The Choices You Have To Make

The following is an abridged excerpt from the Commencement Address I delivered at the University of Maine at Presque Isle Commencement on May 14, 2016:

One of the privileges of a great society is defined in part by the choices we have. And you have many good and important ones ahead of you.

So let's talk about some of the choices you might have regarding integrity, honesty, commitment, generosity and love. Let's talk about what the power of trusting your mind can allow you to do and become. And let's to try to have some fun at the same time.

I will start with a riddle.

You are riding in your car some years from now. Maybe you are in your late twenties. Your car is full up - the back seats covered. You are helping a friend move. The passenger seat next to you is kind of available but still things are spilling over onto it. It is raining and chilly. Evening is approaching. You come upon a bus stop. You see three people standing there waiting - each obviously on their own.

The first, to your surprise, is your best friend. Young and fit - mostly. Earbuds in. Foot tapping. Hair a mess, as usual. Dressed the best they can-which is still not very well. They live down the road a piece. They do not have a car. You know this because you are still driving them around ALL the time - just like in college.

The next person you notice - to your further surprise - is someone you have a deep crush on. I mean it hurts. You have mutual friends. Things seem very possible every time you cross paths, but it never seemed right to call and ask. But you notice your heart is pounding just a little faster as it always does when you see them.

The last person you notice is an older woman - sixty, maybe seventy - with two bags pulling her arms down. Maybe she has gone grocery shopping but she seems tired and even a little afraid. And she looks a little like your mom.

Of course you can just keep driving. Pretend you didn't see your friend, tell yourself you are going to reach out to that person soon, as you try to forget an old lady in the rain.

So your first choice is about integrity and honesty. And I don't mean to them. An important thing about this situation is nobody else will know what you decide but you - just you. You are not bad if you drive by this scene - it is not an obligation to stop for any of them. It is about a choice you get to make.

I would suggest that as you move ahead in life you owe it to yourself to be honest with at least yourself; to examine your integrity to know and own the difference between what you say you value and to what you do. This defines character.

The secret to finding our own character resides in a very tough habit - ruthless self-honesty. Mirrors can be lonely places when we face our real selves in private. But these moments can also bear the reflections of our better selves if we let them. This is the choice we get to make over and over again. Being real with ourselves and accepting who we are.

So if you're honest with yourself, you want to stop your car here for lots of good reasons. Friend, love - maybe, lady with the bags. Doing some good. Maybe more.

But you look to your left and you remember you only have one seat to share. You can't offer all three a ride.

So, in this story your next choices give you an opportunity to explore three important values: commitment, generosity and love.

Commitment is a decision that often comes with costs and trade-offs. Commitment comes easily when you are choosing something you like or need. Commitment is harder when the choices are confusing and difficult.

And commit to your vocation - which is often very different than a career - if you are lucky enough to to find it. A vocation calls us forward and makes us pine. It is on your mind often. It is the thing you wish you could do if you were free - if you had more time.

Life will be better this way.

Generosity is usually understood as a giving to others. But I ask you to be generous to yourselves without sliding into pure selfishness. What's the difference? You'll know. Let your ruthless self-honesty tell you.

So be generous yourself to- start a retirement savings plan soon but put money into a travel account starting tonight.

Generosity comes at a cost when in the service of others. But it is a chance to pay forward which is almost always a good idea.

A few years ago I was standing at a new grilled cheese stand at South Station in Boston. There was a short line. The man in front of me was waiting for his. A homeless man slips forward into our orbit and asks for food. We ignored him. He asks again. The man ahead of me receives his sandwich. He holds it, looking at the man with a sigh tinged with hungry regret but full of certainty, "You need this more than I do."

The homeless man thanks him and moves off. I get my sandwich a second later. I pause but then hand it toward the first guy. "This is for you," I say with mixed feelings. He accepts with a smile. "Thanks, I'm really hungry."

A moment later the lady behind me nudges me with her sandwich in hand. "I don't need this. You take it." She grunts as she rushes for her train. This all took about 10 seconds but I will never forget strangers paying it forward. True story.

Generosity is nutrition for strengthening the soul when in the service of others or ourselves.

So what choice do you make? Your friend who you are supposedly committed to is going to get wet because you are not stopping for them.

Instead, maybe you get to act generously toward someone who has less - the lady with the bags.

Your conscience is working hard as you steer over toward her but then you see the object of your affection more clearly and more closely and your mind starts giving over to your heart.

Love is a close relative to generosity and is strengthened by commitment. It is also good all on its own. Even in failure. Never give up on love. Love is sometimes fleeting. Sometimes painful. Sometimes glorious. Sometimes confusing. But it is what makes the world go round.

So here is your chance to chase love - to act with courage. Put yourself forward, test those furtive glances, make that connection and follow your heart. But then you remember....I don't even know the person really. They don't know me. What are the chances? Doubt emerges and darkens your view. Things get colder. Fear follows. Your confidence is waning.

The old lady option is looking better and better. And you remember your friend owes you money because they never have any when you go out. Maybe this is your lucky day to get paid back.

Too many choices. Which is the right one?

Before we go on, let's pause for a minute and discuss the secret ingredient to solving this riddle. Your minds.

The thing that makes us very different from other animals is our ability to think. To see. To analyze, to think ahead and to create.

One hundred and four years ago Orville and Wilbur Wright flew off Kitty Hawk. Today we are going to Mars. This ability to think and create, of course, can be a wonderful thing or an awful thing. That too is a choice we get to make.

But we don't have to choose about the power of our brains for the most part. It is a fabulous machine that knows few limits. Each of yours is strong enough to carry you forward despite messages to the contrary.

I encourage you to keep it clean. Keep it safe - wear a helmet. Keep it active. Wrestle with problems - and hard ones.

So this brings us closer to the problem in front of you as the bus stop nears. What to do? You are confused. Maybe nervous? But in this story your mind works for you. And it reveals the solution to you.

Best friend? Woman who looks like mom? The possible love of your life?!?!

But maybe, just maybe, you can decide to apply your mind and act with integrity, honor your commitment, be generous to others and yourself, and follow your heart by following your mind. Maybe you can have it all?

As you reach the bus stop your friend recognizes you, your love interest glances over, looks closer and smiles just a little - but in a way that says you are making the right choice.

The old lady still just stares ahead dulled by her fatigue.

You take your friend aside, give him your keys and you both approach the lady with the bags.

She puts them down to rest with a sense of relief. Your friend picks them up and walks them and the lady to your car.

They both get in and your friend drives off taking the woman to her home on his way back to your place to eat more of your food and drink more of your beer.

You turn and walk toward your soon to be new friend - who maybe, just maybe, might be more.

Now this kind of life, finding these paths through exercising your mind freely, and acting on values is not easy, but it is possible. And I would posit it is a choice we each have.

So here's to hard choices; to following our hearts and minds.

Here's to trusting yourselves. Taking risks. Committing often. Traveling much. To being ruthlessly self-honest. To being generous. To having friends who fight with you and help you do all that.

Here's to handing over your keys to people you love and trust. Helping people get home safe. Here's to taking the bus. And here's to having it all, even - or especially - when you decide to give away your grilled cheese.

In closing, I will say I can only hope that one day even if only for a few moments that acting on these words in these ways - coupled with your own good instincts and intelligence - leads each and every one of you - someday - to experience the thrill, the pride, the humility, the joy and the gratitude I feel right here.... right now!

My best to you. And thank you very much.