Thursday, May 17, 2012


A moment arrives tomorrow that is one of those markers in life that grabs your attention. My daughter graduates from college-- although she still needs a couple two credits-- and it makes all the difference.
I worry for her, as I worry for all young people of my acquaintance, from fellow bloggers to people at my gym and work, to her friends. I see trouble, deep deep trouble, ahead.
I guess if I could make a keynote at a graduation, I'd say something like this:
Today, you are glad to be finishing a stairway in your life. You've climbed to a landing, and can take a breath and look back down. Those steps, they looked so tall and steep as you walked up, but you made it. You perservered, and did what you had to and got through.
People, your parents and teachers had expectations of you based on what they knew of you, and they knew you better than you think they did. They didn't know all your secrets, but here's a secret they kept from you, and I'm going to reveal it: they never had to.
All those times you hid that cigarette or joint, the times you wiped the lipstick off before walking in the door, the times you walked quickly past the family room to hide the fact you were a little high, we knew. We didn't have to know the specifics, and we may not have figured out exactly when you did whatever it was that you did, but we were pretty sure you had done stuff.
We knew when you were slacking off your homework and when you were studying frantically because you forgot about a midterm.
We didn't always call you on our suspicions, because that would have set up an adversarial relationship, but we knew.
See, we were students once too. There's a big difference, though. When we grew up, the world was promising us, well, the world. You don't seem to have that promise anymore, but I've got another delightful secret to share with you.
It doesn't matter. The world you learned about growing up, the one you learned about in school and at church or on the ballfield or the Y, in Scouts or down at the mall is not the world you'll end up living in, but it doesn't matter.
It wasn't for your parents or your teachers. It won't be for you.
When I was a kid, baseball players made about $40,000 a year, which was pretty good money in an economy where $100,000 was the estethetic equivalent of a million. But it wasn't enough to stay unemployed in the odd-season. Ballplayers took odd jobs, working as stock brokers or even digging graves. I was a fair athlete. I could have been a Rhodes Scholar if my parents had any inkling that my athletics combined with my grades would have put me in that class, but they chose to keep me from palying sports in school for the most part.
See, they raised me based on the world they knew, and the world they knew was one of poverty and want, one that saw them go days without fresh food, living off bread and soups and stews. They learned from the world they grew up in that a brain was the most valuable asset a person could have and that it ought to be honed to a sharpness that would make a Ginzu knife embarassed.
It would be hard to blame them for missing the turn in fortunes that saw this nation go from a thriving intellectual hotbed to one where Snooki is more admired than Eric Lander. It's as if Greta Garbo would be better remembered than Albert Einstein. They'd never see that coming.
As my life unfolded, it didn't matter that I was reading college textbooks in fourth grade. I mean, it helped, but I didn't end up in an academium. I ended up in the corporate world because I was trying to live the life I thought I should live.
"Should." There's the most dangerous word in the English language. I'm here to tell you that "should" doesn't matter. The experiences you've lived and the values you've been taught up to now are important, even vitally, but you have to remain flexible because some of them won't matter nearly as much as they used to.
What does matter is the two oldest pieces of advice any adult can give you: Gnothi Seauton ( you may have seen this rendered as Nosce te Ipsum) -- Know Thyself-- and "To thine ownself be true."
It took five years out of my life and tens of thousands of dollars to understand what those really mean. I'm going to sum it up for you with a piece of imagery:
When you die, who gets buried in your casket? Not your mom. Not your teachers. Not your spouse or business partners.
You. And you alone. And in the preceding moments, as your eyelids close for the final time, is the spiritual reckoning we all must entertain: who are you?
If you are anyone else than who you are, if you try to be someone else because it's just easier than fighting people's expectations, you will have failed at life.
Once you know who you are, once you get a handle on your basic essence-- and make no mistake, you have the capacity to infinitely surprise yourself, so this is an ongoing process!-- a door will open in your soul, and what you will find is your calling. Getting to this point takes a lot of work, mind you. It's a constant process of auditing yourself and asking difficult questions like "Why? What the hell did I do that for? Is it lunchtime yet?"
Worse, as you evolve (apologies to any evangelicals out there, but you know, facts are stupid things), you change and who you are changes, too. Who you are at twenty is not who you'll be at 35, married with a couple of kids and, one hopes, a mortgage.
So take a few minutes each day to know yourself. Pay attention to the words coming out of your mouth as much as you pay attention to how other people receive those words. Lay back on the grass every so often and just listen to the world around you. In those sights and sounds lie an awful lot of the answers you seek. When something or someone annoys you, ask yourself why. When you feel enormous joy, wrap yourself in it like a blanket and enjoy. Later, you can reflect on why it felt so good (sex with the right person leaps to mind, because it's the right person).
You'll be attracted to some people and things and repelled by others. Figure out why. In those, especially, lie many answers to who you are. Treat your life like a detective story, always asking why you did what you did. A lot of the time, the answer is obvious but not apparent, like the shoe print under the window, but behind a bush.
You want to do this, because you want to follow your heart in life. The most satisfying work you'll ever have is the work you love to do, and you can't know what you love unless you know who you are. This is what the Bard meant by "To thine ownself be true." You can't be anybody else. That would be false, and you can't be true to anyone or anything else until you are true to yourself first.
And if all this sounds like a lot of work and you'd rather give it a miss, that's OK too. You just learned something about yourself and there's nothing wrong with deciding this isn't important, just as it isn't wrong to not want to wear a helmet riding while riding a bike: probably nothing will happen and you'll still enjoy yourself, but in the back of your mind will always linger the concern that you might be missing something. If you can live with that, god bless you. I tried, and ultimately could not.
Let me start to wrap this up, because I can see the champagne bottles shift under your gowns and the nervous glances at your watches: if you can be true to yourself, then nothing and no one will ever be able to stop you.
They may stand in your way, but the harder you work on yourself, the easier it will become to look upon these objects and people as obstacles, not blockades. You can get around or even roll over an obstacle. You just work a little harder. You know all those people who you read about who "overcome"? They do it because they refuse to let themselves be blockaded. They see the obstacles and figure how to get around them.
You'll have friends, true friends, because of who you are, not what you are, and they'll cheer you on without taking an ounce of credit for themselves. This is your life. Take center stage. And in the words of Steve Jobs, "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."
I mean, he only changed the world. You only have to be yourself.