The Full Catastrophe

Graduates in Denver and beyond: Your life begins now. It's time to embrace the chaos awaiting you.

May 2010

Here's a cliché that strikes me as true: If your heart is in what you do, you'll probably succeed. If it isn't, you probably won't. And I would add this: Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition—they somehow already know what you truly want to become.

6. Our brains are catastrophes. One's brain can be nutso, I've learned, and it's not a good idea to listen to a nutso's advice. In other words, the thoughts you have can be controlled, or at least observed and taken for what they are, which is usually a set of biased expectations. The brain is a self-centered and unpredictable monster.

As I'm sure you know, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue yakking inside your head (the one that is yakking at you right now, as I write about it yakking). And it's funny, because you're never going to get away from that yakety-yak, because, unfortunately, the brain tags along on any vacation you take. That's why we need to learn to guide and direct that yakking. One of the greatest discoveries of my life has been this: Education (what you have been doing for several years, and which is basically about "teaching you how to think") is actually the start of a much better idea. Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to. It helps you construct meaning from experience. It helps you see through the clutter of the brain and get some clarity.

7. Simple stubbornness can take you a long way. You don't need smarts or money or wisdom as much as you need stubbornness. When I graduated, I set out to be a writer, and I became a writer not because of any great gifts. No, I became a writer because I am stubborn enough to believe I can do what I want.

8. You will meet failure. Because you are human beings, you are going to find disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you're weak where you thought you were strong. You will experience times when you feel very alone and very afraid. Probably you already have, and you will again. I hope you will be able to live there, in the dark place, to embrace it for the full catastrophe it is, and to wait it out. At times, you will be uncertain, which is OK. If you weren't a little uncertain, I'd be nervous for you.

9. You can't download creativity or passion. In this age of laptops and Google and iPads, remember one thing: These tools might make you more efficient, but they will never tell you what to say to your friend whose own full catastrophe is bringing him down, or how to figure out how to fight for what you believe. You have to upload it the old-timey way, under an aspen tree, by thinking and daydreaming.

10. You do need to be of consequence. Otherwise you will be depressed. Annie Dillard, who is a nature writer, asks that writers "write as if they are dying." Because, of course, we all are, and we don't want to waste anyone's time being trivial. We're all dying. We live a full catastrophe, and then we die. That means that, in the meantime, we must be honest and true, raw and real, and honor our fundamental connectedness. We must believe in the ethical bend of the human heart; we must believe in curiosity; we must believe in the power of beauty. We must not be trivial. We must think beyond ourselves and be of some use.

Those, my friends, are a few things I wish someone had told me, instead of asking for money or singing the alma mater. Had I actually listened (and I doubt I would have), I could have saved myself some time, heartache, and confusion.

I hope there was one thing worth remembering as you venture forth into your own chaotic mess. And when you find that your eyes hurt from reading reports, and your butt hurts from sitting in meetings, and your blood pressure is high because you've been dealing with a bunch of morons, and your kids, if you have them, are crying, I hope you can look inside yourself and find a glimmer that says, "Ah, that's the full catastrophe! I recognize it! I'm home. And it is, actually, good."

Congratulations, graduates.

Laura Pritchett is a 5280 contributing editor. E-mail her at [email protected].