Writing a Commencement speech is like writing your eulogy: You have to nail down in 10 minutes or less a succinct message that represents your entire life. It’s best to capture all the sweat and tears, the laughter and sorrow, life’s drama in a few tight, coherent paragraphs.
Having been asked to give one in May to my alma mater, Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, I have been studying Commencement addresses of the pros: J.K. Rowling, Anna Quindlen, Oprah Winfrey, and Steve Jobs. And here’s what all of them had in common: suffering.
Yep. The primary theme in each of these essays is that suffering is the rubble on which success is built. I’m sure that you can bypass suffering altogether, but then you’d have a rather boring Commencement speech. I’ve read some of those too.
It’s the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: “Life is suffering.”
I’m very comfortable with that.
Because I agree with that statement wholeheartedly.
However, not everyone does. In writing my speech I came across some very different philosophies. One friend told me that my early draft was depressing. “This is not going to inspire college kids,” she said. “It’s pretty much saying that life is one hard test after another, but you get lucky every so often with a moment of happiness.”
“Yep,” I said. “That’s accurate, don’t you think?”
“No. I don’t,” she responded. “I would say that life is mostly good with an occasional moment of hardship.”
“Wow. Really? What kind of drugs are you taking?”
So I revised my essay it to be a perkier piece, spreading sunshine over the 10 minutes. I devoted paragraphs to the many joys of life: beautiful sunsets, babies born, weddings, yada yada through a little scrapbook of happy events. Life is one fun adventure and you are lucky because you are just beginning yours!
But somewhere in the process I lost my voice, my story, and the wisdom I earned in the psych ward. Not on peaceful walks with my dogs. Not while kayaking the beautiful fingers of the Chesapeake. All the good stuff came from intensely painful moments back when I was begging God for a malignant tumor. Those times became the irritating grains within the oyster shell that emerged as pearls.
Maybe I am a pessimist, but I do think life is pretty damn hard. Some days are easier, of course, but most, still, are pretty hard … If I’m not making myself swim 150 laps in the morning and practicing happiness exercises to better access my prefrontal cortex, (home of rational thought) then I’m putting a big old harness on the amygdala (fear center) of the brain, or trying to put the little almond shaped bugger down for a nap.
To be perfectly honest, I am always struggling with some kind of distorted thought, from jumping to conclusions to black and white thinking. I now have a handy dandy tool set with which I can untwist the suckers, but it’s work. Hard work. Every day. Not to say that I don’t believe that life is full of joy and hope, light and goodness. I believe very much in transcendence and redemption. But pain is still underneath it all. And then I read the newspaper and realize that I am among the most fortunate. If I struggle on a daily basis, then think of what a woman in Congo must feel like.
Back before I wrote Beyond Blue, I suspected I was alone with this jaded view. But the situations and problems of my readers have truly humbled me. Especially those cursed by chronic pain or some kind of chronic illness on top of depression and anxiety. For them, every day presents one challenge after another. And no, I don’t think they brought it all on themselves. I think those that say such things should take a course in compassion.
Yes, with meditation and yoga, and effective cognitive behavioral therapy and proper nutrition we can rewire the pathways in the brain to be more optimistic. The brain is plastic! By doing so we can convert unconscious messages of pain to ones of gratitude.
But at the end of the day, I’m still going to say life is suffering.
M. Scott Peck begins his classic, “The Road Less Traveled” with three powerful words: “Life is difficult.”
And I’m okay with that. For real. I’m okay if the next 40 years are as hard as the first 40 have been. Because what I want more than happiness or bliss is peace, and I do get a great sense of peace when I can turn my pain into something good, to transform it as best I can to service.
From the other Commencement speakers I admire:
Turn your wounds into wisdom. You will be wounded many times in your life. You’ll make mistakes. Some people will call them failures but I have learned that failure is really God’s way of saying, “Excuse me, you’re moving in the wrong direction.” –Oprah Winfrey
Something really, really bad happened to me, something that changed my life in ways that, if I had my druthers, it would never have changed at all. And what I learned from it is what, today, seems to be the hardest lesson of all. I learned to love the journey, not the destination. I learned that it is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get. I learned to look at all the good in the world and to try to give some of it back because I believed in it completely and utterly. –Anna Quindlen
Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends who value was truly above the price of rubies. The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. –J. K. Rowling
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. –Steve Jobs