In 2008, I was still (happily) a statistics professor at Lawrence University. During commencement weekend, I gave the baccalaureate address. Just recently, I found my speech, which was never shared on my blog. In general, these words still ring true. So, here's a blast from the past, a view from 10 years ago...
Perhaps some of you have heard of the “six-word memoir” started by SMITH Magazine. SMITH is an online magazine that celebrates storytelling. In 2006, the editors challenged their readers to write six-word memoirs—a short six words to summarize a life. The response was overwhelmingly positive and sometimes deeply personal. The magazine published a book that includes hundreds of these memoirs.
Some of the memoirs are humorous, for example: “One tooth, one cavity, life’s cruel.” “The psychic said I’d be richer.” “Where the hell are my keys?” “College was fun. Damn student loans.” Others of the memoirs describe life’s difficulties: “Learning disability, MIT. Never give up.” “Hard to write poems from prison.” “Widowed. Forging reluctantly forward with faith.” “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends.”
This second set of memoirs addresses topics we all encounter but often don’t discuss—difficulty, death, heartbreak, disease, struggle, depression. In not having the discussion, we isolate ourselves during a time when we might desperately need connection. Life is difficult for everyone. If we struggle, it doesn’t mean we personally did something wrong—it just means we’re living life. And it’s through these difficulties that we grow stronger as a people.
In his translated Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes about the transformative, not necessarily negative, effect of sadness: “You have had many sadnesses, large ones, which passed. And you say that even this passing was difficult and upsetting for you. But please, ask yourself whether these large sadnesses haven’t rather gone right through you. Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad.”
I encourage each of you, within your own comfort zone, to talk about the difficulties and the struggles. To know you aren’t alone. To not compare your difficulties with others. Difficulty is difficulty, and pain is pain. Sylvia Boorstein, a Buddhist teacher and author, talks of an inscription she encountered while on retreat. The words are simple, yet meaningful: “Life is so difficult. How can we be anything but kind?” Let me repeat that: “Life is so difficult. How can we be anything but kind?” Kind to others and kind to ourselves. Just a slight softening during a difficult time. Softening of words, responses, and actions at a time when hardening is often the status quo. This is not to say we should naively ignore inappropriate or damaging behavior by people (ourselves included). But it does say that as a general rule, kindness is helpful. And connection is helpful. Let's have those difficult conversations—both as a sharers and as a listeners.
Some of the other six-word memoirs are about mistakes made and experience gained: “Afraid of everything. Did it anyway.” “Most costly mistakes, learned valuable lessons.” “Happy now that I know myself.” “Learned. Forgot. Better off relearning anyway.”
Another reality of life is that failure, although sobering, is vitally important.Without taking risks, without making mistakes, without occasionally failing, we don’t push our boundaries and gain valuable insight. I know graduation is a time when we celebrate and honor people’s accomplishments, and this is important. But as you think back over your college career, weren’t there failures and mistakes made, and didn’t these make the accomplishments possible and the appreciation of the accomplishments more rich?
As with other difficult things in life, we don’t often talk about failures—we tend to shove them away, perhaps only discussing them years afterward. Yet there's richness in mistakes that can be mined for helpful insights—insights into ourselves, others, and the world. There’s a fine line, though, between learning from our mistakes and wallowing in the negativity of failure. Kindness is again the key. Can we effectively analyze our mistakes through a lens of kindness? Instead of, “Well, I screwed up again,” can we pause and gently ask, “What can I learn from this process?” Additionally, this understanding and non-judgment can be extended to others. We can give others the space to fail and grow and change. What a wonderful gift to give and receive.
Woody Allen once said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” Personally and at a societal level, we need innovation and we’re strengthened by creativity. This kind of creativity does not come from a perfect track record. Expect failures, know everyone fails, listen for the lesson or insight, be kind, and move on.
Happiness, passion, and creativity are the themes of others of the six-word memoirs: “I colored outside of the lines.” “Seventy years, few tears, hairy ears.” “Laughing until I pee my pants.” “Found great happiness in insignificant details.” “I live the perfect imperfect life.”
I encourage us all to do what we love. Spend time doing things we’re passionate about—that get our creative juices flowing. A lovely effect of human variability is that happiness and passion come in very different forms for different people. I get really excited talking with students about statistics. [This was back in 2008. Now I find contentment teaching meditation.] Others of you love playing music or making art or being with children or programming computers or reading literature or gardening. These loves might translate into a paying job or they might simply stay as cherished ways to spend free time.
In his book Earth in Mind, David Orr writes: “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.”
The society in which we live typically defines success by traditional achievements and accomplishments—your grades in school, your advanced degrees, the amount of hours you work, the amount of money you make, your career advancement. Certainly, these are indications of hard and often good work, but they aren’t the only definitions of success. Advances in technology allow us to multitask and be in constant contact with others—checking things off our to-do lists and putting more items on the list. At a time when we're connected to the world through email, cell phones, text messaging, etc., we are often disconnected from ourselves—from our creative thoughts and deep emotions.
It’s important for us all to reconnect with our hearts—how do we want to spend our precious time? Not because we have to or we should or we’re expected to, but because of a strong creative craving from inside us. Sometimes we’re so busy that we don’t even know what we truly want. So we must make some space, some quiet to reconnect and listen to ourselves. This can be difficult in our current society, but it's not impossible. And the more we pause and think and listen and be, the healthier we and our society become.
I challenge us all to redefine what is meant by success. Not to exclude traditional ideas of success, but to add to the definition. Let it also include pursuing our dreams, doing what we love, making and learning from mistakes, talking about difficult experiences, connecting with others, being kind, and really, truly listening. In the words of David Orr, be a storyteller or a healer or a peacemaker Connect with and support your own inner longing, while also creating space for others to do the same.
So what do you think your six-word memoir is? And is it perhaps different from four years ago? Will it again be different in four more years? We all change—from year to year, and sometimes from moment to moment. I think we should embrace and celebrate these changes (what wonderful evidence of the life process).
As I wrote this speech, I thought about and created my own six-word memoirs from various stages of my life. For example, “Love koala bears and Andy Gibb.” (In middle school, the number of koala bear stuffed animals I owned was outnumbered only by the number of Andy Gibb posters on my wall. You students probably don’t know of Andy Gibb, but I can tell you he was a dreamy teen idol who wrote wonderfully cheesy pop singles—“shadow dancing, baby you do it right.”)
A six-word memoir for me in college is “Deeply love volleyball, hate intense pressure.” (I went to Indiana on a full volleyball scholarship. My love of the game was challenged by the intense pressures of winning in the Big Ten. I learned a lot from this experience, and I treasure those memories, but it was difficult at times. Difficult, gratifying. and important.)
My early graduate school experience can be described with the memoir, “Very smart people, do I belong?” (Like most graduate students, I'd done very well in college. In graduate school, though, I felt merely average, surrounded by brilliant people. This was humbling for me, but gradually blossomed into an experience in which I learned about myself and my particular strengths. I found successes in applied coursework, creative solutions, and inspired teaching.)
There are many ways I can currently describe my life. One possible six-word memoir is “Most important thing in life? People.” (My relationships with my husband, my family, my friends, my students—these all easily trump the busyness of daily life. The people are why I love my job. You students are a pleasure to work with in so many ways. And my colleagues are equally engaged, generous, and committed. People, relationships, and connections are what I find most valuable—and this includes my relationship with myself.)
This celebratory weekend is a good time to talk with your friends and family about their six-word memoirs—about their experiences, failures, difficulties, and successes. It’s also a time for personal reflection—how have you changed and grown and what is your current six-word memoir? This is a time to share, listen, laugh, and cry. To be fully present for each of these precious moments.
And, as you proceed with your next steps after Lawrence, I encourage you to
- Stay connected with yourself and others.
- Have difficult conversations.
- Have joyful conversations.
- Pause regularly.
- Listen intently—to yourself and others.
- Take risks.
- Do what you love.
- And be kind.
[Joy's note: Ten years later, relationships are still the most important thing in my life. Some new six-word memoirs for 2017: "Left academia. Found a different calling." "Be brave. Live wholeheartedly. Love well." "Feeling cranky? Get off the computer." "Tell people why you love them." "Sit on the cushion. Find peace."]