Congratulations, Colorado graduates. This month, you are graduating from high school or college or trade school, and soon many of you will find yourselves wearing some cheap-silk robe thing and a wackadoodle hat, which you’d never be caught dead in otherwise. On top of this atrocity, you will also be subjected to an ancient tradition, the commencement-day address, which likely involves some anecdotes and a plea for a donation of money to your school.
I’m sorry. My own two excellent children graduate from college mid-May. From those tiny toes, to elementary-school cupcake runs, to first dances and first kisses, to high school homework extravaganzas, to this big moment.
And it is a momentous moment, to be sure, but mainly I’ve found myself dreading attending their graduation. Everyone is dreading every graduation, at all times, everywhere. Mainly, I’m hoping their commencement speech is short and better than whatever I heard, since I don’t remember it at all; what I remember was picking at my fingernails.
This is why I wanted to offer a commencement address that actually would have helped me—and which I truly hope helps them get through this mess:
One. Your life will be a catastrophe. It may already be a catastrophe, and perhaps you think it will clear up. Or perhaps you have avoided it thus far, but you won’t for much longer. Your life will become more and more of a catastrophe. And every time it looks like it might calm down, it will dive into catastrophe-ness again.
I’d like to suggest that is how it should be. Catastrophe is good.
In the movie “Zorba the Greek,” in one of the best cinematic moments ever, Zorba, who is full of zest for life, tells a young, boring friend that he’s learned to embrace all of life: the joys, the sorrows, the wife, the kids, the mess, the “full catastrophe.”
Learning to accept (and actually enjoy) the chaos of life is the lesson the boring guy in the movie needs to learn. And frankly, that has been perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned. I used to want things to go my way. I wanted to be heading in the direction of calm and quiet. I wanted the house clean, my politicians to work for what I believed, my degree to land me a job. I wanted love to be easy. I wanted to be the great American author.
But no. This is not what happens. The sooner I realized that catastrophe was the norm, I could embrace it. If your main goal is a clean and orderly life, you will not only be boring, you will be wasting your life wishing for the impossible. Embrace the mess.
Two. Your body. I humbly suggest you take care of it best you can. It can be surprisingly fragile—and one fall, one car crash, one overdose, and your life and dreams can morph in very painful ways. Exercise, sleep, don’t drive drunk. Do floss, because teeth become very expensive. In fact, start a fund for those teeth. No one ever says they’re sorry about this basic, fundamental catastrophe of existence, so I will: I am sorry you are mortal and that our bodies are crazy-fragile.
Three: If you choose to get married, or have a lifelong partner, try to pick the right person because nothing in your life will feel quite right if you’ve picked the wrong one. And even if you do pick the right one, you will still spend some time worrying that they are actually the wrong one, and that you are missing out. The tricky part is deciding. This particular decision is one of the most important you will make in terms of your future happiness—and yet it is a decision that few reflect upon enough (probably because, let’s face it, no one is thinking correctly when in the throes of love).
Four: Children. Some people can’t have them, and other people have them and don’t want them, some people want them and have them at the wrong moment or right moment. It’s hard. If you choose to have children, I suggest you wait until it’s a choice, and that you’re prepared, although biology will do its best to interfere. Careers, you can change. Locations, you can change. Life partners, even those you can change. But I’d argue you can’t really change your state of parenthood. Or, you just shouldn’t—your moral compass should tell you to stay responsible to a child, even if you don’t want to. Which means it’s very hard, and most definitely painful, to have children and decide you wanted a different sort of life, or vice versa. No one ever talks about this. But here’s the truth: Kids can be a catastrophe. Not having kids can also be a catastrophe. It takes some hard work to figure out which catastrophic path is best for you.
Five: Love your work. I empathize: It’s harder than one thinks to find a job that pays money and feeds your soul. Here’s a cliché that strikes me as true: If your heart is in what you do, you’ll probably succeed. If it isn’t, you probably won’t. And I would add this: Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life or dreams.
Six: Our brains are catastrophes. They can give nutso advice. In the TV series “Ted Lasso,” there’s a great moment when someone complains that he can’t control his emotions, after all. Lasso replies, full of irony, “Then, by all means, you should let them control you!” As in, don’t do that. In other words, the thoughts and emotions you have can be controlled, or at least observed and taken for what they are, which are usually a set of biased expectations and hormones. The brain is a self-centered and unpredictable monster.
One of the greatest discoveries of my life has been this: Education (what you have been doing for several years, and which is basically about ‘teaching you how to think’) is actually the start of a much better idea, which is learning how to live. Learning how to exercise control over how and what you think—and your subsequent actions. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to, and then, importantly, how you act.
Seven: The virtue of stubbornness. When I graduated, I set out to be a writer, and I have turned out to be a writer, and that’s probably not because of any great intellectual and artistic gift I have. No. Ask my kids. I’m just quietly, good-naturedly stubborn.
Eight: Failure. We all experience it, and it hurts and makes us angry, and worst of all, sometimes makes us feel shame. It sucks. I just hope you’re able to sit with it, wait it out, try again. Embrace it for the full catastrophe it is; realize that you are human.
Nine: Stay human. And kind to others. When a friend is hurting, try to come up with something truly comforting to say or do. Try to deescalate situations. Take the higher road. Remember that people are often having lousy days. Try to forgive. Try to be creative in your kindnesses to others. Don’t forget to lead the way with this; it’s a mistake to think other people are doing it.
Ten: My guess is that you do need to be of consequence. Have a purpose. Otherwise, I think, you’ll be depressed. Annie Dillard, who is a great nature writer, asks that writers “write as if they are dying.” Because of course, we all are, and we don’t want to waste anyone’s time being trivial. We’re all dying. We live a full catastrophe, and then we die. So in the meantime, we try to do real things. Be ethical. Be curious. Believe in the power of beauty. Think beyond ourselves and be of some use.
Those, my friends, are a few things I wish someone had told me instead of asking for money or singing the alma mater. Had I actually listened (and maybe I wouldn’t have), I could have saved myself some time, heartache, bad decisions and confusion.
I hope you had a few good times to remember as you venture forth into your own chaotic mess. And when you find that your eyes hurt from reading reports, and your butt hurts from sitting in meetings, and your blood pressure is high because you’ve been dealing with some dumdums, and your kids (if you have them) are crying, I hope you can look inside yourself and find a glimmer that says, “Ah, that’s the FULL CATASTROPHE! I recognize it! I’m home. And it is, actually, good.”
Congratulations sincerely, graduates. You did a good, real thing.
Laura Pritchett extends special congrats to Jake and Ellie, especially as they sit during the ceremony. She’s director of the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University, and loves living her Full Catastrophe life.
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