I was honored to be asked to give the commencement speech today at the Odyssey Community School’s graduation ceremonies. Below is a transcript of my speech, and HERE is a link to the facebook live video, where you can see me deliver the speech from about the 37 minute mark to the 52 minute mark. I was so inspired by the heartfelt talks given by the graduating seniors and their mentors and I was honored to be invited!
“Hello, and congratulations to the Odyssey Community School Class of 2018! I am really honored to be invited to speak here today. And, this is really fun for me, because for the next 10 minutes or so, I get to be bossy and just tell you what I think you should do with your life, which is something that I’m actually pretty good at, but I don’t usually get ASKED to do it. But, I’m kidding, I actually don’t want to boss you. I’m actually here today to tell you about some things I’ve learned about being the boss of yourself. I’ve heard that this graduating class is very unique: I have heard that you are artistic, compassionate, individualistic, and iconoclastic. These are all some of my very favorite character traits! And I think it speaks very highly of you that your community here at Odyssey seems to feel that you’re already well on your way to being the bosses of yourselves, too. And after the speeches I just heard from you, I would say I have to agree.
I graduated from High School 24 years ago, in Marietta Georgia. I do not remember the commencement speech. However, I’ve been thinking about what I might have liked to hear from someone at that time, to help ease my way.
When I was a senior in High School, I had a really clear sense of what I wanted my life to be like. I knew even then that I wanted to live in Asheville, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of movements that would make the world more beautiful and more loving. But I was a terrible student. I wish someone had told me that even though I didn’t make the best grades, I would find a program and professors, and eventually a career, several careers, that I really love, and excel in my discipline because the work felt relevant to me.
When I was a senior in High School, I didn’t feel that I belonged. I wish someone had told me that, even though I would go through hard times and loss, I would find my chosen family and friends who make my life better every day.
When I was a senior in High School, I worried constantly about the state of the world, the future, and my place in it. I wish someone had told me that no matter how many devastating things happen, humans will always find their measure of hope and dignity, and that life will be filled with at least as much joy, delight, and laughter as suffering.
But I’m not sure, even if I had heard those things back in 1994, that I would really have believed them. I had to experience my life for myself. I had to learn my lessons in real time. And so will you.
And I think what it boils down to is that I wish someone at that time had just told me that EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK! So first I want to tell you: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK!
And then I want to share with you a little bit about what I’ve learned along this journey so far, so that maybe some of those lessons could become a walking stick for you, or a little voice on your shoulder, helping you along on your great journey.
In my work at Birds Eye Business Planning and Adventures- which is an organization that helps businesses with a social mission- my mentor Annie Milroy Price introduced me to what we call the Four Rules. These are the only four rules of our business, and they’re so effective, that we don’t seem to need any other rules. And I’ve found that the more and more I think about them, the more they apply to every possible situation you could find yourself in. These Four Rules were adapted from the work of the late cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien, who found and distilled them from studying universal principles of the world’s cultures.
The Four Rules are:
1) Show Up.
3) Tell the truth.
4) Let go of the outcome.
So what does that mean? What does it mean to show up?
First it means to show up to yourself, show up to your life. That can mean a lot of different things, but in my life right now it means keeping a schedule. Annie Dillard, probably my favorite writer, who wrote “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” wrote about schedules for artists and writers.
She said: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”
So if you’re an artist, you have to show up and make the work. If you’re a writer, you have to sit your butt in a chair and show up to write, or you don’t get to call yourself a writer. And a schedule can help you do that.
RULE #2: listen.
I think it’s important to note that this one comes before #3, “tell the truth.” Listening first means listening to yourself. This is crucial. It took me a long time to realize that I was spending a lot of my time working from the “outside in” rather than the “inside out.” Outside in is when I see myself as I imagine other people see me, and I respond and create from that place. And that place is ultimately empty, because if you’re working from the outside in, you will always be chasing something outside of yourself, and you can never find completion. But inside out is when I go inside, into that infinite place that we all have inside of us, and get quiet, and listen to that inner guide, the inner voice. And you may not be able to hear it at first, but the more you practice, the stronger it becomes, and eventually, there’s nothing in the world that can pull you off your center, nothing that can make you compromise your essential nature. Two practices I have found that help me get to that center of myself, where I can really listen, are having a meditation practice and having a creative practice. That schedule we talked about helps with that. Creating some scaffolding around your day where you say, for the next 10 minutes, I’m going to sit quietly, and then for the next 10 minutes after that, I’m going to draw in my sketchbook. Just 20 minutes. And maybe you don’t get there every day and maybe you don’t even get there most days. But every day you point yourself towards it, and eventually it will become a reflex, an organic part of your day.
Rule #3: Tell the truth. This one is scary. And again, this involves, first and foremost, being truthful with yourself. If you’re fearful, be honest with yourself! Say “I’m terrified!” Your fear can be your greatest teacher and your greatest gift. Anxiety is something I’ve dealt with for much of my life. I read a great book in my 20’s called “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway,” and that has become a mantra for me. Because if we allow our fear to make our choices for us, our lives become smaller and smaller and smaller. Being truthful about your fear takes it’s power away. So once you’re truthful with yourself, it’s important to be truthful to others, even, and especially, when what your inner voice has to say is unpopular. When you’re showing up, and your listening, you have access to your inner voice. And you can use that voice, you can use your wisdom, your experiences, your resources, and your privilege to serve humanity by telling the truth about injustice whenever you experience it, even in yourself. For example, you can tell the truth by refusing to dehumanize another. That’s something that seems to be a popular thing to do these days. We say things like “That person is garbage. Those people are animals.” I’m guilty of it too. But when we allow ourselves and others to dehumanize another, we are obscuring their right to dignity and we’re not telling the truth.
Rule #4: let go of the outcome.
I think this one is the most important rule, and it empowers and frees up each of the rules before it. To me, letting go of the outcome means many things. For one, if you are detached from the outcome of a situation, it’s easier to tell the truth, because you’re not invested in things being one way or another. If you’re detached from the outcome, you can show up and you can listen more fully, and be present, because you’re not invested in “fixing” someone’s problem. You can just be present to whatever is happening.
Letting go of the outcome means not struggling to avoid heartache and suffering. We make so many decisions out of the desire to avoid pain, which is generally a good idea, but being too afraid of suffering can make you paralyzed. Suffering teaches you to have empathy for others, which bonds you more fully to the human family, the human story. And the fourth rule, letting go of the outcome, definitely means forgiving yourselves for your failures. And let me tell you right now: YOU WILL FAIL AT MANY THINGS. Embrace your failures. They will make you a more whole person, and a more tender person. Embrace your failures and then let go of your failures. Let yourself off the hook when you make a mistake. But I think that letting go of the outcome has another, even more important meaning: It means yes, letting go of your failures, but I think it means ESPECIALLY to let go of your successes.
Yes, you should strive to accomplish your goals and yes you should learn from your failures, but most of all, you should remember that YOU ARE NOT YOUR SUCCESSES OR YOUR FAILURES. You are not what you do and your value does not rest upon what you do or you do not do.
A few years ago, I started to understand that I couldn’t own my business anymore; that I had dreams to write, to teach, and to travel, and that the cake shop was holding me back from that vision. But I was the Cake Lady! How was I going to let everybody down and leave the cake shop? But Olga, who was the manager of the cake shop, had a dream of owning a bakery for her whole life. And it turns out that me stepping out gave space for her to step in. She bought the shop and now she’s living a dream that she has had since she was a little girl, and I’m now living my dream of writing, teaching, and traveling. Neither of us would be living our dream if I had held on to a definition of success and a situation that was no longer working for me.
You must let go of your successes as much as your failures. You don’t have a right to occupy space that you know is no longer right for you, no matter how successful you have been or how afraid you might be to let other people down. You have to be true to yourself, and, who knows, there may even be someone else out there who needs you to let go in order to be a part of their great story.
And, honestly, in the end, it doesn’t matter if you “succeed” or “fail!” The only thing that matters in this world is LOVE. It’s the only thing that matters. It’s the most important thing.
The work we do and the homes we build and the words we write and the art we create and the businesses we grow are only here to give a home to love, to give a venue and a channel to express love. Love for yourself, love for your family and community, love for humanity, the earth, that love and passion of learning about something fascinating, the love of justice that burns like a fire, the love of plants and animals and mountains and rivers and oceans. You are each deeply and dearly beloved, no matter what you do. And in that love, you are free to become exactly who you were meant to be.