Be bold, graduates, in realizing the promise of your lives

It's late spring: lilacs and lily-of-the-valley bloom; cardinal babies in unabashed shades of coral poke black-hooded heads out of nests and jostle for first-flight privileges; the Eastern bluebirds nesting in our back yard relentlessly dive-bomb the cat; the air seems scrubbed clean and full of promise.

It is June 1965, northwestern Pennsylvania. I am graduating from high school, ready to take on the world.

Flash forward to June 2006, northwestern Nevada. It's late spring: lupine and poppies cover the hillsides; magpie babies almost as big as their parents test their wings and cry danger all day long; the cat is losing patience with the brash scrub jay that claims the entire backyard as her own; the air seems scrubbed clean and full of promise.

New graduates, jumpy as race horses at the gate, wait to be turned loose, ready to take on the world.

Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed.

This is when we who are further ahead on the journey of life get to share what we've learned along the way. This is a "teaching moment"; the graduates are apprehensive, so they might listen.

First we'll tell them what we learned the hard way: Pick your friends as if your life depends on it. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Embrace your gifts. Choose a vocation because you love it, not because it pays well. Get enough sleep. Take vitamins. Wear sunscreen. Spend time with your kids; housework will wait. Never stop learning. Live as if you'll die tomorrow, but within reason, just in case you don't. And call home.

Now comes the tricky part, when we say the really important things before our children leave us to enter their brave new world. This is what I would tell them.

First, use words wisely. Ben Jonson said, "Speake that I may see thee." Just as the mask we choose for the masquerade suggests something about the one behind it, so do our words. Despite what the old adage says about sticks and stones, words can, and do, hurt. But as human beings, the only animal possessed of language, we must speak when the time is right, for as Elie Wiesel, 1986 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, wrote: " remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all."

Next, arm yourself with knowledge of history as you go forward. Remember that history is written by winners who are not objective, that the past is strewn with fallen heroes, ruined families, villages sown with salt, empires forgotten, monuments covered by sand - and yet humanity perseveres. From history we learn that the world didn't - and won't - come to an end, so using excuses for inaction, like religious fundamentalists' "end of days" or political ideologues' "new separatism," are failures of the imagination, and worse, deny hope.

Avoid moral smugness at all costs. Moral smugness implies that there is no other way but ours, that if we just keep doing what we're doing, things will work out. The opposite of moral smugness is humility, an endangered virtue. Humility presupposes introspection, examination of ethics, acceptance of a range of perspectives (all of which may reveal truth) and the possibility of misunderstanding or even mistake. Somehow, our society has devalued humility; try your best to rediscover and practice it.

Don't be afraid of the future, because the future is not a place, but an idea. Ken Burns, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, asked friends for advice as he recently wrote his commencement address for Georgetown University. "By all means," one friend advised, "don't tell them their future lies ahead of them. That's the worst." But the future carries risk by its very existence. If you risk nothing, then you can never experience failure, the greatest teacher of all. NASA's Daniel Goldin said, "Not experiencing any failure in life is rarely a sign of perfection; rather it's a sign that your goals aren't bold enough."

So be bold. Don't live someone else's life. Steve Jobs, Apple Computer and Pixar Animation Studios CEO, didn't graduate from college, yet he and a friend started Apple in his parents' garage when he was only 20. He says, "Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become."

Just imagine! You will invent the new machine, formulate the new medicine, realize the new economic theory. You will write the new song, raise the new family, discover the new secret of the cosmos. You will break the old record, teach the future Nobel Prize winner, refuse to fight the wrong war. You will excise the gene of hatred. You will be, in the words of Mark Twain, "the makers of the earth after God," just as we were before you. We hope you will do it better.

Everything has changed, yet nothing has changed.

• Marilee Swirczek lives and works in Carson City.


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