May 15, 2011
Good morning everyone. How’re you all doing? A little soggy…
It is my great honor to speak to you today, and the title of my address is “Building Nests in Windy Places.” There are few more fruitless tasks than trying to convince sleepy, hungry, bored children to process obediently though a silent space. I contemplated this futility a month ago at the Huntington Gardens watching a parade of haggard parents clinging to their wriggling, wailing children. The kids would have been equally content to eat goldfish, run around the parking lot and then nap in the backseat, but the parents knew that getting your money’s worth meant seeing all of the gardens. So who gets to say what is a worthwhile use of your time?
As graduates we are being called upon to structure our future and create lives of value. And I think a lot of us are terrified because we’re worried that our decisions will lead to lives that aren’t valuable enough. Or, that our friends will have futures more valuable than ours.
The funny thing is, a lot of us came to Scripps because it doesn’t promote a cutthroat best-of-the-best fight to the top environment. Scripps taught me to challenge hierarchies of value rather than buy into them. It taught me to think of success as a collective movement rather than an individual accomplishment and taught me to connect and collaborate with fellow students rather than try to assert superiority over them.
I know you’re supposed to graduate college waving a flag of independence but I’m graduating increasingly aware of how dependent we all are on each other. I see this dependence not as a weakness but as a call for greater accountability towards each other. We have not been trained to be 212 elite academic prizefighters chomping at the bit to spring into action and fight to the top of the pig pile. We’ve been taught to challenge the idea that there is one definition of success, or one kind of successful person and to affirm each other in making the hard decisions of what our own different paths will look like.
It’s terrifying to feel responsible for our futures, so I’ve spent a lot of time reaching for external standards of success to guide my path. I’ve read U.S. News & World Report grad school rankings, I’ve compulsively filled out online career path quizzes, set up numerous meetings with the kind and indulgent CP&R staff, and—right, haven’t we all?—feeling like there was some secret path to success that I might miss, I followed my liberal arts research skills and tried to accumulate as much information as possible to reason my way to a conclusion about what to do next. And what I never did was tune into my own body.
I am a dancer, so I’m a big believer in body knowledge. We tend to pooh-pooh the physical body, suggesting that hardworking, successful people can ignore their physical needs and tough it out. To dance well, you can’t be too tired or hungry or stressed, so you get used to recognizing physical discomfort in order to make changes that will help you perform better. Funny how even if our papers are better when we’re not exhausted, the College culture tells us that sleep is a luxury, and we get used to ignoring tiredness. We ignore our bodies instead of seeing them as vital sources of knowledge.
Maybe when we think about certain career paths—law school, med school, some prestigious job or internship—and feel overwhelmed and terrified by them, that’s our body saying that’s not the path for us. We can try to talk ourselves into a lot of things, reasoning that it’ll be good for us, that it’s the best long-term decision, but if you’re doing something you dislike you probably won’t be great at it. And if you hate where a path is starting, I’m not optimistic it’s gonna end somewhere you love. Either way, we infrequently stop to ask why we’re exerting ourselves and whether it’s worth it.
What if the tired families in the Huntington Gardens had stopped thirty minutes in, when the kids started to deteriorate, and asked themselves whether they wanted to keep going? They might have decided yes – regardless of the exhaustion a full trip required they see everything. Or, they might have decided no – the afternoon would be more stressful than fun in the gardens, so they’d rather go buy fudgesicles and watch Dora the Explorer in the hotel room. I don’t think there’s a right answer, but I’m concerned that we rarely acknowledge that there are options. I’ve noticed that we tend to seek out challenges all the time as if it’s always a good thing to push yourself. We think that hardworking, productive, talented people are incessantly taking on new challenges. To be provided an opportunity and gratefully decline is not a concept familiar to most of us. If there’s a challenge, we take it on – confidently, courageously, and hopefully. And some challenges help us grow, but not all.
When we think that only the most difficult things are worthwhile we don’t honor our passions or recognize that our love and energy are limited and vital resources worthy of being allocated thoughtfully. Audre Lorde’s poem, “Portrait”, has guided me through several big decisions and whenever I read it one line stands out: “I must always be building nests in a windy place.” I used to read that as a call to courageously leap into situations where you will not always feel safe or protected. Now, I wonder.
This semester I could have taken a full schedule of lab science classes. I have taken only one lab science in my time here, and get excited when I remember things from high school science, like the word “electron”. So, that would have been challenging for me. I could have gotten through them, I’m sure, probably even gotten decent grades, but it would have required a massive investment of time. Instead, I chose a schedule of exciting classes in areas I love, with enough room for me to invest my energy in other parts of my life that are equally valuable: my friends, my dorm, my physical wellbeing. I don’t see that as a slacker decision or as an easy way out. I see that as an intentional use of my body. Rather than finding happiness in an ongoing series of adrenaline rushes from fighting the wind in any form, I think I’m starting to know myself and getting better at building my nest. Building a sustainable, happy life in my own eyes. I wonder whether striving to become the best prevents us from taking a hard look at ourselves and figuring out who we are. Throwing ourselves into hardships so we can come out the other end with a certificate of passage can be exhilarating but we risk deriving our self worth from our ability to survive.
I’ve stayed in some pretty awful jobs fearing that quitting meant I lacked courage or willpower. But, when we’re run down and struggling to keep head above water it’s hard to be a positive force in the lives of people around you. I could have seen quitting not as a cop-out but as a commitment to finding new work that I could do more fully and that would leave me with energy to invest in those around me. People speak of life after graduation as if there’s a right decision. Oftentimes we look to College Board rankings or social prestige to determine what that means but act as if it doesn’t matter whether something is right for us. We think there are good paths and anyone can follow them if they work hard enough. But there is so much untapped potential for engaged, creative lives lying dormant in us when we act as though we are all the same and must all lead the same kind of life.
If we can find the courage to define happiness according to our own comfort and intuition, we may stop competing for the sake of it and instead find ways of complementing and supporting each other. We may then define success not according to our individual superiority but as collective participation in a world where we can all be our fullest selves. Not fighting the wind to prove our own strength but building nests in community.
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