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By Susan Parmelee
This June, I have a stack of 20 graduation cards to write. Some are for family members, some are for children of friends and some are for youth I have met through my work at San Clemente High School. I spend a lot of time thinking about what to write—although I know the graduates may spend a brief second looking for cash and then closing the card—but like other adults I feel like it is a moment to attempt to impart some wisdom.
I have spent some time reflecting on graduation speeches I have attended, from student high school speeches to Maya Angelou at my son’s college graduation. All have been heartfelt and moving. My favorite, however, was the address George Saunders gave in 2013 to the graduating class at Syracuse University, where he explores the question, “What’s our problem? Why can’t we be nicer?”
Saunders explores this theme with humor and practical advice. This speech was shared an amazing number of times, printed in The New Yorker and published as a book. From our experiences, most of us know that we feel better when we are kind to others and we feel kind of lousy if we act impulsively and with anger. Many individuals in the social science fields have made a lot of money writing books about the “kindness-happiness” solution, but for some reason we seem to have trouble following the advice from the bestsellers we eagerly purchase.
The adolescent years require a certain amount of selfishness and self-centeredness in order for a teen to gain independence and successfully launch as an individual into the next phase of adult life. How as adults do we help them manage this developmental phase with a certain amount of grace, while avoiding the impulsive behaviors that can result in great mistakes? Perhaps as adults we should first remember that we are always modeling behavior for our teens. So when the role models our youth see are angry politicians attacking each other on television, or adults cutting each other off on the highway with a flip of a finger, it would be helpful to reflect on how we could have behaved differently.
I am not seeking perfect happy people (we are faulty human beings) just behaviors that show a little more intention. Take a few hours before answering that email that made you so angry in the moment. Listen to what someone is saying instead of trying to formulate your response. Let someone into the exit lane on the I-5 south at these horrible construction zone exits. Being considerate actually makes you feel good and makes the other person feel good as well. Our children learn by watching our behaviors and when adults are kind, our youth grow up to be kind.
Saunders ends his speech saying, “Be a good, proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf—seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life. Find out what makes you kinder, what opens you up and brings you the most loving, generous, and unafraid version of yourself—and go after those things as if nothing else matters.” This is the quote I will be writing in those graduation cards. This would be my wish for the future of these amazing young graduates.
Susan Parmelee is a mental health social worker and one of the founders of the Wellness & Prevention Center, San Clemente. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.