Words of Wisdom for Graduates
Updated: Jan 30, 2020
For years now, I’ve collected bits of wisdom here and there that I like to pass on to graduates…if they’re so inclined to hear what I have to share. Sometimes I hear back from them, but most of the time not. It’s parents who usually resonate most with what I have to share. This is partly because these life lessons are things only those who’ve lived and suffered a bit through this life can understand. Year after year I throw some version of these points out when we come into that season of graduations. I continue to hope and pray, for those who are ready to hear them, that they will bring good news and hope for the future. I hope you enjoy these nuggets, as well.
All truth is a paradox. Life is a precious, unfathomably beautiful gift, and it is impossible here. Life is filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.
Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. That includes you!
Nothing outside of you will help you in any real, lasting way. Radical self-care is the only thing that will get you through. It’s hard to admit, but it’s true, and it works the other way around too. If it is someone else’s problem, you probably don’t have the solution. Some may say this point excludes God, but they’re wrong, because God resides within YOU. God is that something that dwells within each of us that must be nurtured enough to show when others look upon us. This spiritual nurturing is also an important part of radical self-care.
Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared. Everyone, even the people who seem to have it most together. So, don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.
Families are both astonishing and hard. Earth is forgiveness school. It begins with forgiving yourself — once you’ve managed that, then you might as well start at the dinner table.
Grace is a powerful thing. Grace is Spiritual WD-40 or water wings. The mystery of grace is that God loves Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin and me exactly as much as He or She loves someone’s new baby. Grace doesn’t always come in the forms you expect. Anne Lamott sees it most in laughter. “Laughter really is carbonated holiness,” she says. “It helps us breathe again and again, and gives us back to ourselves.”
God isn’t that scary. Rather than getting trapped in the mundanity of our own lives, look up. I’ve heard you can trap bees on the floor of a Mason jar without a lid, because they don’t look up. If they did, they could fly to freedom. Instead, they walk around bitterly, bumping into glass walls.
Death is incredibly hard to bear, and you don’t get over losing people you love. We Christians like to think death is a major change of address. But the person will live again fully in your heart, at some point, if you don’t seal it off. Memories of the people you love will make you smile at inappropriate times, but their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you. That is just part of this thing we call living.
Your time with friends was well spent. Research tells us that one of the most important causal factors associated with happiness and well-being is your meaningful connections with other human beings. Look around you. One benchmark of your post-graduation success should be how many of these friends are still your close friends in 10 or 20 years. If they’re not still around as the years roll on, that’s ok. People are sometimes with us for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Enjoy those friendships as they come and go, but always strive to keep the ones you love most in your heart and in your life.
Some of your worst days lie ahead. Graduation is a happy day. But it is unfair to not tell you some bitter realities of life. When you do anything worthwhile, you will face periods of grinding self-doubt and failure. The people of this church, who have watched you grow up, can help you work through them. The lessons you have learned as a part of this congregation can help you remember there is always One you can turn to for solace. Each person in this church, who celebrates your graduation with you, has faced those moments and are strong people of faith because they trusted in God and a church family to help them through those darkest nights of the soul. They will be here for you when your moment arrives.
Don’t make the world worse. Everyone will tell you to aspire to great things. I want to lower the bar just a bit here. I’m going to ask that you try hard to not let your many talents mess things up in the world. Lots of smart people are doing that already. You are smart, and motivated and creative. Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right but remember that “changing the world” also can include things like skirting financial regulations and selling unhealthy food to increasingly obese children. I’m not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it. Think carefully about the change you make happen in the world.
Marry someone smarter than you. You will do better in life if you have a second economic oar in the water. Look around you on graduation day. Commencement will be like shooting fish in a barrel. Those with marked achievements in school will have special stoles and tassels. Their names are even printed in the program! These are opportunities. So, maybe not now, but in the distant future, remember these words and go over the program carefully. Use a highlighter, if necessary!!
Step out of the Little League Arms Race. The things you have competed in your entire lives have been structured and competitive. Sometimes these structures and competitions cause us to forget that sometimes just playing the game is fun. Remember to have fun in life. Don’t create races and competitions out of things that are meant to be enjoyed simply as part of life’s journey. You will never read an obituary that says, “John Doe died yesterday at the age of 84. He finished life in 186th place.” The things we measure life by often leads us to believe we are all part of a huge game of points. The game of life is measured by experiences we have and the love we share.
And speaking of John Doe, read obituaries. They are just like biographies, only shorter. They remind us that interesting, successful people rarely lead ordinary lives.
Your parents don’t want what is best for you. They want what is good for you, which isn’t always the same thing. There is a natural instinct to protect you from risk and discomfort, and therefore to urge safer choices. Theodore Roosevelt—soldier, explorer, president—once remarked, “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” Great quote, but I’m willing to bet that Teddy’s mother wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer.
Don’t model your life after a circus animal. Performing animals do tricks because their trainers throw them peanuts or small fish for doing so. You should aspire to do better. You will be a friend, a parent, a coach, an employee—and so on. But only in the working world will you be explicitly evaluated and rewarded for your performance. Don’t let your life decisions be distorted by the fact that your boss is the only one tossing you peanuts. If you leave a work task undone in order to meet a friend for dinner, then you are shirking your work. But it stands to reason that if you cancel dinner to finish your work, then you are shirking your friendship. That’s just not how we usually think of it. Find a balance between these things so you can excel at living and working in the world.
It’s all borrowed time. You shouldn’t take anything for granted, not even tomorrow. I offer you the “hit by a bus” rule. Would you regret spending your life this way if you were to be hit by a bus next week or next year? And the important corollary: Does this path lead to a life I will be happy with and proud of in 10 or 20 years if I don’t get hit by a bus?
Don’t try to be great. Being great involves luck and other circumstances beyond your control. The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn’t, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid.
When one door closes, another one opens. But, you know, sometimes it’s hell out in the hallway. But the hallway part is what makes us aware of the other doors that are available to us. Keep in mind, when you’re going through something that stinks, it’s best to go through it fast. The hallway part is important, but don’t linger there too long. You are the only one that gets to decide which door to go through.
When you feel the need to put your 2 cents into something, remember to ask yourself three important questions. 1) Does it need to be said? 2) Does it need to be said right now? 3) Does it need to be said by me?
(These nuggets of wisdom have been gleaned through my years in ministry from the books I’ve read, TED Talks, articles and years of working an Al-Anon program. I hope you enjoy them! As we say in the program, ‘take what you liked and leave the rest.’)