Thursday, 4 August 2016
7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students
Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into “adulthood” and the “real world.” And we teachers believe, perhaps naively, that we’ve prepared you for the real world. We’ve given you formulas and algorithms, we’ve introduced you to Orwell and Bronte, we’ve taught you about wars and revolutions, we’ve taught you to read, write, speak, and sing…. We’ve prepared you for that dive.
But in reality, there isn’t a dive that sends you into the pool of adulthood. Growing up isn’t as sudden or as simple as that. It’s a life-long journey, and for the most part, you swim along just as you did in high school. But -- perhaps not unlike the way your heart sank when you bombed a test, or the way you cried when your friend betrayed you, or the way you tossed in bed wondering if your crush would ever be reciprocated -- you might sometimes feel as though you can’t swim fast enough, or the pool seems too long and too deep to navigate, or you lose your way and hit your head on the pool walls, and ouch, it hurts.
As you navigate the complex world of independence and adulthood, I’d like to share with you some of the lessons that I learned along the way. These lessons may or may not resonate with you – but I offer them to you anyways, with all my best wishes and best intentions.
I have learned to empathize more and judge less. Everyone has challenges of some kind – sometimes heartbreaking challenges – so judge people less, empathize with them more, and be kind, be kind, be kind.
I have learned that forgiveness is always better than anger. Forgiveness is liberating, but anger is imprisoning.
As the poet Jallaludin Rumi reminds us,
“Anger may taste sweet, but it kills.
Don’t become its victim.
You need humility to climb to freedom.”
I have learned that when we skin our knees on the sidewalks of life*, we bleed, whether we’re rich or poor, gay or straight, Jew or Christian, Hindu or Muslim, Black or White, Indian or Chinese. I hope that as you venture into a world where people define themselves by how they are different from others, often with violence and hatred, you will remember our common humanity.
I have learned that there is value in sticking things out: sticking out relationships, jobs, places, and projects. In a world with so much mobility and so many choices, this can be harder than it seems. Continuity and commitment, endurance and perseverance, or “grit” -- to use the word of the day -- all matter. We need our roots as much as we need our wings.
I have learned that you’re never quite prepared for those moments when adversity hits – when the pool feels too deep and the currents too strong, when you feel as though you may drown, or worse, you yearn to drown, when you are hit with loss or betrayal or failure or terrifying fear. But, prepared or not, you have to keep swimming and stay strong. Don’t fall apart when life gets tough; be resilient and brave.
I have learned that it is important to nurture relationships – to make an effort with people you care about and people you work with. Stay close to your families, nurture your friendships, and cultivate your professional networks. Give gifts, attend your friends’ weddings (even if they’re far away and it’s inconvenient), go to their baby showers, be there for them when things go wrong, reach out often and stay in touch. In a globalized world where people are scattered everywhere, like raindrops, relationships may start to feel ephemeral and transient. Make the effort; you will be grateful for all those relationships – familial, personal, and professional -- down the road.
I have learned that it is important to cultivate your own intellectual life. Your mind is rich and wonderful – nourish it and care for it. Knowledge and imagination, books and ideas, can enrich and sustain you. Like fire and energy, like a bird in flight and a mountain climber scaling heights, the life of the mind is thrilling. Read widely, read deeply, and read often.
Take care of yourselves always.
* "when we skin our knees on the sidewalks of life, we bleed" - Taken from Billy Collins' wonderful poem "On Turning Ten."