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To commemorate this season of graduation, allow me to share this letter written to advice columnist Ann Landers.
Dear Ann Landers: I have two brothers – one just graduated from the University of Kentucky, and the other was sent to the electric chair. My mother lives in an insane asylum. Since I was 3 years old, my father has been a drug dealer. One of my sisters is a highly paid prostitute; the other is the mistress of a local businessman who has Mafia connections. I recently met a wonderful girl who's in prison for murdering her first two husbands. We plan to be married as soon as she's paroled, but she got additional time for beating up a guard. Miss Landers, my problem is this: Should I admit to her that I have a brother who graduated from the University of Kentucky? Signed: Undecided.
Here is Ann’s reply. Dear Undecided: It sounds to me like your whole family graduated from the University of Kentucky. (OK, maybe that’s only funny to people like me who grew up in Indiana, so feel free to substitute whichever college you like to ridicule.)
In the last week and over the next several days in thousands of high schools and colleges all over the country, young people will celebrate graduations. They will hear thousands of speeches from a variety of people – from their peers to the president, on a wide variety of topics – from the practical to the political.
Many years ago, I had the privilege of delivering a speech to my own high school graduating class. This week I thought back on what I said to my classmates (which was mostly a light-hearted walk back through our 12 years together) and wondered what I might say to those graduating this year if given the chance. What are the important things that they need to know as they step out into a new and exciting chapter of their lives?
Should I remind them of practical things that their parents told them like, “Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see”? Or because some of them are about to enter the workforce, should I pass along T. Boone Pickens’ advice to “Work eight hours and sleep eight hours and make sure that they are not the same hours"?
Would I want to share some clever witticisms, as Dave Barry does in his humorous book, Dave Barry Turns 50, where, among other things, he records 25 things he has learned in his 50 years? Barry lists things like, “People who feel the need to tell you that they have an excellent sense of humor are telling you that they have no sense of humor.”
Or this nugget that I implemented in my own life only after having made the mistake: “You should never say anything to a woman that even remotely suggests you think she's pregnant unless you can see an actual baby emerging from her at that moment.”
Or what about this one: “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.”
Although that may well be true, I’m not sure it is really very helpful for our current crop of graduates.
Because today’s world is so dangerous, perhaps this tidbit might be important: “When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that individual is crazy.”
Or what about this insight, which my experience with people shown me is generally a good rule of thumb: “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.” That one is well worth remembering, particularly for those of you who are in dating relationships.
However, as clever as these pearls of wisdom are, I think I might want to focus more on items like the ones that were Nos. 20 and 24 on Barry’s list: “You should not confuse your career with your life” and “Your friends love you anyway.”
These last two pieces of advice might help the graduates identify what is truly significant, and to realize that there are more important things in life than where they go to college, what job they have, or how much money they make.
After much thoughtful reflection, if I were to address this year’s graduates, my message might be a simple one, borrowed from an unknown source: Don’t get caught up in the thick of thin things. Be careful not to let the urgent take the place of the important, and don’t confuse what is easy or popular with what is right and true (which is an increasingly rare ability).
And I might remind them that the person who stands for nothing will fall for anything. Because of that, I would encourage them to consider well the question of God, especially with regard to the person of Jesus. As C.S. Lewis rightly pointed out, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
If there were only one question for which to come up with the correct answer, perhaps that one is it.
Without a doubt, there are many serious issues that will confront our young people in the years to come, and many important decisions they will have to make – some that they will have to make quickly.
However, for today, as this year’s graduates celebrate an important milestone in their lives, I would encourage them to enjoy the moment, and to remember item No. 25 from Dave Barry’s list: “Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance.”