For parents, graduation is like a welcome gasp of relief sucked through teeth clinched tight in terror. So far, so good. But now what? At a time when it feels as though the only certainty is uncertainty, parents understandably worry about what the future holds for their children. Will they fare well at college? Will they land a good job? Will they enjoy success as they strike out on their own?
It’s natural, too, for parents to want to offer advice to their children when they graduate. We just can’t help ourselves. Parents believe they want to impart the wisdom gained from life experiences to their offspring, if nothing else to save them the considerable time and trouble of making the same dumb mistakes. Children complain, maybe rightly so, that parents just want to keep telling them what to do far beyond the point at which they’re willing to keep listening.
As is the case with so many things, the truth is found somewhere in between. And this is it. Parents don’t really expect to reveal some profound meaning of life. They don’t even expect their children to listen. By offering advice, they’re actually reciting an earnest prayer that what they say will come true. Brush your teeth! Save your money! Change your underwear! And here are the most important prayers of all:
Be safe! Be happy! Parents repeat this over and over like a mantra in the hope it all comes true.
I draw on personal experience here as the proud father of two sons, the youngest a Grand Junction High School graduate headed to American University this fall and the oldest a senior at Rice University who’ll graduate himself next year. While I can only speak for myself, I strongly suspect other parents feel the same way.
So here’s my prayer — our collective prayer — for high school and college graduates everywhere.
While past performance isn’t necessarily an indicator of future success, we remain confident you’ll continue to fare well in your new endeavors. If, indeed, greater challenges inspire in you greater achievements, there’s nothing stopping you from accomplishing whatever you sincerely desire. It’s not so much a question of if you’ll succeed, but whether or not you truly want to and what you’re willing to sacrifice in the process. Consider what the poet Emily Dickinson had to say on the subject: “We never know how high we are till we are asked to rise. And then if we are true to form our statures touch the sky.”
Pursue your dreams and remain steadfast in your confidence to make those dreams come true. We’re not naive enough to think that wishing alone turns dreams into reality. Hard work and plenty of it turns dreams into reality. But it also takes steadfast belief the improbable, even the seemingly impossible, is not only possible, but plausible. Remember the great achievements once deemed impossible: manned flight, a cure for polio and rock ’n’ roll music. Thankfully, there’ve always been those who’ve thought otherwise: the Wright brothers. Jonas Salk and Buddy Holly.
Even as you pursue your dreams, pursue your passions. Grow up to be what you want to be. Those who discover and pursue their callings lead the most productive and gratifying lives. As you go about discovering your calling, though, don’t be afraid to change your mind or go in radically different directions.
Don’t wait for what you might believe to be a more opportune time to try something different or test your limits.
At all costs, don’t wait until the eager anticipation of adventure is replaced by the bitter regret for opportunities lost. Never be afraid to try hard and fail miserably anyway. If at first you don’t succeed, you’ll invariably learn something that will ensure success if not the next time, then the time after that or, more likely still, at some distant moment when you least expect the revelation.
Most bright young people just like you start out anxious to change the world, to make a difference. Tragically, far too many end up sadly disillusioned by the erosive forces of life. All too soon, minor inconveniences become insurmountable obstacles and life itself becomes an act of jumping through an endless succession of hoops. The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes lamented the situation this way: “Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them.” The philosopher Henry David Thoreau described a fate even more regrettable: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” The alternative? Thoreau encouraged this: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”
While this might be cliché, it’s also crucial. Polonius was right: To thine own self be true. You know better than anyone who you are. Don’t try to be anyone else, imagined or otherwise. And don’t let anyone else try to define you, either.
Finally, remember, graduates, that your parents love you. Always have, always will. Nothing — and we mean absolutely nothing — will ever change the way we feel.
And if we offer you advice, know that it’s really a prayer. Be safe! Be happy!