Due to circumstances that do not need to be discussed here, my local schools are just about the last in the country to close up for the summer and have commencement. Thus it was this Sunday just past that we recognized and prayed for the graduating high school and college classes in church. For whatever reason it struck me quite nostalgically this year. I found myself standing in those students shoes many, many years ago and thinking how extraordinarily different my life is today from what I pictured then. That, in turn, made me think about what I would tell students graduating now – what did I wish I had been told or that I did not listen to when I was told – back then. And then I thought such could comprise an interesting blog post.
Not a lot of students read this blog, but most people who do know someone that is graduating. If you find these words worthy I hope you will share them with those in your life that are graduating.
We learn so much in school – so much knowledge, so many skills. If you are graduating that knowledge and those skills have been hard won. Graduates are to be congratulated and held in high esteem for those efforts. But as I reflect on the 40 plus years since I graduated high school, I reflect on how incredibly different my life has worked out from what I envisioned all those years ago. As such, I think of three attributes of my life that have enabled me to capitalize on the knowledge and skills I acquired and the circumstances that arose, entirely unforeseen, to bring me to a place where despite the fact that my life is nothing like I pictured I find it deeply satisfying. These are attributes that need to be cultivated in school and after school. They are attributes that are not acquired and then they are simply there – they are attributes that require a lifetime of effort to maintain and expand. These attributes are Flexibility, Relationship and Character. Let’s consider each briefly.
Flexibility. In third grade I decided I wanted to be an Air Force pilot. In elementary school I lived very near the headquarters of Strategic Air Command and was presented with a daily vivid picture of the romance of flying the big B-52’s or their escort fighters. The romance quickly died when a pilot neighbor informed me that the glasses I already wore in third grade would preclude such a career. I experienced the heartbreaking deflation that only a small child can experience. But my father was an occasionally wise man and in this situation he understood my fascination was as much with the technology and science of the enterprise as it was with war fighting. He directed me to other areas where the science and technology were just as interesting and I was once again off soaring, albeit in different machines with a different purpose.
The real wisdom in my dad’s actions then was the lesson I learned about what to do when desires and opportunities disappear. Often that which we think we desire embodies our desire, but not exclusively so. There are other ways to get what we really want. Too often in life we become exclusively focused on something that embodies our desire instead of on our desire proper. We need to stay loose; we need to stay flexible. If our opponent has a strong secondary, we need to switch to the running game. Sure, the whole team has pictured and worked for that incredible pass to get the ball across the goal line, but the real point is not to win with a pass, the real point is to win – period. Once the game is won, no one is going to care about whether it was with a pass or a run or even with the defense scoring on an interception. You’re just going to be grateful for the victory.
To be flexible requires a couple of things. For one it requires a breadth of knowledge and not just depth in a specific area or topic. To continue with the football analogy, if we focus too exclusively on the passing game and do not practice and develop the running game, the running game will not be there when we run into that strong secondary. Likewise, those classes you have taken, and probably will take, to fulfill a requirement of some sort but that do not seem like what you are really interested in, might end up being important someday. For example, as someone majoring in science, writing classes, of which I took several in undergrad and graduate school, seemed a bit superfluous. And yet…. Secondly, flexibility requires deep self-knowledge. To often we think we want something; however, that thought is not rooted in true desire but rather in an impulse to hide from something else, or to not face a personal weakness of some sort. This self-assessment is one of the harder chores in life for it requires one to acknowledge one’s own weaknesses and limitations. Yet properly viewed that knowledge gives us the opportunity to find a different path to our destination – without that knowledge we will just frustrate ourselves trying to do that which we are ill-equipped to do. Self-knowledge is difficult, but worthwhile.
If you have ever used the mapping/routing app “Waze,” you have discovered there are many different ways to get to the same destination. Sometimes it will tell you to go on a path that makes no sense to you, you will think you are being misguided. Nonetheless, it gets you where you are going and it does so in the fastest way possible. But it does require a certain level of flexibility. Life can be like that – stay flexible.
Relationship. When you hit your 60’s, as I have, and you look back at the period of your life that concludes with your graduation you are going to remember people, not things. We are shaped far more by our relationships than we are by what we read or what we do. Instinctively we seek to please those that we care about. As small children nothing matters more than a smile and affirmation from our parents. As we grow we seek the acceptance and approval of our peers. If we are smart we seek the blessing and encouragement of our teachers and mentors.
Therefore we must first and foremost be very choosy in the relationships we form. Of course there are many levels of relationships. What I am talking about here are the people we let close – the people we allow ourselves to care about enough that their opinion matters to us. Too often we confuse attractiveness with goodness and they are not the same thing. We need to surround ourselves with people that will influence us towards goodness, which means they will be good people themselves. Just who that is will often surprise us. It my not be that person with the big social media profile or the crowd around them at the party, or the prof with the class that is so hard to get into. It should be someone more concerned about others than themselves. Further, we must endeavor to be likewise or such people will want little to do with us. I doubt there is a guy in the world that has not tried to date the hottest looking girl in the room and then when he succeeded found out she was not actually worth the effort. Deep, meaningful relationship is about so much more than just attractiveness and appearance.
This also means we have to be willing to hold some people at arm’s length. There are people that will want to be with us, or that we will want to be with that are simply not good for us. It is important to cultivate the skill to gracefully hold them at a proper distance. We are in fact very good in this day-and-age of sending people away ungracefully; that is not what I am talking about. Just because you are going to keep someone at a distance does not mean they are not your friend. They are just a specific distance friend. The friendship needs to be communicated as much as the distance maintained.
Further we must cultivate our relationships with great care and extraordinary effort. Relationships are hard work. They take more than effort, they take a special touch. Carelessness has destroyed many a relationship, but so has trying too hard. Studies show younger, more social media focused people are also the loneliest. That is because social media is much easier than a genuine relationship. Facebook “friends” are not friends, they are an audience. There is a like button to tell you if you are doing well with them – you do not have to read and respond to their moods. But that is also an accountability limit for the relationship. They cannot tell you when you were ugly to them or when you need to get off your butt and get to work. But when you put in the effort is when you get the benefit of relationships.
Finally we must have relationships with permanence. Relationships that really affect and change our lives last, in some cases for our entire lifetimes. That means a couple of things. I can honestly say that the relationships that have lasted longest in my life, apart from family, are relationships formed with in the context of institutions that are long-lived. (It should be noted that family is an institution as well, but more on that in a moment.) This means we need to join something. Of course, my institution of choice has been church – throughout my life. But if that does not work for you, consider service organizations like the Jaycees or Kiwanis. These institutions provide a structure, a glue and a purpose for relationships.
But what relationships with permanence really require is commitment. When you commit to an institution like church or a service organization you are committing to relationships with the people in those institutions. That’s the biggest reason they matter so much. Commitment matters on every level of relationship, but never more so than in the one truly permanent relationship of any life – marriage. Nothing has shaped my life as much as my marriage – nothing. There is, of course, a lot of baggage from my family or origin, but marriage is the single most potent force to shape a life that we have. That is why it is so important. Marriage is not a expression of love, though that is a component of it. Marriage is not the legitimization of child bearing, though so many in our culture treat it as such. Marriage is a commitment to each other to support and help each other and to make each other better, and through that make our culture, society and nation better. Do not wait for marriage – go find it and make it work.
Character. In the course of my many years of first employment and then owning my own business Character is the thing that most defines a good employee, a good customer, a good supplier and a good partner. I have worked with extraordinarily skilled people that lacked character. Their mistake rate was often lower than others, but their lack of character compounded the mistakes they did make. As excuse and avoidance and self-justification mounted so did the setbacks. People of character own their mistakes and fix them – it is easy to move on from that. Virtually any employer I know will take an adequately skilled employee of strong character over an exceptionally skilled employee of little character.
A lack of character will isolate you. If relationships matter, and as we have discussed they matter deeply, nothing will kill a relationship faster than a lack of character. You may get the money or fame or position you are after, but if you are alone, you won’t care for it all that much.
But such practicalities aside, at the end of the day what will bring you satisfaction with your life is if you can look in the mirror and feel like you have been good. Every corner cut, every ethical lapse, every “little white lie” ends up hanging around your neck as dead weight. There are nights I wake up and have to lay into God’s hands the times I copied papers in elementary school. You may think you are above it, but these things will haunt you – God’s grace notwithstanding.
We are not born with good character, we are born with naked self-interest. What constitutes good character must first be learned, then practiced. We live in a time when what constitutes good character can be quite confusing. There are people that will tell you you are of bad character for simply having good character. We have to remember that is their self-interest wanting to hold onto their bad character. When such conflict arises we have to remember that grace towards them is a part of the good character we are trying to develop, but that grace does not reach so far as to compromise our character.
Technology changes, people do not. What constitutes good character today has constituted good character for a very, very long time. For some reason youth seems to think it can do stuff better, but when it comes to character there simply is no better. We have come to embrace words like “diversity” and “inclusion” as somehow preferable to “love” and “grace” and yet we still find exclusion. It can be argued that people are less tolerant of opposing viewpoints today then they were in my youth. We do not need to do it better, we just need to do it the first time. When it comes to learning good character rely on the old and the proven.
The best way to learn character is to see it modeled. And thus we are back to being choosy about our relationships. Choose wisely.
Character has to be practiced, but it can never be mastered. We will always, inevitably screw up. The very essence of character is found in how we handle the screw ups. Own your own mistakes, do your best to bear the burden created by those mistakes. Be gracious to those that make mistakes that burden you. That is easy to say, but so hard to do. Be gracious to yourself, but not to the point that you end up unmotivated in your pursuit of character. Practice character harder than anything else in your life. We all have gifts, and we gravitate towards them in our studies and pursuits. Character is no one’s gift. It’s that course you hate, that project you just do not want to do. Discipline is necessary in the practice of character.
It is said, “No battle plan survives first contact.” Everybody graduates with a battle plan for their life, and the vast majority of us find that plan quickly in a ditch by the side of life’s road. If you are going to be satisfied with your life when you have more of it behind you than ahead of you, you have to focus on first being flexible. Know what really matters and what really does not matter. Then when the changes come they will not be so catastrophic. Surround yourself with good relationships. They are what truly matter. Most especially marry and stay married. Finally you can never master character, but keep practicing. When, at the end, you look back if you did your best to be of good character no matter what circumstances you ended up in, it will be good.