Letter to a graduate

May 26, 2009 | 28 comments

Earlier this month I was asked to be part of a project in which a bunch of friends and family wrote “life wisdom” letters to a high school senior, for him to open as a surprise on his graduation day. With all the chaos around here I was only able to dash off a short note in time for the deadline, but I’ve been thinking about the subject ever since then. Here is what I wanted to write:

Dear Graduate,

The other day I received an email forward that offered the following thought:

Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting, “Man, what a ride!”


Though I don’t know if I’d seen this exact quote when I graduated from high school, it’s a good summary of what I wanted for the rest of my life when I walked across the podium in my cap and gown that day. The only thing I feared was mediocrity; I was determined that I would seek a life of excitement and adventure, living each day to the fullest.

I worked hard in college, got good grades, and managed to land an interesting job working with cutting-edge technology. By the time I was 25 I’d quadrupled my salary, lived in a loft downtown, drove a Jaguar XJ8 and traveled constantly. I had a great boyfriend (now my husband), and together we became known for throwing parties that drew big crowds.

I thought I was living proof that money can buy happiness. All these luxuries did make me happy…in a sense.

I’ve come to believe in recent years that the English language is missing a word. Our term “happy” broadly covers two sensations that are vastly different from one another: there’s a kind of surface-level, fleeting happiness that comes from the highs of worldly pleasures and amusements; and then there’s the deep, lasting happiness that comes from inner peace. Career and travel and parties brought me the former; my soul was craving the latter.

As long as I was chasing after that high-happiness that the world gave me, there was always “one more thing” that I needed in order to feel like I was truly living life to the fullest. Like any other high, that kind of hollow sensation always faded away, leaving me in need of another fix. I’d been to Europe, but I’d never been to Asia; the Jag was comfortable, but those sporty little Audis handled a lot better; I was the manager of a small department, but I’d be more fulfilled if I were a director; and so on. The carrot stick of that “one last thing” that I needed for perfect happiness endlessly dangled in front of my face, leaving me restless.

In what I thought was an unrelated subject, I began to try to figure out whether or not God exists. I’d been an atheist all my life, even as a child, but I’d begun to notice logical cracks in the godless, soulless worldview and suspected that there might be more to life than just the material world at hand. After months of intense research and reading, I became convinced that God does exist and that he did become man in the form of Jesus Christ, so I became a Christian. Initially it was just an intellectual endeavor for me; I believed that these claims were true so I signed on the dotted line, so to speak.

But then, unexpectedly, things began to change.

Through prayer and the sacraments I came to really know God. He became Someone I knew, not just Something I read about in books. The closer I got to him, the more I was willing to give him control over my life. And the more control I gave him over my life, the better things got, even as my external circumstances became less spectacular. Setting my own plans aside to follow God’s will ended up with me living in circumstances that I once would have considered the height of banality: a modest house in the ‘burbs, a bunch of kids, clipping coupons and living on a tight budget, even driving a minivan with a broken door handle and more than 100, 000 miles on it. And yet, in the midst of that, I found not only that peace-happiness I’d always been craving, but more excitement than I’d ever known.

In the past few years I’ve experienced the healthy, heart-stretching pain of loving people I didn’t think I could love; the adventure of trying things I never thought I could try; the agonizing thrill of letting go of fears I never could have let go of on my own; the scary freedom of seeking God’s approval instead of the world’s approval; and the anticipation of not knowing what’s coming next, but knowing it’ll be something big.

A skeptic would say that if my life is more exciting now, it is surely only because lack of planning on my part means it’s more haphazard, and if I’ve found lasting happiness it’s only because I’ve told myself a nice story about God’s existence. I could not prove that this argument is false. The direct action of God’s hand guiding a life is not something you can know about from hearing someone else’s account; it’s something you must experience for yourself to understand. All I can say is that I have no interest in fooling myself — I have too much responsibility as a mother to be messing around with ceding control of my life to an Entity who isn’t there — and after carefully analyzing my experiences over the past few years as objectively as possible, I am certain that there has been a distinct Presence from outside the material world leading me down a very specific path. I am certain that when I asked God to guide my life, he did.

So my advice to you, on this most important of days, would be this:

If you’re ready to take the world by storm, to live each day to the fullest, and to experience a life of deeper happiness and more excitement than you’ve ever dreamed of, the best thing you could do would be to stop what you’re doing right now and say a sincere prayer to ask God to take control of your life. If you have doubts about God’s existence, start by saying a prayer to ask how you can know him. Say this prayer every day until you feel called to pray for something different. You may not “hear” an answer immediately; not because God is slow to respond, but because it takes us time to learn how to listen. But keep at it. Seek, and you shall find.

If you do this, today will truly be the first day of the rest of your life. Surrendering your life to God will not only lead you to that deep happiness that people spend their whole lives searching for, but it will be the beginning of a great adventure. No matter what university you attend, what degrees you earn, what career you choose — if you have fearlessly let God take control of your life, I guarantee that in the end you will be one of the few people who actually does go skidding sideways across the finish line, shouting, “Man, what a ride!”

First photo by Herkie
Second photo by -Weng-

28 Comments

  1. Amy

    I love this post. Thank you for sharing your insight and for writing about the true adventure of a Christian life. I am a big fan of your blog… keep the posts coming!
    Amy
    (mother of four lovely girls)

  2. Hairline Fracture

    Excellent post (as usual), Jen. The Christ-life really is the best life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  3. Anonymous

    I love this post…
    So much wisdom!! you and your blog are always a source of inspiration, thank you!
    Jill

  4. NC Sue

    That is one of the most awesomely wonderful letters I’ve read. Thank you for sharing it. I pray that the graduate will gulp down and revel in the wisdom of it!

  5. Shelly W

    Oh my gosh, this is amazing. Truly amazing. You have really got something here, Jennifer. I always tell my kids that there will be no life more fulfilling and more fun than one that follows God. That’s where the true excitement is.

    Go you!!

  6. Kathy

    Now that would have been a good commencement speech for Notre Dame!
    Good job!

  7. Anonymous

    Jennifer wow.

    I’d love to think in how many lives His plan has you included. . . . putting you in charge of big things.

    What else has he in store? Look after yourself keep reading and writing, I want to find out.

    God’s Grace is Great!

  8. Iona C.

    I sure wish somebody had written me a letter like that when I graduated from high school 🙂 But if I were to be honest, I don’t think I would have really understood it at that point since I was so deeply wrapped up in the world.

    I pray that your letter will be seen as encouragement to either continue living a godly life (if the graduate is already living one), or to begin to seek one.

    A godly life definitely isn’t the easiest or the most ‘pleasurable’ life if you look at it through the lens of worldly wisdom; however, I have found that it truly is the most exciting and the most rewarding.

    Life in Christ also lasts for all eternity 😉 That’s definitely a plus!

  9. Big Mama

    Love this post, Jen. Wouldn’t trade the wild ride with Him for anything.

  10. Lela

    Excellent! I’ve been there, seeking all the worldly goods and it is exhausting and you’re never totally satisfied, one always wants more. I’m a lifelong Catholic and I knew God would be happy with all that I was making of myself. Boy, did I get a wake up call that was very overwhelming for me. But it was God calling and He had some things for me to learn. And now, I’m so content with my life. I drive a 10 year old van, have a 20 year old sofa, (I know that that sounds gross, but it is clean), live in a 30 year old house and have less money than ever before. And I wouldn’t want my old life back. My son graduated from high school last week and I’m eager to show him this post of yours. Thanks for writing it.

  11. The Burgess family

    Good post! Do you think “joy” is the word for the 2nd happiness you describe? a more fulfilling and peaceful happiness, not just surface/circumstance-based happiness?

  12. Jen Raiche

    Thank you for sharing. =)

  13. cathy

    This is going to be far more memorable to me than the commencement speech we new graduates were given today…thank you. (I’ve been following your blog for a few weeks now, and I read most of your back entries. I’m finding that I can relate to so many of your feelings [except you relay them so much better]…and what I’ve been loving the most is getting to your a-ha moments, which often become my own a-ha moments as well! Mad props.)

  14. elizabeth

    I do hope you send this letter to the graduate. How awesome, God is through you – Jennifer!
    MUST live that quote, myself – thanks for the *kick* ;-)!

  15. Agnes Regina

    Thanks a lot for that awesome letter!

  16. Toni

    I wish I’d read this back when I graduated highschool! Thank you for sharing this with all of us.

  17. Antique Mommy

    Awesome. Everyone should read this, starting with the 8th graders.

  18. Terri

    My son graduates from high school next week and this is what I want him to know and believe. Is it ok to print this and share it with him?

  19. Mary

    Inspiring and thought provoking as usual. What an awesome post! I want to be one of those people who skid over the finish line yelling at the top of my lungs “What a ride!” I think this advice could be applied to anyone, no matter what season of life they are in.
    I am going through a new season, with my eldest off to college. Things are changing and I am finding myself surrendering even more to God and trusting in His plan for my life. I look forward to where He may lead me. Oh what a ride it will be!

  20. Cafe Mocha Momma

    Not sure if this comment is valuable or necessary, but. . . Amen, sister, Amen!

  21. Chris and Sarah

    Love the quote and absolutely love you letter! The most amzing experiences in my life have come when I whole-heartedly followed God and allowed Him to be in control. I actually got to travel the world following God for a while which was beyond anything I could have come up with on my own. Now I am blessed with a son and new baby on the way and God continues to do amazing and exciting things even though I now have the house in the burbs and no longer travel overseas – I wouldn’t have it any other way. He can and does use us anywhere!

  22. Anonymous

    well, my computer crashed, had to reinstall the operating system..forgot that I had not saved ANYTHING to disk.Computer had never crashed before, so it did not seem
    necessary to do. Reinstall left me with nothing: bookmarks, lesson plans, letters, more lesson plans for sacramental prep, papal writings, and scads of family pix.
    My reaction? shocking as it seems..
    none at all.. amazingly, the losses did not hurt one single bit.
    Perhaps my intrepid intercessor, Padre Pio, in addition to helping me ” get a grip” on food since Dec.
    has also decided to tidy up some other attachments. Point of this note? I only have 5..yes, five bookmarks now! One of them is Conversion Diary…
    I agree; wish your letter had been the ND address

  23. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary

    Terri –

    “My son graduates from high school next week and this is what I want him to know and believe. Is it ok to print this and share it with him?”

    Of course! I’m honored.

    Thank you all for your very kind comments. They mean more to me than you know.

  24. Lora

    What an awesome letter of advice for a graduate! That is a truly great gift.
    Thank you so much for stopping by my blog~come back anytime!

  25. ingridairam

    Just now got a bit time to read it – a very beautifull letter, so true. Thank you!

  26. NC Sue

    What a wonderful post! I love every word.

    It would be fun to develop a way of sharing, say, 5 “life tips” from other Catholic bloggers we know and then to compile them into one large post.

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