Giving unsolicited advice is silly, but just for today, I’m going to do it anyway. Graduates, especially, probably have much better things to do than reading my advice, such as finishing those final papers, basking in the sunshine, or enjoying free food at a succession of graduation parties. No matter. I’m going to unleash my hard-earned wisdom on the world whether anyone reads it or not.
First — save the world.
The world is a dreadfully serious mess, with global warming and racism and kidnapping of 300 girls in Nigeria and homelessness and poverty and all the rest. It looks overwhelming and depressing and hopeless.
It is not hopeless.
When I entered high school, segregation was still the law, not just practice, in large swaths of the country. When my beloved Aunt Helen married Uncle Chuck, this marriage of a white woman and a black man was illegal in some states, and dangerous in many more. By the time I graduated from high school, the Supreme Court had declared that “a statutory scheme … to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
My high school and college years saw huge changes in the status and rights of people of color, of women and of the poor. Those changes came because of hard work and demonstrations and protests and letters to the editor and politicking by many of us. Despite the persistence of racism and sexism and classism, the world you live in is very different, and much better, than the world in which I grew up.
The world is a mess, but it can get better, and you can and must be part of changing it for the better.
Second — take care of yourself.
Eat well. Exercise. Get out in the fresh air every day, sunshine or rain. Spend time with friends who bring out your best self. Walk, pray, meditate, do yoga — whatever it takes to de-stress and calm your mind. You are important. Take care of yourself.
Find work that you love. This work might be your day job, and I hope you are lucky enough that it is. If not, the work you love might be the writing or gardening or tutoring or baking cookies that you do after hours. Having some kind of productive work that you love is part of taking care of yourself.
Third — do something for others, every day.
Student loans may limit how much money you can give to charity and/or to the guy flying a sign at the off ramp. You can still give something to someone. A new job or a job search may limit your volunteer time. You can still do something. (Writing a letter to the editor or to a legislator takes twenty minutes max.)
And then there’s daily life. Remember that one teacher whose dismissive “You’ll never amount to anything” still rankles? And the other one, whose challenges made you try harder and whose hard-won approval made you feel like you could do great things? They made a difference in your life. You also make a difference in the lives you touch every day.
As Arthur C. Brooks advised in his New York Times column to grads:
“Examine your conscience each night by asking not what others say about your work, but rather by asking yourself whether you believe your work today benefited those with less than you. Make sure your honest answer is yes.”
When I was much younger, I consulted a mentor because I was puzzled about the Gospel mandate to “sell all you have and give the money to the poor.” Obviously, no one did that, but I thought I should probably be living with less money and giving more to the poor.
My mentor advised me to be “as poor as you can be happy.” That is, the key is finding a balance. Some people need to spend more money and time on themselves, and others can get by with less. All of us need to find the right balance — in saving the world, taking care of ourselves, and doing something for others.