As cliche as it might sound, graduation is in the air. You can almost hear the collective inhale of expectation. Emotions are swirling in the brilliant summer sky; anticipation, nostalgia, excitement and fear, all at the same time. It doesn't matter if you are moving on from pre-school to grammar school, finishing up a doctorate degree at an Ivy League school or anything else in between. This is a time of celebrating past accomplishments, saying goodbye to an important chapter of our lives and taking that first brave step into the unknown.
And that is probably the biggest underlying factor of graduation: the unknown. We are leaving the safety of a community we have made for ourselves—our friends, classmates, co-workers, our sense of community. And we are now faced with forging ahead with new ones. We don't know what to expect. And it is a little bit unsettling, almost like standing on the edge of a cliff with the whole world watching.
In more than one way, we are standing on the brink of something different. And the reality of it all is that even with the promise of graduation, we don't know what lies ahead. The only thing we know for certain is what we have right now in this exact moment of time. And that is what we should be celebrating. So in this moment, it is important not to focus solely on the next big step, but to take a deep breath, take a good look around us and remember how we got here in the first place.
Marina Keegen is a poignant example. Graduating from Yale and starting a new position as a writer for The New Yorker magazine, Marina's future was destined to be bright. And yet, at the age of 22, it was all taken away from her. Marina tragically died in a car accident a few days after graduation. She never got the chance to truly celebrate all that she had accomplished in college, say goodbye to her friends and family and take that first all-important first step into the real world. And yet, she had the wisdom to appreciate not only all that lay ahead for her, but all that she was leaving behind. She left us that gift in her words. In her last article for the Yale student newspaper, just a few days before her death, Marina wrote, "We don't have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that's what I want in life. More than finding the right job or city or spouse—I'm scared of losing this web we're in. This elusive, indefinable, opposite of loneliness. This feeling I feel right now. It's not quite love and it's not quite community; it's just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay that the table. When it's 4 a.m. and no one goes to bed...That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt."
Marina realized the importance of community but sadly could not take it with her. But she can imprint its importance on all of us who are left behind. With her in mind, lets soak in this moment. The one before we take the plunge. And remember to acknowledge and appreciate all those who are around us and got us to the place we are standing in this momentous moment. Look at your principal in the eye and smile when he/she hands out your diploma, congratulate the student that sat behind you in math class, invite as many family members and friends to celebrate the moment and savor each and every smile and pat on the back they proudly give to you. There is still room for all those people, that sense of community, in the next phase of our life. It just takes some effort. A lot of heart. And a firm grip on the here and now.
So after the final strands of Pomp and Circumstance fade into the distance and the tissues have been balled up and thrown away, don't loose sight of those feelings and emotions. The anticipation, nostalgia, excitement and fear. But most of all, the appreciation. While it is important to reach out and pull ourselves up to the next level of academic and/or professional success, we need to keep a firm grip on our past. Because, regardless of the level of our personal accomplishment, it doesn't mean anything without people by our sides.
Each and every graduate is currently standing on the edge of something. The size of the next step is entirely up to the individual. But the significance behind it depends on our sense of community.
As Marina so wisely reminds us in the final words of her article, "Let's get one thing straight: the best years of our lives are not behind us. They're part of us." And they always will be. If we work hard enough, we will never truly be lonely—or at least in the sense that mattered to Marina: "We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you. In love, impressed, humbled, scared. And we don’t have to lose that. We’re in this together."
In honor of her and all the graduates of 2012, my one wish for all of you is more of the same. Community. Before you take that next big leap, remember where you came from. You might not always land in the same place that has loved and supported you, but you will never truly go too far way if you keep them close to your heart and a big part of all your future celebrations.