To the Class of 2014
“Happiness is just a state of mind. Anytime you want, you can cross the state line.” – Bob Dylan
I’m not in the habit of giving out advice or generating aphorisms. However, this year the graduation season juxtaposes with several present and past milestones in my life which have me reflecting. My eldest child will graduate from high school today. The celebration overlaps my own graduation which occurred twenty years ago this week. In the late spring of 1994, I had no idea where my life was heading or what I would do with it. In many ways, I still don’t. What I did know was that I was going away from all I had known, going gladly, and going with the suspicion that I would never come home again. There is no way for me to explain the conviction with which I knew this. At some level, it may have been an illusion, the consequence of standard teenage rebellion, though few who knew me in this era would ever attribute me with the descriptor of “rebel.” But I knew I didn’t belong where I was, where I had been my whole life. I was not a part of that place. I had no future in it, though it is the abode of many I love.
During my early years, what was clear was that I didn’t fit in. In the era of Garth Brooks and Bon Jovi, I preferred Guys & Dolls and La Traviata. In a place where the teenage fashions involved miniskirts and trendy wear, I preferred to shop at Goodwill for vintage apparel and liked my skirts to sweep the ground. While friends were obsessed with Beverly Hills 90120, I couldn’t stop watching Gone with the Wind and reading Shakespeare. All of this would have been fine, if I wasn’t so alone in everything I seemed to love, or if I had any idea there were others like me in the world. As it was, it was hard to find a kindred in such a small town. The best I could find were sympathetic characters, but they were few and far between, and not without judgment. The reaction of those peers who liked me was to write me off as the class eccentric who’d eventually outgrow the error of my eclectic ways. The reaction of those who didn’t like me was to bully, belittle, and abuse. The effect of this latter group on my perceived self-worth sadly outweighed the support of the former. So much so, that I often wondered if I had any worth at all.
At one point, I even changed myself to try to be more like the in-crowd, to echo their philosophy and cares with the hope it would bring me a sense of purpose. That only brought more ridicule, more condemnation. It did nothing to improve how I felt about myself. In fact, it made it worse. It was one thing to be true to myself and be unacceptable to those whose approval my peer group deemed worthy. It was another to be a copy of the crown and earn nothing but their ire and disgust. Sacrificing the self to become the other, only to revert back to who I knew I really was, did, however, teach me the greatest lesson I have ever learned, and one I hope the graduating class of 2014 can learn for themselves and embrace.
In three words, it’s simply this: it doesn’t matter.
The things people think about you in high school, the acceptance by the in-crowd, the opinions of others: It doesn’t matter.
Working so hard to be liked by people you don’t like yourself, the whole of experiences you have in your youth that leave you bitter and scared, the events of high school that everyone treats as “once in a lifetime” and “the best time of your life:” they don’t matter.
The harpoons of bullies, the stings of the elite, the barbs of the self-important who can only feel empowered by making others feel weak and inferior: It doesn’t matter.
The scars of youth and the limitations of your own potential others try to force you to accept.
They don’t matter, unless you decide they matter.
Ain’t no one going to carry around all the luggage you’ve bought through your life but you. All you have to do is decide everything in those bags doesn’t matter. Put down the luggage, travel light. Keep your hands free of handles so you can grab the opportunities that will come to you. And believe me, they will come to you if you let them. Leave the bags by the door, or better yet, tuck them in the back of the closet. Don’t look at them, pay them no mind, and soon enough you’ll move on and forget to take them with you. You may not even remember you’ve left them behind. You might even forget they ever existed.
I can’t tell you with any verity that my life today is bliss, but no one’s ever is. Nor can I even tell you that I live my whole life in the practice of this philosophy, though I try. What I can tell you is that all that horrible stuff that happened in school: it doesn’t matter. All those “once in a lifetime precious moments” peers reveled in and told me I should embrace and I didn’t: I don’t regret foregoing a single one. And as for the best time of my life? How horrible to think this would have been during the first two decades on this earth. I pity those for who this is true. But me? No, sweet, my best times are yet to come.
That’s what really matters.