Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Essence Of A Life Worth Living

Man plans and God laughs. ~Yiddish proverb

I'm here today to tell you, there is no such thing as a "permanent record." As far as I can tell, it's just a boogie man, dreamt up to keep us on the straight and narrow, as if that's a path worthy of anyone's precious time. 

If I've learned anything in my 52 years, it's that there's no margin in the straight and narrow. Life happens off in the rocky parts, over there in the places where you scrape your knees and bump your head. It's the difference between merely following a recipe and performing an experiment: you're going to screw up a whole lot in between those Eureka! moments, but too many of us, too often, avoid the risk because we're worried about the phantom notetaker peering over our shoulder, judging our failures, so we trundle along on the well-worn path created by those who came before us, only to reach a certain point in life when we look around and wonder, as David Byrne famously did, "How did I get here?" and "My god, what have I done?"

The other night I attended an event for high school juniors and their parents featuring admissions officers from several universities, the idea being to get a leg up on what can be a daunting and mysterious process. No where does that fabled permanent record come more into play than here: keep your grades up, score high on bubble tests, ace those AP courses, build a broad and balanced resume of extracurricular activities, and for heaven's sake, don't do anything that might result in a photo on the internet (the latest iteration of the permanent record) that might in anyway be used to besmirch your reputation because "the internet is forever!" Boo!

The thing is, the only time these admissions officers mentioned any of this stuff was when people raised their hands and asked, and then their answers, even from the Ivy League representative, were almost dismissive. No, what they spent their hour and a half repeating over and over was that while past academic accomplishment came into play, it was only a small piece in their efforts to assemble a "true picture of who you really are," "what makes you tick," and "where your passions lie." None of them talked about a competitive process, but rather a sincere desire for the "right student" to pick them. They talked about journeys and paths and trajectories. The word "soul" came up far more than "grades." They wanted to know if kids had spent any time at all in the rocky parts scraping their knees and bumping their heads.

Of course, I don't expect many of the kids really heard it, so conditioned we are by the cult of the permanent record. One even asked after listening for a good hour, "What are the right extra curriculars?"

I know we do it out of concern, even love, but what a cruel burden to place on anyone, let alone a child. We are not here to judge and be judged. That's called hell, and anytime I've found myself around people more concerned with my flaws than my beauty, I've run like the wind, and you should too. "Head for the wilderness, kids!" as Utah Phillips cried, "The one within if you can find it."

Like those admissions officers, I want to surround myself with people covered in bumps and bruises, with real experiences from the real world. The straight and narrow has nothing to teach anyone other than the grind of rote and meeting the expectations of others. Life resides out there in the wilderness where there be dragons.

If I were invited to give a commencement address, it would be on the topic of god laughing at our plans, the lie of permanent records, and it would finish with this line I got from the comedic actress Tina Fey, "Say yes, you'll figure it out afterwords." That's the essence of a life worth living.

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