A little over four years ago, in one of my last articles for Holy Cross’ student newspaper, The Crusader, I offered a reflection – a “graduation message”, if you will – for my fellow Crusaders, the class of 2011.*
Inspired by graduation season, I recently reread it and was reminded of how much my life has changed since then. Now four years into the “real” and working world, long gone are the “all-nighters”, the month long vacations and the clearly defined sense of purpose that studying provides.
What remains, however, is a lesson I had learned and shared at the near end of my college experience:
“I have come to learn and to believe that in every met expectation and unforeseen surprise, every accomplishment and failure, in every loss and gain, every victory and defeat, in every mistake and intention, and in every realized dream and unfulfilled hope, there is always a lesson – always an opportunity to learn something about yourself or about life, and always something to take away and remember for the future.
“Sometimes, as I have come to learn, the lesson stares us square in the face, other times it is more obscure and requires a bit more awareness and faith. But, if anything, I have come to learn that it is always there, waiting to be discovered and acknowledged.”
I still believe this to be true. I might add, however, that it is equally important to remember that life is a continual process of growth and discovery – and that the moment we think we have “figured it all out” or learned all our lessons is typically when life will remind us, with a gentle touch or forceful push, that much remains for us to learn.
My friend and I used to joke throughout our four years at Holy Cross that “one day everything will be ok.” It became our secret six-word mantra the two of us shared, helping us to cope with the endless pressure and stress of an intense academic environment, not to mention our sometimes challenging social dilemmas.
Little did we know how mistaken we were – not in our youthful optimistic attitude, but in our naive belief that once we graduated and settled into a job, once we “made it on our own,” all would be right with the world, our fear and anxiety dissipating into eternal contentment.
In fact, it was a little over a year ago while talking on the phone that we laughed at our “six letter phrase” and agreed that while some days can feel like that “aha” moment, there will always be days that leave one feeling troubled and ill at ease.
But, it’s not that I don’t think we can ever find peace, joy or contentment. On the contrary, I think that the realization and acceptance of life as a journey – as something that we can never fully understand, master or even control – may actually be the first important step toward finding those very things.
As easy as it is for us to convince ourselves that “once I get to this point…” or “if only I could…” or “maybe if I do this…” then “everything will be ok”, it is a dangerous, crippling mentality and perpetual cycle of thought that prevents us from fully realizing that happiness is not some outside force that comes to us, but is, rather, something we must create and choose for ourselves.
Our focus, then, should not be on trying to “figure it all out.” It should be on finding ways to be more accepting of the place we are currently in – and looking for lessons that we can call upon for guidance in the future.
There are certainly days (weeks, months, maybe even years) when everything just seems right, when things have fallen into place and are running seamlessly. But, not all days are going to be like that. Nor should we expect them to. And that’s ok.
And so, four years wiser, my message to this year’s graduates is this:
You will likely face, in the coming months and years, a series of circumstances, decisions, questions and doubts that will test your confidence in yourself and those around you.
You will likely be met with challenges you may have expected, and those that you could never have anticipated – and while you will be able to successfully navigate some on your own, others will likely require the guidance and perspective of a loving parent or friend.
You will undoubtedly have moments of success and celebration, moments of failure and discouragement and maybe moments of utter despair.
You may even come to question yourself, your relationship with others and your role in the world around you.
And you will probably spend a good amount of time trying to figure out what exactly you want to do, or should do with your life.
But, instead of looking at these as obstacles – as something you have to suffer through in order to be “ok” – relish them. Accept them. Embrace them. And…learn from them. Only then can we realize and accept that we are the arbiters of our life and our contentment, and that everything can be ok right now if we allow it to be.
As the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke – recognized as “one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets” – so eloquently wrote:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Congratulations to all 2015 graduates! Live your questions.
This piece was also published on The Huffington Post.
Be sure to check out our post on our inspirational page, Armour of Light: “Life Wisdom For the Places You’ll Go.”
*As it is no longer available on The Crusader website, please see below to read my full article from May 6, 2011:
The Expected, The Unexpected and Everything In Between:
An Honest Reflection on My Four Years at Mount St. James, With a Special Message for the Class of 2011
Nearly four years ago, I came into my first year of college, as I’m sure many freshmen do, with great expectations, hopes and dreams. Like anyone embarking on a new journey, the fear and uncertainty that I had were dispelled by the prospect of meeting new people, the desire to take advantage of new opportunities, and the excitement, encouragement and hope that comes from being given the chance to have a fresh, new start.
But, although I wish I could say that my expectations, hopes and dreams were met, that everything went according to plan, and that college was what I expected it to be, I would not be painting an accurate picture. Because, the truth is, in my experience, almost nothing went according to plan, college wasn’t anything like I thought it would be, and although I will cherish the fun, exciting and memorable times that I had, I certainly wouldn’t classify these years as the “best four years of my life,” as so many people often do.
Rather, these last four years have been some of the most confusing, chaotic and downright challenging years I have yet to experience, as they have been filled with an endless and unexpected amount of twists and turns, ups and downs, changes and revisions.
In fact, four years ago, if you had told me that I would be a history major, that I would take a leave of absence second semester of my sophomore year, that I would not study abroad in Italy my junior year, and that I would not be marching with the class of 2011 on graduation day, I can confidently say that there is absolutely no way I would have believed you.
As someone who came into college thinking I’d be an English major, then a psychology major, then a religious studies major, history was never something I’d ever considered majoring in – let alone ever really been interested in – until my mother suggested it.
As someone who came into college thinking that I would graduate, like most students, in four years, I was again surprised when I found myself reluctantly packing up my things second semester sophomore year and leaving my classes, friends and RA position behind.
As someone who came into college utterly convinced that I would be spending my junior year abroad in Italy – I had, after all, made sure Holy Cross had a study abroad program in Italy – I was again thrown for a loop when – after having packed a year’s worth of belongings into two 50 pound suitcases, flown across the Atlantic, and spent a week under the hot Italian sun – I returned home in shock after one of the most disastrous experiences of my life, only to realize that I should have listened to my gut in the first place.
And as someone, who like most students, envisions themselves on graduation day receiving their hard-earned diploma in front of their classmates, friends and family, throwing up their hat in joy and relief, I was again surprised to find that this would not be the case – at least not this May.
But, as surprising and unexpected as all these things were, I think what has been most unexpected is the amount of things I have learned in four years. As odd as it might be to hear a college student say she is shocked at how much she has learned, I shamelessly admit that it is true. Because, while I came to college excited to learn, prepared to study and determined to become actively engaged in my academics, what I wasn’t prepared to learn about was life – about the twists and turns, ups and downs, the good the bad, the joys and sorrows – namely, the journey that each one of us is on.
So, while I have spent four years in a rigorous and stimulating academic environment – reading, writing, researching and learning more than I knew there was to learn – I think what I have learned most is that, in life, there is always something to learn and always something to gain from each and every experience and circumstance we find ourselves in.
In other words, I have come to learn and to believe that in every met expectation and unforeseen surprise, every accomplishment and failure, in every loss and gain, every victory and defeat, in every mistake and intention, and in every realized dream and unfulfilled hope, there is always a lesson – always an opportunity to learn something about yourself or about life, and always something to take away and remember for the future.
Sometimes, as I have come to learn, the lesson stares us square in the face, other times it is more obscure and requires a bit more awareness and faith. But, if anything, I have come to learn that it is always there, waiting to be discovered and acknowledged.
So, before I end my last article of the semester, I want to offer you – especially you seniors – a few words by Nelson Mandela that I believe are both insightful and appropriate given the four years you have spent here and the many years you have in front of you:
“I have walked that long road to freedom, I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way, but I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger; for my long walk is not yet ended.”
To each member of the graduating class of 2011, I wish you peace, joy and happiness in all that you choose to do. May you take the time you deserve to celebrate your achievements, reflect on your experience, and rest your head before continuing the next phase in your own, unique journey. May each of you “go forth and set the world on fire,” always remembering to be “men and women for others” and never forgetting to look for the lesson in each experience and circumstance you face.
But, perhaps more importantly, and put a bit more simply, as Garrison Keillor says on “The Writer’s Almanac,”: “Be well. Do good work. And keep in touch.”