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Be the Love of Your Life: A Commencement Address

Funny, nobody asked me to give a celebrity commencement address this year, or offered an honorary degree. It’s too bad, because I think I could deliver a fine speech. (And having copyedited about a hundred social-science manuscripts, I believe I’ve earned the equivalent of a Master’s in Esoteric Navel-Gazing.) So herewith is my commencement address, in case some faculty muckety-muck at a prestigious (or even un-prestigious) university is looking for something fresh for next year’s commencement ceremony. Go, Class of 2013, or 2014, or whenever. (Sorry, I don’t use exclamation points in my writing, although rest assured, I do use them in speech.)

My Non-Celebrity College Commencement Address

I’m sorry to break this to you, Class of 20__, but you are all you have. Sure, there may be intangible external forces guiding your way, and some really great friends and a loving family, but at the end of the day—or in the morning, or the middle of the day, or when you wake up at 4 a.m. to fret about your job prospects or the tick-tock of your biological clock—you are alone.

Due to the ubiquity of social media, your generation may be less aware of this essential quality of the human condition. I don’t mean to sound like a geezer, but my generation had far fewer screens to contend with. Lately I’ve been reading articles about how Facebook makes us lonely and depressed. When every thought becomes a tweet or a status update, it can give us a sometimes false sense of community. We grow dependent on the number of Likes and agreeable comments, especially on those days when being alone with one’s thoughts feels like bad company.

It isn’t easy to come to terms with our solitude. Maybe you’re different, raised by helicopter parents who constantly validated your self-esteem. (That’s how all children are raised now, according to CNN.) But it took me decades to get comfortable in my own skin. If you’re not quite there yet, I’ll try to explain, briefly, how this is accomplished. First, when your body or mind are trying to tell you something, pay attention. Trust your instincts. Do what you think is right for you, not what someone is telling you is right for you.

If there is a goal you want to achieve, people you want to help, a place you want to explore, do it. Or at least try. When I was young, I really wanted to go to the University of Minnesota’s Journalism School. But I didn’t apply, because I heard it was a very prestigious program, and I thought I wasn’t smart enough. Today, there are many journalists whom I greatly admire, but I also see a lot of J-school grads who are dumb as paste. Yet they at least succeeded in following their dreams, unless of course they were following someone else’s because they thought they were too dumb to go med school or something. Either way, it’s a win-win, because who would want those people to be doctors anyway?

It took me about 37 years to realize I’m smart, even though my parents actively lobbied on behalf of my self-esteem and even having graduated from college summa cum laude. The calls for self-esteem and the Latin phrase on my diploma came from external sources. None of it registered, because I was too busy fretting over the bills and my ticking biological clock. Only recently has it dawned on me that I have been getting it done: making a living at writing, married to a man who introduces me to strangers as “The Linda Henry,” and raising really great kids whose self-esteem I actively endorse. I probably would have aced J-school too.

So please, do what you need to do to get comfortable in your own skin. Be the love of your own life. If you consciously make this your next project, you’ll be happier longer. Because even if you think you’ve found the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, it is certain you’ll spend the rest of your life with you.
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