Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Take a moment to remember that you are alive

What easier way to compose a blog post than to lift it, in its entirety, from another author?

I haven't blogged in three months and this is what I offer? One could only come to the conclusion that I'm as lazy as I feared, but there you are.

So here is a portion of Bill Bryson's book, I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on returning to America After 20 Years Abroad. Personally transcribed from my audiobook. All rights reserved and that stuff.

Bryson has become my favorite author, and hearing him read his own words is even better. This portion of the book recounts a commencement speech he gave.

"I have a son who is about your age, who in fact will be graduating from Hanover High School in a couple of weeks. When I told him, rather proudly, that I had been asked to give the commencement address here today, he looked at me, with that special, incredulous expression young people are so good at and said, “You? Dad, you don’t even know how to turn off the back windshield wiper on the car.”

And it’s a fair point. I don’t know how to turn off the back wiper on our car. And I probably never will. There are lots of things I don’t know. I’m kind of an idiot, and there is no sense denying it.

Nonetheless, I have done one thing that neither my son, nor any of you graduating seniors have yet done. I have survived 28 years after high school. And, like anyone who has reached my time of life, I have learned a thing or two.

I’ve learned that if you touch a surface to see if it’s hot, it will be. I’ve learned that the best way to determine if a pen will leak is to stick it in the pocket of your best pants. I’ve learned that it is seldom a good idea to take clothing off over your head while riding a bicycle. And I have learned that nearly all small animals want to bite me and always will.

I have learned all these things through a long process of trial and error, and so I feel I have acquired a kind of wisdom. The kind that comes from doing foolish things over and over again until it hurts so much you stop. It’s not, perhaps, the most efficient way of acquiring knowledge, but it works, and it does, at least, give you some interesting scars to show at parties.

Now, all of this is a somewhat hesitant way of coming round to my main point, which is that I am required by long tradition to give you some advice that will inspire you to go out and lead wholesome and productive lives, which I assume you were intending to do anyway. I am very honored to have that opportunity.

With that in mind, I would like to offer 10 very small, simple observations; passing thoughts, really, which I hope will be of some use to you in the years ahead.

In no particular order, they are:

1. Take a moment from time to time to remember that you are alive. I know this sounds a trifle obvious, but it is amazing how little time we take to remark upon this singular and gratifying fact. By the most astounding stroke of luck, an infinitesimal portion of all the matter in the universe came together to create you. And for the tiniest moment in the great span of eternity, you have the incomparable privilege to exist. For endless eons, there was no you. Before you know it, you will cease to be again. And in between, you have this wonderful opportunity to see and feel and think and do. Whatever else you do with your life, nothing will remotely compare with the incredible accomplishment of having managed to get yourself born. Congratulations. Well done. You really are special.

2. But not that special. There are 5 billion other people on this planet, every one of them just as important, just as central to the great scheme of things as you are. Don’t ever make the horrible, unworthy mistake of thinking yourself more vital and significant than anyone else. Nearly all the people you encounter in life merit your consideration. Many of them will be there to help you. To deliver your pizza, bag your groceries, clean up the motel room you’ve made such a lavish mess of. If you are not in the habit of being extremely nice to these people, then get in the habit now. Millions more people, most of whom you will never meet or even see, won’t help you. Indeed, can’t help you; may not even be able to help themselves. They deserve your compassion. We live in a sadly heartless age, when we seem to have less and less space in our consciences and our pocketbooks for the poor and lame and dispossessed. Particularly those in far off lands. I am making it your assignment to do something about it.

3. Don’t ever do anything for principle alone. If you haven’t got a better reason for doing something other than the principle of the thing, then don’t do it.

4. Whatever it is you want to do in life, do it. If you aspire to be a celebrated ballerina, or an Olympic swimmer, or to sing at Carnegie Hall, go for it. Even though everyone is tactfully pointing out that you can’t sing a note or that no one has ever won the 100-meter dash with a personal best time of 74 seconds, do it anyway. There’s nothing worse than getting to my age and saying, “I could have played second base for the Boston Red Sox, but my dad wanted me to study law.” Tell your dad to study law. You go and climb Everest.

5. Don’t ever make the extremely foolish mistake of thinking that winning is everything. If there’s one person I would really like to smack, it is the person who said, “winning is not the main thing, it’s the only thing.” That’s awful. Taking part is the main thing. Doing your best is the main thing. There is no shame in not winning. There is a shame in not trying, which is, of course, another matter altogether. Above all, be gracious in defeat. Believe me, you’ll get plenty of chances to put this into practice, so you might as well start working on it now.

6. Don’t cheat. It’s not worth it. Don’t cheat on tests, don’t cheat on your taxes, don’t cheat on your partner, don’t cheat at Monopoly. Don’t cheat at anything. It is often said that cheaters never prosper. In my experience, cheaters generally do prosper. But they also nearly always get caught in the end. Cheating is simply not worth it. It’s as simple as that.

7. Strive to be modest. It is much more becoming, believe me. People are always more impressed if they find out independently that you won the Nobel Prize than if you wear it around your neck on a ribbon.

8. Always buy my books, in hardback, as soon as they come out.

9. Be happy. It’s not that hard. You have a million things to be happy about. You are bright, and young, and enormously good looking. I can see that from here. You have your whole life ahead of you. But here’s the thing to remember: you will always have your whole life ahead of you. That never stops, and you shouldn’t forget it.

Finally, and if you remember nothing else that is said here today, remember this: if you are ever called upon to speak in public, keep you remarks brief.

Thank you very much.

And a bonus point to listeners; if you write for a living, never hesitate to recycle material."

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