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It’s about 5 p.m.
In an hour or so, I have the privilege of speaking to a group of bright high school seniors and their parents. It’s an interesting group for me.
Usually, when I’m given a chance to speak, it’s to a group of people in my age group who share the same professional interests. So tonight is a bit of a challenge.
I’m not sure I’m prepared, but I’m going anyway.
I’ve tried to find something I thought would be meaningful to everyone in the room. It’s not that I want to be all things to all people; I just don’t want them to stop listening before I quit talking. Plus, it’s a chance to give them all a gift: the gift of thinking differently about their lives.
So I thought I’d share it here too—maybe it will resonate with you.
I will tell them that we are all painters of a sort. That we all paint on the canvas of our lives. And that some of us have a lot less time to paint than others, so we should paint carefully and deliberately.
I will tell them to be kind. This world, so full of tribal battles and both social and mass media that thrives on dividing us, needs more kindness. It needs us to be kind to people who hurt us, even when we’ve been betrayed. And it needs us to be kind when we are afraid. I think that’s the hardest time to be kind—when we’re afraid.
I will also tell them to be kind to themselves when they are afraid, when they fail, and when the world seems upside down. I will tell them we don’t have to believe everything someone else believes to treat them with kindness. And we don’t have to allow ourselves to be mistreated or taken advantage of, but we can be kind in big and small ways. I think, maybe, if we can all be kind in small ways we can learn to be kind in the big ways.
I will tell them to be determined, because sometimes life is difficult. We must deal with the trials of lost jobs, lost opportunities, bodies that betray us, and a myriad other challenges. But we can be determined. We can be determined to not be identified by our failures—they are experiences, not who we are. We can be determined to ask for help when we need it.
Determination isn’t always easy. I’ve found times in my own life when I just wanted to go off the grid and not face life head on. The problem with that strategy is that wherever I go, I take myself with me. But we are meant for relationships, and I like hot showers and clean sheets, both of which I’m fortunate to have. Being determined means doing things even when we are hurting and afraid.
I will tell them to be bold—to stand for something. I will tell them that if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. I will remind them it’s important to recognize the privileges they have all had in life simply because most of them have been born into far better circumstances than most of the planet. I will tell them that being bold will sometimes cause people to reject them. And I will tell them that being bold doesn’t mean it’s okay to be a jerk—boldness rooted in humility is powerful. I will tell them to be bold enough to forgive and bold enough to be kind.
I will tell them—and perhaps this is the most difficult thing of all—to be themselves. To be poets and musicians and artists, or to cure cancer, take us to Mars, or stop the epidemics of abuse of women and children. I will tell them that being themselves means they have to be willing to disappoint people sometimes. I will remind them that none of them are too old to start being themselves.
I will ask them to remember the words of Henry David Thoreau, to “be resolutely and faithfully what you are.” I will tell them that not everyone will appreciate that, but that they can invest in their life or they can spend it. And that changing their small piece of the world for the better doesn’t always mean being in the middle of the bell-shaped curve of social expectations.
In the end, I will tell them to paint their canvas with the brushes of kindness and determination. I will tell them to let their boldness and their unique selves be their paints. And I will remind them that just because I’m telling them all these things doesn’t mean I’ve mastered any of them—I’m reminding myself as I share with them.
I don’t know how much time I have left to paint. I’m guessing you don’t either. Maybe sharing these things will be a useful reminder for you, too.