has always been there when needed, is now only a recorded message on voicemail telling you to wait for the beep or the cartoon image of a smiley face on instant messenger.
The person next to you may have been your friend for 2,3,4 years or longer—some of these friendships trail into the past as far as you can see. And the cliché is true: Never again will you have friends like these.
But, these friendships will remain here, in the landscape of your past, waiting, always waiting for your return. And you will return, when you need them—you’ll let your mind wander back here to laugh and hear the silly, stupid jokes.
To see the sun shining on familiar, loving faces in the quad
To laugh at the thought of that one party when really bad things happened
To feel the elation of winning that big game, seeing the thrill on your teammates faces as you jump around knowing you’re the best
To experience the taste of that first kiss
To listen to the perfect harmony of voices rising in song
To stay up all night again, crazy and silly and demented because you are so sleep-deprived.
To catch the smell of freshly baked zombies in the morning. Mmmm…zombies.
Just to see that one friend, teacher, counselor or parent who listened to you that one day, the day you were more lost than you’ve ever been. These memories will always be here.
But in a few months, they are just memories. Your friendships are over.

Sure, you will see these friends again, talk with them on the phone, e-mail them. Some you’ll even see on your very own college campus. You’ll have to wait for summers and vacations and long weekends to see the others. But you’ll see them. And slowly, other friendships will move their way in--and these will fade over time like old photographs.
A few may even become stronger; you may even find that one of these people sitting next to you becomes the person that is the most important friend in your life. But this friendship will be of a different tenor, an adult relationship—It may have roots here, but this “vegetable love”, to steal a phrase, will bloom into something far, far different from the here and now.
Again, your friendships are over.

This is not just a painful fact but a necessity.
Graduation is a time of rebirth. It’s the shedding of your adolescent self and embarking on a quest for knowledge and discovery. The end result is not to become an ivy-league graduate; it is not to become a star athlete or a doctor or a lawyer—or a teacher. It is not even to become successful because that word is inevitably tied to the type of car you drive, a skinny well-toned body, what size your house is and where you go for vacations.
Your quest is simply to find out what is true about yourself.
This quest is a journey of choice. From this point on you get to choose what your life looks like, and that means you choose what your friends are like. No longer are you simply stuffed into a school with faces you see every day.
And so you don’t get to whine about life being bad. Because your life, good or bad, will be of your own choosing.
You get to choose your friends. And you will choose wisely because of this simple definition: your friend will be somebody who 1) loves you unconditionally, 2) doesn’t buy your crap and 3) pushes you to discover who you truly are.
When you try to whine that life is unfair, that your professor doesn’t like you , that your boss is mean, that President Bush ruined everything, that you should just give up…this friend will (metaphorically of course) slap you in the face and tell you to knock it off. Go have a Slurpee or something and then get back to taking responsibility for your life.
This friend will judge you. This friend will judge you by the character of people you surround yourself with, your choice of dreams to pursue and what you do to your body. This friend will not judge you by grades, sleeping habits, body weight, hygiene (up to a point) or by your ability to tell jokes.

Now here’s the hard part. Do your parents fit that definition? If not, it’s time for you to let go. And don’t fool yourself by thinking “they won’t let me go”. It’s your dreams, your friends, your life. Let go. Make a life you are proud of and you are happy with. Your parents love you--and they’re reasonable people; when they see you’re happy, they’ll be happy too. Trust me on this one.

In fact, some time in the future, I’m betting most--if not all--of you will end up choosing your parents as some of your best friends. If you choose to live a life that is for you, you will be able to share it with them without bitterness and with great passion, honesty and gratitude. You will be able to see your parents as friends and not just as the people who pay for college and do the laundry and throw you the car keys as you scramble out the door. And you will be able to teach them who you really are. But that can’t happen yet…because to a great degree you will always be just a kid unless you show them the unbridled greatness of you. And most (if not all) of you have been hiding.

And so here’s a harder question. Are you a good friend?
The people sitting next to you would say yes. If I asked them they would say glorious things about you: that you are wonderfully kind and funny and smart and loving and beautiful. Your parents, depending on the day, would probably say the same thing (even Matt Costa’s Mom). But what would you say about yourself? I mentioned previously that your quest is to find out what is true about yourself. Well, that truth is there already; it’s just waiting to be discovered.

Nelson Mandela wrote about you all. He said “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

He’s right you know. Every time you hide, every time you remain silent, every time you laugh at yourself when it really hurts, every time other people tell you your dreams are nice but not realistic and you listen, every time you tell yourself “no, that’s not possible”, you live a coward’s life. Every time you let somebody else’s expectations or standards rule your life, you live the life of a small, powerless individual.
Why do you do this? Mr. Mandela tells us—you’re scared. In the universe you’ve created for yourself, it’s better to believe that you are a coward—or powerless or small or ugly. It’s easier that way. In your universe, if you embrace insignificance then your life is out of your hands, dependent on others’ expectations and standards. You’re just along for the ride. And then it doesn’t matter who your friends are---because you will settle for scraps. And you will be the worst kind of friend anybody could ever have. The type that smiles while people are getting beat up—even if it’s just you who’s taking the beating.

But if you believe that you are powerful beyond measure—and you are—then you will live a hard, hard life—but a good life. It will be hard because you will have to make conscious choices every single day. You will probably not be counted as beautiful by the standards of magazines and movie stars—but you will be beautiful because you know you are. You may not be counted as successful or powerful by society’s standards, but that will be just fine with you. Your happiness will not be the kind that makes headlines. It will be simply the low-burning ground-fire which just burns and burns—and spreads slowly.

T.S. Eliot writes about a man who is afraid of his life, afraid of the eyes watching his every move. He is utterly afraid of making himself known. He asks “Dare I Disturb the Universe?” And so I leave you with this question. It is the only question that matters. Dare you disturb the universe? If the answer is no, I understand; your fear of yourself is understandable—for you are a godling and hold the fearsome power to change everything. If the answer is yes, then I will stand back and watch in awe, silently, as my silence is filled with the cadence of your voice. And I will wonder at this silence finally filled with the words that say just who you are. And I will listen for as long as you are willing to speak.