Department

The Full Catastrophe

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

May 2010

Congratulations, Colorado graduates. This month, you are graduating from high school or college, and soon you will find yourselves in a stuffy room wearing a long gown and a funky hat, and, on top of this atrocity, you will be subjected to an ancient commencement-day custom: the commencement address. This will probably involve someone standing up in front of you and haranguing you for your hard-earned accomplishments by offering anecdotes, pieces of wisdom, and a plea for a donation of money to your school.

I'm sorry about that. I still remember the agony of my first graduation, although I don't remember a single word of the commencement speech. Anyway, now that it is graduation season, I decided to write a commencement address that I would have liked to hear, one that actually would have been helpful had I been paying attention.

And so, graduates, here is my list of the top 10 things that I sure as heck wish someone had bothered to tell me:

1. Your life will be a catastrophe. It may already be a catastrophe, and perhaps you think it will clear up. Or perhaps you have avoided catastrophe, but you won't for long. Your life will become more and more catastrophic. And every time it looks like it might calm down, it will dive into catastrophe-ness again. I'd like to suggest that is how it should be. Catastrophe is good.

In the movie Zorba the Greek, Zorba, who is Greek and full of the zest of life, tells his young British friend that he's learned to embrace all of life: the joys, the sorrows, the "full catastrophe."

Learning to accept (and actually enjoy) the chaos of life is the lesson that the young man in the movie needs to learn. And frankly, that has been perhaps the most important lesson I've learned since graduating from college. I used to want things to go my way. I wanted to be heading in the direction of calm and quiet. I wanted my house clean, my politicians to work for what I believed, my degree to land me a job. I wanted love to be easy. I wanted to be the great American author.

But no. This is not what happens. And the trick I've learned since sitting in that stuffy room is that the sooner I realized that catastrophe was the norm, the sooner I could dive in and embrace it.

My point is to try to love the full catastrophe that lies ahead. If your goal is a clean house, you will be boring, and you will be wasting your life. Embrace the mess.

2. Your body. I humbly suggest that you take care of it. It can be surprisingly fragile, and one fall, one car crash, one disease triggered by stress, and your life and dreams can morph in very painful ways. Exercise, floss, sleep. Don't drive drunk. While I applaud feats of physical prowess and emotional bravery, I also urge you to realize that you can and will die. No one ever says he's sorry about this basic, fundamental catastrophe of existence, so I will. I am sorry that you are mortal.

3. Choose your mate wisely. If you decide you want to get married, or have a lifelong partner, try to pick the right person, because nothing in your life will feel right if you've picked the wrong one. Even if you do pick the right one, you will spend a lot of time worrying that she/he is actually the wrong one, and that you are missing out. The tricky part is deciding. This particular decision is one of the most important you will make, and yet it is a decision that few reflect upon enough (probably because it's difficult to think when one is caught up in the throes of love).

4. Children. Some people can't have them, and other people have them and don't want them. It's hard. If you think you want children, try to wait until it's a choice, although biology will do its best to interfere. You can change jobs, where you live—even your life partner. But it's very hard, and most definitely painful, to have children and then decide you wanted a different sort of life, or vice versa. There comes a certain age, which is the age I am now (39), when you start to see some of your friends regretting their decision, regardless of the one they picked. Kids can be a catastrophe. Not having kids can also be a catastrophe. It takes some hard work to figure out which catastrophic path is best for you.

5. Love your work. This seems like a no-brainer, but it's harder than one thinks to find a job that pays money and feeds your soul. All I can say is, good luck. If you get stuck in a job you hate—wait a while, make sure you hate it, and then quit.

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].