What Kind of Life Do You Want to Live? Reflections On Graduation Day

"What kind of life do you want to live?" This was the subject line that I sent to a group of 25 graduating seniors at Princeton University, where I serve as the associate dean of religious life and the chapel. As expected, Princeton students range from the smart to the very, very smart, and during their time at Princeton they become even more capable in whatever academic focus they may have. In many wonderful ways, Princeton is doing its job in training young men and women to be leaders in their fields and fulfilling the university's unofficial motto: In the Nation's Service and in the Service of all Nations.

But in addition to imparting knowledge and training, my hope is that those of us in education might also help young people to cultivate the wisdom required to determine what kind of life will be meaningful and good, for themselves and for others, and leave university equipped to make decisions that will lead to that life.

Why is this so important? Because wisdom about living life will ultimately be as least as important to the students as the information they have gathered in the classroom. And the ability to make well-considered decisions about how to live life will serve them longer. I know this because at the same time that I was asking these young people to reflect on this question, I was also talking to two middle-aged people close to me who are struggling as they consider what they are doing with their lives. These two individuals are by most accounts "successful," and yet they admit that they feel inadequate and ill-equipped to answer the question of what kind of life they want to live.

The group of students who assembled was wide-ranging in background and interests. They represented majors from Classics to Chemistry, Religion to Philosophy, and Public Policy to Comparative Literature. The individuals had been leaders in a range of religious communities as well as in the newspaper, student government and eating clubs, and they represented some of the most successful academic careers at Princeton. Although they had been in the same year, some of them were meeting one another for the first time. We started by going around the room with each student reading a passage from a book that they had read, either inside or outside the classroom, that had helped them with the question of what kind of life they want to live. (You can see some of the quotes from the books below.)

Not surprisingly for young people about to graduate, the conversation first veered towards choices around careers. At this stage of life, and perhaps for the first time, young people become aware that making a decision to do one thing also involves making a decision not to do another. For instance, if a student chooses to go to graduate school in public policy, it means that she may have to forfeit her desire to be a psychologist. The stakes can seem dauntingly high. And yet, as one of my aunts once taught me, you can have it all, just not all at once.

I often have had students say to me, "Well, this is the last time I will be able to take a month to travel," or "I may never be able to study painting again," and my response is always, "Says who?" While making a decision of where to go to graduate school or what job to take is important, it is also just part of long chain of choices we make in life. The practice of discernment will hopefully continue as we grow and learn more about who we are. Change is constant, as a Buddhist reading from one of the students informed us. Living life well requires a heart that remains open to the call of the Spirit to our unique Vocation. It requires occasional reassessment of our interests and skills, and taking risks as we embark on new directions that our life may take.

Because it is constantly being drilled into students at places like Princeton that they are being groomed for leadership, our students often look first at success in their work as being the most important element of designing the life they want to lead. And it is important. As one student remarked, being paid to do that which we are truly interested in is a great luxury. Yet even interesting and "successful" careers may not provide the kind of life they want to live.

An example of this was found in the biography of Henry Kissinger, which one student brought to the discussion. While controversial, Kissinger is undoubtedly counted as successful. However, the student brought in the biography as a negative example because of how the book revealed Kissinger's deeply petty and vindictive nature. While it might be attractive to be Secretary of State and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Kissinger failed at living a life that these students would choose to emulate.

For one extremely capable Muslim woman in the group the entire conversation about careers was still only tangentially related to the kind of life she wanted to live. Coming out of her religious tradition of fasting, she expressed the view that living life well is as much about restraint as it is about action. In other words, just because we can doesn't mean we should. She warned against the constant focus on striving; and how tempting concepts such as "success' and "happiness" only offer ever-receding horizons. She and others emphasized that family, friends, everyday small actions, and self-awareness are much more important than career. She wants to live a life where the question is not what we do but rather who we are.

Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, was Princeton's Baccalaureate speaker this year. Bezos relayed the story of being a clever little boy, sitting in the back seat of a car driven by his grandparents, and figuring out how many years his grandmother was going to take off her life through smoking. When the young Bezos proudly announced the figure to his grandmother, she burst into tears. On that day, his grandfather explained to him that there was a difference between cleverness and kindness. Cleverness is something that people like Bezos, who was an undergrad at Princeton, are simply born with; it is a gift. Kindness, on the other hand, is a choice. We have the choice to be compassionate, kind, and thoughtful. While we hope that students will use their gifts to the fullest, even more we hope that they will exercise choices that will guide their lives in the direction of kindness, compassion and service.

But what of tragedy? While much of the conversation with these students focused on the decisions that were theirs to make, others wanted to talk about that which we can not control. Death, suffering, and human frailty must be reckoned with when reflecting on the life we wish to live. One student brought to the discussion a passage from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time: "Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have."

Several of the students in our discussion had experienced the trauma of the death of a loved one during their time at college, and others had suffered through a variety of difficult times of personal and academic hardship. Part of life is learning that you do not have control over tragedy such as the death and other kinds of losses, and that in relinquishing control and acknowledging our frailties, we are paradoxically made more aware of the power we do possess. I know several Princeton students who, like so many college students and 10 percent of our nation, are without jobs or prospects of further study. Living the life we want to live means that in those moments of apparent failure, loss, and setback, we see in even more detail the beauty and possibility of those things that are within our means to influence and enhance. It means that we never feel totally unable to better our situation or our world. As Baldwin goes on to write, "It seems to me that we ought to rejoice in the fact of death -- ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return."

The conversation on what kind of life these graduating Princeton students want to live was wide-ranging and it ended without anyone developing a resolution or a plan. But my prayer is that our time together may have encouraged these marvelous young people to remain aware of the task. When the hour-and-a-half were finished, I admitted to the students that I did not think we had arrived at any firm closure, to which one student replied that the day when we close the book on these questions is the day that we die -- "The unexamined life is not worth living," as Socrates said. Long may this great Princeton class of 2010 live.


Here are a few of the passages selected by the Princeton seniors as instructive in living the life they want to live.

From The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin:

Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality -- the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that we ought to rejoice in the fact of death -- ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us...It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant -- birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so -- and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths -- change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not -- safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope -- the entire possibility -- of freedom disappears.

From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin:

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. -- Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

"How despicably have I acted!'' she cried. -- "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! -- I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust. -- How humiliating is this discovery! -- Yet, how just a humiliation! -- Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. -- Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.''

From "This Is Water" by David Foster Wallace:

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, everyday. This is real freedom.

From Marcus Aurelius' Meditations:

The Pythagoreans say this: at dawn, behold the starry heavens, so that we may continue to remind ourselves of those beings that are always in accord with each other and always performing their function; and also that we may remember their order, purity, and nakedness, for a star needs no veil.

"Ode to My Socks" by Pablo Neruda:

Mara Mori brought me

a pair of socks

which she knitted herself

with her sheepherder's hands,

two socks as soft as rabbits.

I slipped my feet into them

as if they were two cases

knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,

Violent socks,

my feet were two fish made of wool,

two long sharks

sea blue, shot through

by one golden thread,

two immense blackbirds,

two cannons,

my feet were honored in this way

by these heavenly socks.

They were so handsome for the first time

my feet seemed to me unacceptable

like two decrepit firemen,

firemen unworthy of that woven fire,

of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation

to save them somewhere as schoolboys

keep fireflies,

as learned men collect

sacred texts,

I resisted the mad impulse to put them

in a golden cage and each day give them

birdseed and pieces of pink melon.

Like explorers in the jungle

who hand over the very rare green deer

to the spit and eat it with remorse,

I stretched out my feet and pulled on

the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:

beauty is twice beauty

and what is good is doubly good

when it is a matter of two socks

made of wool in winter.

From Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagan:

Everything in our experience -- our bodies, our minds, our thoughts, our wants and needs, our relationships -- is fleeting. Changing. Subject to death. We die in each moment and again, in each moment, we are born. The process of birth and death goes on endlessly, moment after moment, right before our eyes. Everything we look at, including ourselves and every aspect of our lives, is nothing but change. Vitality consists of this very birth and death. This impermanence, this constant arising and fading away, are the very things that make our lives vibrant, wonderful, and alive. Yet we usually want to keep things from changing. We want to preserve things, to hold onto them. This desire to hold on, to somehow stop change in its tracks, is the greatest source of woe and horror and trouble in our lives.