Commencement Address, Middlebury College (23 May 2004)
It’s amazing how clean your room can get when you have an assignment due. I considered the possibility of just telling a bunch of jokes and leaving the inspiring to my husband, because he’s very good at that. But, I’m not going to do that.
My job here today, our job, is to tell you the one thing you can count on. The one thing I can guarantee you can expect in life is that you will experience the thoroughly unexpected.
John Lennon wrote a line that I’m sure has been used in many commencement addresses. “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.” … There is really no way of knowing where your life’s journey will take you. I never would have predicted the fabric of my life would have evolved into the rich, complex design I enjoy and am challenged by daily. My work, the achievements for which I am receiving such a great honor here today, my purpose in life, have been born out of a set of unplanned circumstances, in large part, but not completely, circumstances beyond my control. I never anticipated being a caregiver for my spouse at the age of 34. I don’t think I ever dreamt I would help run a foundation that raises money for biomedical research and people with disabilities.
I was trained as an actress, but as much as I love that work when I can get it, it is not my acting work for which I’m generally known. It is not my chosen career path that ultimately defines me, but rather an unfamiliar, unexpected path that has presented itself. To quote another group from my youth, “what a long, strange trip it’s been,” and I won’t have it any other way.
Life continues to surprise and delight me, even when I think I know what I want from it. I knew I wanted to be a mother, for example, but, and I’m sure your parents can relate to this, I had no idea how much fun I would have nor how much I would learn about life and myself from my child and stepchildren.
There will be many choices before you, some of which you’ll welcome and celebrate, and then there will be some over which you will anguish. Some choices will choose you. How you face these choices, these turns in the road, with what kind of attitude, more than the choices themselves, is what will define the context of your life.
Be brave. Be open-minded. Be kind. Be forgiving. Be generous. Be optimistic. Be grateful for the many unexpected lessons you will learn. Find the joy inside the hardship. It’s there. I assure you. And, too, be open to inspiration from unlikely sources.
A Buddhist saying, which I think captures perfectly the idea that life is a series of opportunities arising out of unforeseen circumstances: Unceasing change turns the wheel of life, and so reality is shown in all its many forms.
Now for those of you who have stayed up all night in advance of today’s activities, it may take a while for the deep wisdom of that idea to fully resonate, but once it creeps into your consciousness, and, as you continue your life’s journey from this day forth, I think the remarkable truth of this statement will surprise and amaze you and possibly even serve as a source of comfort at some point.
I know that you’ve heard this before ad nauseam, but twenty years do go by at lightning speed, and that is my first pearl of wisdom. And, now, the others in this pocket pack of precepts to live by...
Take care of yourself and be caring with others. Nurture a sense of gratitude, and be grateful for a sense of humor. Be sure to thank your parents and mentors for all they’ve given you, but give love to your future children and mentees freely without any expectation of thanks in return. Look for ways to let your light shine, but don’t be afraid occasionally to be in the dark. Strive to make your behavior above reproach, but be careful not to cast judgment on others whose behavior may reflect a different form of reality. The more you give, the richer you will become. Let your life be enhanced by the company you keep.