By Scott Westerman
Listen to an audio version of this message.
You can’t return to the life that was. You can only create the life that is.
A couple of weeks ago I shook 1,055 hands. I had the honor of standing at the end of the commencement line at Michigan State’s College of Communication Artis and Sciences’ graduation ceremonies at the Breslin Center. It was part of what I hope will become a new tradition at MSU, an Alumni Association member welcoming every new graduate to the Spartan family.
Each handshake was different. Some were confident and firm. Some were tentative. Some were soft, but communicated the warmth that was hidden behind the smile. Each face was unique, too. Excitement, impatience, laughter, pride, satisfaction, fear. It was all there among these kids who are now turning the page.
One of them told me afterwards, “I don’t know how I’ll adjust to ‘the real world’. This place is so much a part of me that I don’t want the experience to end.”
Another said, “I’m glad this part of my life is over. I’m ready to move on.”
There is really one true certainty in life: Things change. The neighborhood we lived in, the friends we once knew, the jobs we used to have; some are gone forever, some are radically different, some are on the cusp of evolution. Nothing stands still.
I was sitting across from an amazing friend in Los Angeles recently. She works as a grief counselor in one of the poorest schools in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Her patients are children who have lost brothers, sisters and parents to abandonment, violence and death.
“How,” they ask her, “do you expect me to get over this?”
“We don’t ‘get over’ things,” she says. “We just learn how to navigate life as it is now.”
Here’s how Michael J. Fox put it in a conversation with Marlo Thomas.”I can honestly say there are no bad days — meaning, there is just the day that is. I’m not one to say, ‘Oh, this sucks, but tomorrow will be better.’ I’m more like, ‘It is what it is right now and tomorrow will take care of itself.'”
Whoever you are, wherever you are, you carry an invisible backpack. It’s filled with the experiences you have had so far. Some drag you down. Some lift you up. All will influence the steps you take.
But the physics of experience often defy logic. Two people who are exposed to the same experience give it a different weight. Some are so weighted down by a past event that their forward motion is blocked. They are stuck, dead in the water, immovable. Others discover that the same incident becomes the wind beneath their wings, lifting them to new heights of awareness and accomplishment.
Each of our lives are works in progress; an epic on a grand scale in which new chapters are constantly being written. Our subconscious conceives the story line that our daily behaviors set in stone. We write the chapters, but there are many forces that conspire to alter the plot. These forces can either turn our adventures into an inspiring best seller or a forgettable jumble.
We don’t write as well if we spend too much time looking backwards over the previous chapters.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t savor a memorable moment of happiness. That’s important. Thinking about those moments help program our subconscious to create more. The trick is to keep creating. Learn from what you’ve already written and let that guide what happens next.
And what is expected of us as we turn the pages of our lives? Not all of us were wired to be rock stars or rocket scientists. But each of us can make a difference. Find something that’s important to you and engage.
When I had lunch with a graduating senior the other day, he admitted being frightened of entering the outside world. “There are so many challenges we face,” he said. “I’m not sure I have the ability to make a real difference in the real world.”
I tried to reassure him that any person with passion and perseverance can move the needle. “You are not responsible for solving all of the world’s problems. You are, however, responsible for contributing to the solution.”
Wherever you are right now, turn your focus away from the chapters you have already written in your life epic. The excitement and opportunity exist in the windshield and not in the rear view mirror.
Turn the page, and write something new.