Andy Dreitcer was the Baccalaureate speaker during Occidental College’s recent commencement ceremonies. His talk was written as a letter to his daughter Hannah. You can read it below. Speaking of graduation letters, Mark Yaconelli recently posted sections of a letter he wrote to the son of a theology professor for his high school graduation. It’s posted at Patheos.
My Dearest Hannah,
It’s been such a long time since I wrote you a letter. So I thought I’d take this rare opportunity to exceed the 160-character text-message limit and put pen to paper – or at least all my fingers to a real keyboard.
Anyway, Hannah, I want to tell you how much fun I had the other day on our little outing – you know last week?…. when we went to the park? I loved taking your hand and holding you up so you could do your little waddling walk down the path to the playground. And how you sat at the edge of the playground for such a long time. And then finally you crawled over to the slide and pulled yourself up. So cute. …. But I’ve noticed that this week you seem so much taller. And bolder. And a few minutes ago you walked over here all by yourself and spoke using actual words and everything. In fact, you’re talking about going off to live in Africa for a year. What’s up with that? What happened? This whole time thing has me confused.
So before you toddle off – I mean fly away – I want to share my wisdom with you – even if it merely amplifies the notes already struck here today. After all, as the Baccalaureate speaker, this is my chance to truly fulfill my destiny as the Wise Parent. Publicly wise, I mean. Officially sanctioned as Wise. My 15 minutes of Wiseness. And if in my official wiseness I could talk to all the parents of your peers, I would say, “I will try to channel your wisdom, as well.”
Hannah, from what you tell me, you and some of your peers are a wee bit nervous about this next phase of living. So let me start by trying to ease your fears about the rest of your life. For I have good news! And that is this: Your brains are not fully formed yet! Not until you’re almost 30!
No really, you’re lucky in that way. What that means is you don’t have to know yet exactly what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Because even if you did decide, there’s a good chance you’d be wrong! So you can relax!
Okay, I know what you’re saying (now that you’re big enough to speak actual words and everything). You’re saying, “Dad, you’re embarrassing me.” No, I’m just kidding. You would never say that. You’re saying. “Of course I know what I want to do with my life : I want to change the world for good. “ And yes, in fact, I know that. Because you are an Oxy student. And, in fact, you already have in so many ways. By being loving and generous and smart and funny and thoughtful and committed and so very talented – and, well, just by being you. And you will keep on changing the world for good again and again over the course of your life. In that way, you are on a profound spiritual journey. You are committed to a spiritual path. I know that as surely as I know how much I love you.
And you are one of the lucky ones: you have a pretty good idea about a vocation along that path. So in general, you do have a direction. But I know you’re still a bit concerned. Given the economy. And how expensive education is. Even though you have a general sense of what you want to do, you are kind of concerned about HOW to do it – The details of the thing. The actual work you’ll do. And WHERE you’ll do it. Yes, it’s the details that concern you. And your peers. And maybe their parents. In fact, just about everybody you know is concerned. But don’t worry! Be happy! Because as I said, Your brain is not fully formed yet!
Oh yeah, your brain. The reason this brain thing is such good news is that this gives you great freedom. You don’t have to make the final decision now. You shouldn’t make the final decision now. In your 20’s, you get to go off and explore. You get to rattle cages and shake up the world and create new things and practice what you preach and study whatever fires your heart and try this and that to see what fits best for you, what ways work best for you to change the world for good.
Those of us over 30 can’t so easily do all of that. Our brains are fully formed. But I want to tell you a secret: If you are committed to a spiritual path, no matter what age you are, life never gets boring, the passion never dies. That is not to say that you’ll always be dancing along that path in the same way you will in your 20’s. After your 20’s you might not be so involved in experimenting and exploring all the possibilities before you. You might not be learning new things so intensely in a graduate school or in an internship somewhere. But at some point, maybe in your 30’s, 40’s, 50’s or beyond, a new thing will come into being, something that feels like the shape of a genuine vocation. And you will have a new creative power in the world. And all that you did before that time will seem like preparation, spiritual practice for the real thing. Of course, that ‘real thing’ might happen more than once. In fact, it probably will happen more than once. But every time it does happen, it will bring with it a new power, a new possibility, and you will feel your soul come alive.
Now I know that I’ve already delivered so much wisdom that you can hardly stand it. But I have a couple of more things to say. Actually, I have many more, but I will boil it down to two. Two things that I think are essential for feeding your soul on your journey. They are my hopes for you along your spiritual path.
My first hope for you is Curiosity: Curiosity will keep your passion true and honest and fresh. I remember this past Monday. Do you remember? Your first day of pre-school? You had been so timid when you were a toddler. We didn’t think you’d ever be brave enough at 2 to face those huge 4-yr-old boys. So last Monday when we took you to the Children’s Center, we were sure you wouldn’t go in. We knew you’d end up going home with us. Well, lo and behold we went up to the door, and the pre-school director, Lynn, greeted you on the steps: “Hi Hannah! Welcome! Come on in! You’re going to love it here!” And you smiled. And you took a couple of steps forward. And then you walked through the door by yourself!. And never even looked back! Not a wave! Not a glance! You totally dissed us!
That’s the kind of curiosity I’m talking about. That childlike openness and wonder and delight that can’t wait to see what’s beyond that door. And yes, it’s a curiosity about the world and people, and how they tick and why they are as they are. But more to my point, as the years go by, I hope it’s a growing curiosity about yourself – about how YOU tick. A refusal to think that you know yourself. An endless quest for the limits of your soul. In every spiritual tradition that I know of, there is some version of the idea that you come to know the eternal by coming to know yourself. Not in a narcissistic, self-absorbed way. But with a curiosity that is endless and open and non-judgmental — and easily amused (even amused by what you find deep within your own soul). This kind of curiosity will allow you to take things seriously, but carry them lightly. It will allow you not to get hooked by, enslaved to, your anger or your frustration or your fears. This kind of curiosity brings interior freedom and clarity. Maybe you’ll need someone to help you with that occasionally – to understand just what I’m talking about. Someone who knows the ways of the soul and how to help you explore them. But however it happens, I hope you can cultivate that kind of curiosity. I hope that as the years go by your curiosity takes you places beyond your wildest imagination. I hope that every day brings you this: something like a loving figure standing at the door of your soul, greeting you with a warm smile, and saying, “Hi, Hannah! Welcome! Come on in! You’re going to love it here!” And I hope your curiosity carries you in.
My second hope for you is that you continue to cultivate Compassion. This is an odd thing to say to you, since you are one of the most compassionate people I know. And it all started with the tigers. A couple of days ago, just before you entered first grade, your heart went out to the tigers of the world. They were in trouble. And you wanted to save them — tigers, tigers of every stripe, from Siberia to India, tigers of the orient, and, eventually, the occidental ones, too. (Okay, okay.) Always you wanted to know what you could do for the tigers. And in the days since then your compassion has grown to include more than tigers. You’ve built houses for people in Mexico, you’ve fed people who have no food, you’ve taught art to children who need a loving presence, and you’ve poured your heart into South Africa. You and your Oxy peers seem to be very good at living out compassion in so many ways that it’s hard to keep track of them all.
But here’s the deal: those of us who have a great drive to change the world for good run the great risk of losing the compassion that started us off in the first place. All too often our commitment can turn to anger – if things don’t go as we’d planned or as quickly as we’d hoped. And anger turns to bitterness, and bitterness turns to hating all that stands in the way of our agenda. And pretty soon we’ve become what we hate.
So this is my hope: I hope compassion never fades in your life. I hope you can always cultivate a sense that there is a vast compassion holding you in loving arms. Some endless source of compassion. However you define that. However you feel that. I hope you taste again and again something that might be called the compassionate heart of the universe.
And I hope you can always cultivate a feeling of compassion toward yourself. Refusing to succumb to self-condemnation, self-abnegation, self-stifling. A great spiritual leader, a psychiatrist by trade for 50 years, once said that he’d only ever met 2 people who loved themselves enough. And none that loved themselves too much. Compassion for oneself is a rare thing in life. But attention to it is so vital for the spiritual path. It keeps the soul safe and happy and able to love the world.
And of course, I hope you can always cultivate a true sense of compassion toward others. I’m not talking about the kind of love that says through gritted teeth, “I must love her. I can’t stand her, but I will love her come hell or high water.” That sort of forced “love” will deaden your soul. But if you can keep cultivating compassion for others that is not forced or faked – then you will dancing with the very meaning of life.
So, those are my two wise hopes for you. Curiosity and compassion. The problem with writing these to you within my allotted time for official wiseness is that I can give you only the slightest tastes of what I mean by them. I know where you can find whole courses on cultivating curiosity. I can point you to a whole degree program in the cultivation of compassion. And I want to be able to take you by the hand as I did just last week when we went to the park. I want to help you walk down the spiritual path that is waiting for you to explore. I want to read you a story about curiosity (a grown-up’s “Curious George”?) and lead you through a book about compassion (“The Lupine Lady” for college graduates?). I want to show you the pictures and teach you like I used to and answer your questions and have you think that I really do know what I’m talking about. I want you to ask, as you did once, “Daddy, where does hamburger come from?” not long before you became a vegetarian. Or maybe “Dad, if I were to try to cultivate genuine compassion for the world, just what would I do exactly?” And the fact is, I’ll be happy to help you find answers to that question and any others you have.
But you know, it’s starting to occur to me that you may be the one who has the wisdom. You are graduating from college, after all. You and your Oxy peers. And you have already set yourselves so very solidly on a spiritual path that is full of life and, yes, curiosity and compassion.
So here’s my final bit of official wisdom: I guess now it is time for you take our hands and lift us up and help us see the new path that you are beginning to walk. For your souls are deep and loving and true. And those passionate spiritual paths you have found are wide and long. And the way is open before you. AMEN.