Last week was the first time in four years that I graduated a group of seniors. During the final month leading up to graduation, the significance of crossing this threshold with my students grew each day until the moment came and we crossed. It all had a very profound feeling and I was moved by the love and appreciation that I had for them and they for me.
It’s an important thing for us humans to mark occasions, and certainly graduation is an attempt at doing so, but I felt there was more I needed to do aside from simply observing the ceremony, so to each of my seniors I wrote a letter which included advice for living (Darn that human need to feel like we are worthy of being remembered.) I reproduce this advice in no particular order because I think they are worthy of consideration for not only a graduate (college or high school) but for really anyone along life’s journey.
Love the Questions
I want to encourage you as you go through life to remember to love the questions. This phrase comes from the German poet Rilke. He was writing a letter to a much younger poet, about your age, who was wrestling with some of the big questions which life gives us; the kind that has no answers. His advice was to rather than reject the questions or be frustrated and angered by the questions, to love the questions and live the questions, and that by doing so you will one day live yourself into the answers.
We must always keep our ego in check, which is only concerned with itself and forces us to make many poor choices. The difficulty of this advice is that it goes against our nature; of course we want to be important! But like most things in life, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. It also kind of goes against our current society which is obsessed with showing the world what an amazingly interesting life we live, but it’s usually so false, so manufactured. A happy life is one that is lived as authentically as possible. Our ego would have us protect our image to the point that we might harm others in the process, thus alienating ourself which leads to loneliness and unhappiness. The ego wants us to do this because it thinks vulnerability is a weakness.
Life, Problems, and Choices
Life will always present you problems to solve. Life is kind of a jerk that way, but there’s nothing you can do about it; sometimes life sucks. What you can control, however, is who you choose to solve those problems with, so it may sound corny but choose good friends, the kind that when the hell comes, they will walk through it with you.
Losing Your Way and Redemption
At some point in your life you may find that you have lost your way, made some mistakes, or one really big mistake, and end up in what Dante called “The Dark Wood of Error.” When this happens, which it will, remember that it is okay; beauty can be found in mistakes too. In fact, it provides the most fertile ground for something beautiful to grow. We are all screwups. We all make mistakes, so be kind and generous when others disappoint you, for you will need their generosity someday too.
Life is full of contradictions; the more you look for them the more you will see them. There are essentially three types of people regarding contradiction:
- Someone who is completely oblivious to the fact that life is full of contradictions.
- Someone who recognizes that life is full of contradictions but rejects it because it upsets their worldview.
- Someone who recognizes that life is full of contradictions and chooses to embrace it.
The third person lives a happier life ultimately, I think. Either/or or dualistic thinking does not truly reflect the nature of the world and existence. Life is very rarely “this or that” but rather “many.” I do not mean to say that embracing contradiction makes for an easy life; there is no such thing. What I am saying though is that embracing contradiction is a more authentically lived life, which is ultimately a happier life. Beauty in life does not always come in pretty packages or with order, but rather in messiness, the struggle, the work.
Latin for “Remember that you must die.” Sure, it’s a bit morbid, and there are other ways to foster the virtue of humility, but this is one way to help you remember that you aren’t all that. Irish poet Michael Longley said, “Self-importance engraves its own headstone” and it’s so true. A humble life is a happier life.