Life is difficult. It's also wondrous and beautiful. In her poem, “Buddha’s dogs,” Susan Brown realizes, “I’ve been chasing the same thoughts like dogs around the same park most of my life.” (Profound insight. We’re addicted to thoughts, which are real but not often true.) She ends the poem with these lines: “I wake up for the forgiveness meditation, the teacher saying, never put anyone out of your heart, and the heart opens and knows it won’t last and will have to open again and again, chasing those dogs around and around in the sun then cloud then sun.”
I received a simple letter in the mail: my retirement savings will be transferred to a new company. My first reaction: fear. Fear of change and uncertainty. Since my mom's death I feel a heaviness in my chest—pain that feels solid; more solid than anything I've ever experienced. My first reaction: fear. What if this pain never ends?
The weekend before my mom died, I attended a silent meditation retreat. (Not yet knowing of mom's illness, I set an intention: bring loving-presence and compassion wherever I go. This intention serves me daily.) On the retreat-center wall was a quote from Pema Chodron: "We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."
This morning I gave the baccalaureate address as part of commencement weekend at Lawrence University. It was a joyous and wholehearted experience, for which I'm very grateful. (If you'd rather watch than read my speech go here and forward in 33.5 minutes, where Tony's introduction begins.)
Included below is my speech, "Your One Wild and Precious Life":
I was both honored and touched when the class officers asked me to give this address. Particularly because this is my last year at Lawrence. I assure you, there's no drama; no relocation; no upset; no regrets. I've thoroughly enjoyed my 14 years at Lawrence. I've treasured my time with students, both in and out of the classroom. My colleagues are top-notch. I still believe Lawrence is a place where educational magic happens. But it's time for me to change career paths—completely. Away from statistics; away from academics.
So I can proudly say I am part of the class of 2013. I'm graduating right along with you. And, perhaps like you, I have no idea what I'll do after graduation. (But fortunately for me, I have no need to move back in with my parents.) My talk germinated from this unusual, yet rich vantage point. I viscerally understand that graduation holds both freedom and fear; both sadness and excitement. Graduation holds uncertainty—a place we humans find especially difficult to inhabit.
The title of my talk is the ending line of the Mary Oliver poem "The Summer Day"—a beautiful description of attentiveness that ends with the query: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" That's a powerful question. Indeed, life is wild—it's unpredictable and occasionally untamed. Yet life is precious—it's both fragile and utterly priceless. And of these wild and precious lives, we each have only one.
This stark reality hit home for a palliative-care giver named Bronnie Ware. Her patients shared their joys and sorrows. She began to hear the same regret repeated: "I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." In Ware's words, "This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made." Choices. At times we feel backed into a corner, responsibilities and expectations high, yet that's precisely when the idea of choice is important. Choice opens space in the room. It opens space in our lives.
But how do we see our choices? How do we live a life true to ourselves? Before we can live our truth, we must know our truth. We must know ourselves. Yet the inner journey is not often supported by society. Our attention-grabbing culture of gizmos, texting, and social media encourages rapid-fire reaction, rather than reflective response. In the audience, some of you are probably texting right now: "at bacc. service" "joy jordan" "yeah kinda deep" "downtown later?" I don't judge you for this, I simply note we humans are habituated to distract. We distract with technology, work, alcohol, busy schedules, rumination about the past, plans for the future. Why? Because the inner journey is hard.
Spending time alone with yourself and really listening means you'll see the good, the bad, and the ugly. You'll see love and gratitude, but you'll also see grief and shame. You'll see your kind heart, but you'll also see anger and judgment. We're habituated, by fear, to run from these darker emotions, as if we aren't strong enough to investigate that territory. But if you want to live a life true to yourself, you must step through the fear.
In her book, "When Things Fall Apart," meditation teacher Pema Chodron tells an interesting story about fear: "Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn't want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, 'May I have permission to go into battle with you?' Fear said, 'Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.' Then the young warrior said, 'How can I defeat you?' Fear replied, 'My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.' In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear."
I appreciate the truth of this story. I've often had fear close to my face, speaking with urgency. Fear begs for a quick reaction rather than a thoughtful response. Yet, if we take a pause; if we give ourselves a few moments of reflection, then we can see through fear. If you don't do what fear says, fear has no power. Notice this comes back to choice: if you choose not do what fear says, you are free.
Last fall I decided to leave academics; to give up tenure; to relinquish the comfort zone of structured school; to leave my PhD training in statistics. In this process, I did serious battle with fear. I also witnessed the changing nature of a life true to myself. I've spent the last few years mindful of my daily work life—paying attention to my choices, my internal habits (which follow me regardless of career), my energy level, my enjoyment. I wondered if I could rearrange my work day and my priorities so a vocation that once brought me great joy could still be a true path. But I found exhaustion, repetition, and waning enthusiasm. My greatest contentment increasingly came from one-on-one conversations with students about life, not statistics. The tiredness I felt could not be restored by positive classroom energy or quiet sabbaticals. I was cooked. As deeply as I care about the Lawrence community, I knew I needed to move on. This life was no longer true to me.
And it's important to note this decision-making process took great attention; great awareness. In "The Summer Day," Mary Oliver illustrates, within nature, this kind of sharp awareness. The first half of the poem includes keen observations about a grasshopper. I begin midway through "The Summer Day," just as the grasshopper (referred to as "she") leaves the reader:
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
"I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention." How many of us really know how to pay attention? To live a life true to yourself you must understand your own heart, listen to your own voice, uncover activities that bring you alive, identify your core values. And continue this process indefinitely, since the path true to you will naturally wind and meander. If you listen to your internal compass as regular practice, then you won't get lost along the path. There is no "right choice" for the rest of your life. There are many good choices. If you pay attention to where you are in this moment (not where others think you should be), then you're on a good path; a true path.
Yet living in this fashion puts you in a vulnerable position. If I ask you graduates to consider this risk, I should first share with you my uncertain situation. In September, I will not have a paycheck. For the first time in my life, I do not have a plan. In fact, I've purposefully created this space. I don't want to leap at the next thing that might bring temporary safety, yet no lasting fulfillment. I don't yet know what I am outside of academics. I love to write, take photographs, share difficult truths, deeply connect with people. Can I make a career from some mixtures of these loves? I don't know. Will I fail somewhere along this journey? Absolutely. I’ll make mistakes. I’ll feel doubt. I’ll learn. Will people judge and second-guess me? Yes. Some people will call me irresponsible or idealistic. Am I scared? Every single day. Yet I also feel completely alive. I feel an energy resonate within me—an excitement for what comes next. And most importantly, I trust in myself and my gifts. I will find another vocation that lights up my heart.
When I announced my resignation, I received three types of responses: "I'm surprised, but actually not that surprised," "I’m really sad for Lawrence, but happy for you," and "I admire your honesty and bravery." The last response amazed me the most. It's what allowed me to see the cultural undercurrent of a divided life. Circumstances can make us feel as if we have no choices. External and internal forces sometimes lead us down a safe, yet unfulfilling path. Like Bronnie Ware's patients, we put off dreams until later. Why? At least partially because declaring dreams makes us vulnerable. What if we declare a dream—something close to our heart—and then it fails? Our fear stops us—it talks rapidly and flails its arms in our face. But think of the flip-side: what if we live our entire life without openness to dreams or without making choices that correspond to what we most value? Recall our lives are both wild and precious. Let them be wild, yet also honor the preciousness of each moment. In this way, you are laid bare, but in the undisclosed company of many others.
Over 9 million people have watched Brene Brown’s TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” She talks about vulnerability, shame, and taking risks. These are topics our society squelches in many ways. Our current level of societal discourse (e.g., news, social media, politics) is often judgmental, not open to vulnerability. So there's an underlying feeling of uneasiness. People recognize they want to be true to themselves, take risks, make changes, yet it doesn't feel safe. But someplace deep in our hearts we believe the words of Brown: "Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love."
To be brave is really to be vulnerable. It's not brave or courageous if we don't expose some part of ourselves. And in doing so, we battle fear. Instead of blindly following fear's urgent voice, we pause, reflect, and listen to our own voice, not that of fear. I think the more brave acts we witness—even small ones—the more courage we gain to tell our stories, be ourselves, and share our passions. The reality is we're all vulnerable. And that real-ness is often what connects us. Whether we're artists struggling to find a meaningful job, students happily attending graduate school, or people re-evaluating life choices after many years, we are connected. We all face fear; we all want to be happy while being true to ourselves.
So, class of 2013, I have some radical suggestions for you: sit in silence with yourself; identify your core values; recognize your choices; pay attention to life—the successes and failures; turn off the television; actively listen to people, including yourself; if you aren't happy, make a change; take a walk without your cell phone; respond instead of react; leave space in your daily schedule; tell your story; stop texting “YOLO” and actually experience your life.
But don't do these things because I, the new-agey professor, tell you or because they seem hip or green. Do all these things so you can know yourself, live intentionally, battle fear, and understand the life that is most true for you (even as, especially as, it changes throughout the years). And whatever you do with this wild and precious life, remember it is yours. Family, friends, and society will give advice, make judgments, and provide support, but the life you lead must be your own.
My students will recognize this mantra: you are not your grade. You are also not your job or your title or your number of friends on Facebook. Your self-worth is not connected to these externals. You are all worthy, as is. And you decide how to live life true to yourself. You have choices—important choices. Because how you spend your moments is how you spend your days is how you spend your one precious life. Make it count; make it real; pay attention; start today, in this moment. Live your life, and know I'm living my own life right beside you.
[Special thanks to my great editing trio: Dad, Mark, & Miriam]