65% New Yorker. 100% Texan. Likes: baking, puppies, beauty products, great meals, and the color yellow. Dislikes: poor grammar, Nutella, name-droppers, mushrooms, canned corn, and one-uppers. And yes, I use the Oxford comma. If you'd like to inquire, try lizlemon.tumblr.com/ask or lizlemonnn at gmail dot com. Sorry, but you cannot have my username.
There’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth.
Sometimes when I’m all pretzeled up inside and my own crazy lady is nattering on, I’ll stop and wonder where she got her information. I’ll ask her to reveal her source. I’ll demand some proof. Did her notions come from actual facts based in ration and reason or did she/I dredge them up from the hell pit that burns like a perpetual fire at the bottom of my needy, selfish, famished little soul?
Is there credible evidence that my friends secretly don’t like me very much or were they all simply deep in conversation when I walked into the room and it took them a beat to say hello? Was the acquaintance who said, with class sizes that big, I’d never send my son to public school, actually saying that I was a second-rate mother, recklessly destroying my children because there are thirty kids in their classes, or was she simply sharing her own complex parenting decisions with me? When I receive letters from people who disagree passionately with a particular piece of advice I’ve given in this column is it true that it would be absolutely impossible for every reader to agree with me on every point or that I’m a stupid piece of know-nothing shit who should never write again?
If you asked me to draw a picture of myself I’d draw two. One would be a portrait of a happy, self-confident, regular-looking woman and the other would be a close-up of a giant gaping mouth that’s ravenous for love. Many days I have to silently say to myself: It’s okay. You are loved. You are loved even if some people don’t love you. Even if some people hate you. You are okay even if sometimes you feel slighted by your friends or you sent your kids to school someplace that someone else would not send her kid or you wrote something that riled up a bunch of people. -
Click through to read the question, too. Also, read the book. Trust.
Selling tshirts. With your wedding date on them. To raise money for your wedding.
We’re doing this now?
John Green’s Butler University Commencement Address
Some people have asked to read the commencement address I delivered this morning to the 2013 graduates of Butler University. So here it is.
My own commencement speaker, who shall remain nameless, began with a lame joke about how these speeches only come in two varieties: Short and bad. This raised my expectations, and then he went onto speak for 26 minutes, so I’m just going to tell you now: 12 minutes flat, 11:45 if you don’t laugh.
Congratulations to all of you here today, and I do mean all of you—parents, families, friends, professors, coaches. Every single person in Hinkle today has given something to make this moment possible for the class of 2013—well, except for me. I really just showed up and put on the robe.
But special congratulations to you graduates. Before we get to the Life Advice You’ll Soon Forget portion of the program, I want to engage in a time-honored tradition of American commencement addresses: Stealing from other commencement addresses, in this case one by the children’s television host Fred Rogers. Think, if you will, of some of the people who helped get you to today, people who’ve loved you and without whose care and generosity you might not have found yourself here, graduating from Butler, or watching someone you love graduate, or seeing your students graduate. Think for one minute of those who have loved you up into this day. I’ll keep the time.
(1 minute of silence)
Those people are so proud of you today.
We will return to those people soon, but first I have to deliver terrible news, which is that you are all going to die. This is another time-honored tradition of American celebration, the Raining on the Parade. I remember when I got married, the priest devoted most of his homily to telling me how challenging and laborious marriage would be, and I kept thinking, “Well, sure, but can’t we talk about that, like, TOMORROW?” But no, it simply cannot wait. You are going to die. Also everything you ever make and think and experience will be washed away by the sands of time, and the Sun will blow up and no one will remember Cleopatra ruling Egypt or Crick and Watson untangling the structure of DNA or Ptolemy fathoming the stars or even that improbably wonderful Gonzaga game.
So that’s unfortunate.
But I would argue that it’s good to be aware of temporariness when you are thinking about what you want to do with your life. The whole idea of this commencement speech is that I’m supposed to offer you some thoughts on how you might live a good life out there in the so-called Real World, which by the way I assure you is no more or less real than the one in which you have so far found yourselves. But I can’t give any advice about how to live a good life unless and until we establish what constitutes a good life. Of course, that’s much of what you’ve been up to for the past four years, and I’m not going to swoop in here at the end with any interesting revelations. I would just note that the default assumption is that the point of human life is to be as successful as possible, to acquire lots of fame or glory or money as defined by quantifiable metrics: number of twitter followers, or facebook friends, or dollars in one’s 401k.
This is the hero’s journey, right? The hero starts out with no money and ends up with a lot of it, or starts out an ugly duckling and becomes a beautiful swan, or starts out an awwkard girl and becomes a vampire mother, or grows up an orphan living under the staircase and then becomes the wizard who saves the world. We are taught that the hero’s journey is the journey from weakness to strength. But I am here today to tell you that those stories are wrong. The real hero’s journey is the journey from strength to weakness.
And here is the good news nested inside the bad: Many of you, most of you, are about to make that journey. You will go from being the best-informed, most engaged students at one of the finest universities around to being the person who brings coffee to people, or a Steak n Shake waiter, as I once was. Whether you’re a basketball player or a pharmacist or a software designer, you’re about to be a rookie. Your parents’ long-asked questions—what exactly does one DO with a degree in anthropology—will become a matter of sudden and profound relevance. Your student loans will come due and you will need a very good answer for why exactly you went to college, which answer you will have a hard time coming by as you sit at your job, provided you are lucky enough to find a job, and suffer the indignity of people calling you by the wrong name or, if you are forced to wear a name tag, people calling you by the right name too often.
That is the true hero’s errand—strength to weakness. And because you went to college, you will be more alive to the experience, better able to contextualize it and maybe even find the joy and wonder hidden amid the dehumanizing drudgery. For example, when I was a data entry professional, I would often call to mind William Faulkner’s brilliant letter of resignation from the United States Postal Service, which went:
As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation. William Faulkner.
Having read that letter in a Faulkner biography in college had nothing to do with my job typing numbers into a database, but it was still profoundly useful to me. Education provides context and comfort and access, no matter the relationship between your field of study and your post-collegiate life.
But still, you are probably going to be a nobody for a while. You are going to make that journey from strength to weakness, and while it won’t be an easy trip, it is a heroic one. For in learning how to be a nobody, you will learn how not to be a jerk. And for the rest of your life, if you are able to remember your hero’s journey from college grad to underling, you will be less of a jerk. You will tip well. You will empathize. You will be a mentor, and a generous one. In short, you will become like the people you imagined in silence a few minutes ago.
Let me submit to you that this is the actual definition of a good life. You want to be the kind of person who other people—people who may not even born yet—will think about in their own silences years from now at their own commencements. I am going to hazard a guess that relatively few of us closed our eyes and thought of all the work and love that Selena Gomez or Justin Bieber put into making this moment possible for us. We may be taught that the people to admire and emulate are actors and musicians and sports heroes and professionally famous people, but when we look at the people who have helped us, the people who actually change actual lives, relatively few of them are publicly celebrated. We do not think of the money they had, but of their generosity. We do not think of how beautiful or powerful they were, but how willing they were to sacrifice for us—so willing, at times, that we might not have even noticed that they were making sacrifices.
So with that in mind, I’d like to share a few pieces of what I believe to be rock solid advice about proper adulthood or whatever:
First, do not worry too much about your lawn. You will soon find if you haven’t already that almost every adult American devotes tremendous time and money to the maintenance of an invasive plant species called turf grass that we can’t eat. I encourage you to choose better obsessions.
Also, you may have heard that it is better to burn out than it is to fade away. That is ridiculous. It is much better to fade away. Always. Fade. Away.
Keep reading. Specifically, read my books, ideally in hardcover. But also keep reading other books. You have probably figured out by now that education is not really about grades or getting a job; it’s primarily about becoming a more aware and engaged observer of the universe. If that ends with college, you’re rather wasting your one and only known chance at consciousness.
Also a word about the Internet: Old people like myself are terrified by their ignorance of it, which you can and should use to your advantage by saying things at your job like, “You don’t have a tumblr? Oh you should really have a tumblr. I can set you up with that.”
Try not to worry so much about what you are going to do with your life. You are already doing what you are going to do with your life, and judging by your gownedness, you’re doing all right.
On that topic, there are many more jobs out there than you have ever heard of. Your dream job might not yet exist. If you had told College Me that I would become a professional YouTuber, I would’ve been like, “That is not a word, and it never should be.”
And lastly, be vigilant in the struggle toward empathy. A couple years after I graduated from college, I was living in an apartment in Chicago with four friends, one of whom was this Kuwaiti guy named Hassan, and when the U.S. invaded Iraq, Hassan lost touch with his family, who lived on the border, for six weeks. He responded to this stress by watching cable news coverage of the war 24 hours a day. So the only way to hang out with Hassan was to sit on the couch with him, and so one day we were watching the news and the anchor was like, “We’re getting new footage from the city of Baghdad,” and a camera panned across a house that had a huge hole in one wall covered by a piece of plywood. On the plywood was Arabic graffiti scrawled in black spraypaint, and as the news anchor talked about the anger on the Arab street or whatever, Hassan started laughing for the first time in several weeks.
“What’s so funny?” I asked him.
“The graffiti,” he said.
“What’s funny about it?”
“It says, Happy Birthday, Sir, Despite the Circumstances.”
For the rest of your life, you are going to have a choice about how to read graffiti in a language you do not know, and you will have a choice about how to read the actions and intonations of the people you meet. I would encourage you as often as possible to consider the Happy Birthday Sir Despite the Circumstances possibility, the possibility that the lives and experiences of others are as complex and unpredictable as your own, that other people—be they family or strangers, near or far—are not simply one thing or the other—not simply good or evil or wise or ignorant—but that they like you contain multitudes, to borrow a phrase from the great Walt Whitman.
This is difficult to do—it is difficult to remember that people with lives different and distant from your own even celebrate birthdays, let alone with gifts of graffitied plywood. You will always be stuck inside of your body, with your consciousness, seeing through the world through your own eyes, but the gift and challenge of your education is to see others as they see themselves, to grapple with this mean and crazy and beautiful world in all its baffling complexity. We haven’t left you with the easiest path, I know, but I have every confidence in you, and I wish you a very happy graduation, despite the circumstances.
For the love: on body image.
A rant. If I may.
I just saw an infographic sensationally titled, ‘Is Flab the Ultimate Confidence Killer?’ First: that. Second: the graphic comes to this conclusion because a third of respondents to a survey said they had low self-esteem and a third of the population also happens to be obese. The correlation is sloppily drawn like this: “Coincidence? We think not.”
Nope. And I’ve seen a lot of this shit floating around the fitnesswebs lately, especially as we’re heading into ‘bikini season.’
Here is what I know: being thin does not make you happy. It does not make your self-esteem skyrocket. Does being fit boost your mood, your energy, your focus? Sure it does. But to suggest that the solution to your body image problems comes from anywhere but your own attitude is misguided and poisonous. And I’m REAL over it.
If you are the kind of person who hates herself for having a muffin top, you might lose 20 pounds to then find that you are now the kind of person who spends the whole day hating herself for eating an actual muffin. If you are the kind of person that is disgusted when she sees her own size 12 reflection, you might be the kind of person who will have that same feeling and see that same reflection in the mirror when she is a size 2. Something was driving your emotional eating; something was making you exercise-averse. Did that something just go away with the pounds? Hail naw.
Is this true for everyone? No. Some people emerge from a heavy cocoon to become the most gloriously confident thin butterfly in the whole world. But I haven’t met those people. I see them on the teev at the end of Biggest Loser or whatever. Life suddenly becomes full of color and magic and cute bandage dresses. Good for them.
But many of the women I have met in the fitness world have made a painful transition from being an overweight person with eating issues to a healthy or underweight person, constantly obsessing over food and exercise — trapped in a whole different kind of sneaky hell, the kind that masquerades as healthy and often goes unnoticed. Some of them are motivated not by strength or pursuit of health, but by fear of getting fat, of going ‘back there’; by self-loathing; by the idea that what they are chasing is not strength, power, the satisfaction of accomplishing a huge goal — but that they are going after confidence. Here is the thing: that happiness, that new attitude, that confidence to werk a bikini? That will not be the end result. We are bombarded with healthy living blogs and all sorts of fitspo garbage, and we’re all standing real close to the trashbag image of perfectionism that so many fitness professionals project. They seem happy. And if we can drop the pounds, we can be too, right?
I hate it. It needs to change. There are fitness professionals and online influencers that have made enormous strides in helping the fitness community champion shifts in attitude and self-reflection, not just altering diets and discipline. I can think of only a few, though, and ChiChi (fitvillains) does this beautifully. I try to be as honest as I can about my struggles here, and there are times I’ve beaten myself up about stupid things in this space. Is that healthy? No. But I hope it makes one single person realize that dropping pounds without making a serious effort to change the way you think about your body is not going to do one single thing for your self-esteem.
I like my coach for a lot of reasons, but one of the most important is this: I know that sometimes, he needs motivation to go for a run, too. He is not perfect. He is a normal human person. Sometimes he eats a burger, and doesn’t give it a second thought. It has been an enormously powerful experience to have him in my life, because it’s shown me that there are accomplished athletes that have found balance. Like me, they are not perfect. And, likewise, like them, I can accomplish big things. Anything is achievable, even for a mere mortal like me. That is the kind of role model I need: someone who lives an actual life, goes to work, eats a fucking slice of pizza & drinks a margarita sometimes and then also runs half marathons in 1:30-something sometimes. That life is attainable. But the life of perfectionism, of no-slip diets, of no wine and no cheese? It’s overwhelming, black-and-white, all-or-nothing, and it leads to isolation, self-doubt and many tiny failures that destroy confidence, not build it.
Anyway, look. I understand that you’re trying to sell gym memberships sometimes, but this level of ‘get rid of the flab or you will continue to hate yourself’ bullshit is hot out of the Barbizon school of empty promises and I just cannot with any of it. If a healthy body image is what you’re chasing, you’re not going to find it in a gym, a Crossfit box or a dressing room.
Read it, every little word of it.