Flying Lessons

When you have come to the edge of all the light you have
And step into the darkness of the unknown
Believe that one of the two will happen to you
Either you'll find something solid to stand on
Or you'll be taught to fly!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Life is uncertain. As you close one chapter in your lifebook and open a new one, I want to give you a gift. This is a letter to you, Sarah. It’s a list of 10 things I hope you will remember in the days and years ahead. These are like suggestions, or maybe principles that can help you live a fulfilling and beneficial life. With that preface, here goes.

Dear Sarah,
I’d like to pass along a few thoughts to you about living a good life. I hope somehow these thoughts will stay with you even when I cannot.

1. Remember that life is not about you.
This is a hard thing to remember, especially since, there is no experience we’ve had that we were not the absolute center of. Even so, resist the temptation to think life is about you. Take time to look upward at the night sky, especially the exquisite planet Saturn, a sight almost too good to be true. Look beyond Saturn to the other planets and stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Scientists think there may be 10,000 civilizations at our level of technological advancement in the Milky Way galaxy alone. And look beyond our home galaxy to the magnificent sight of Andromeda, 2 million light years away and our nearest neighbor of the 125 billion galaxies in the universe. Whatever this is all about, it’s not mainly about you.

Also, take time to look outward. Of the nearly 7 billion people on planet Earth, you are one of the most fortunate ones: well-fed, well-clothed, well-housed, well-educated, and well-loved. If the primal urge that animates life on this planet is the desire merely to survive, the concern that dominates most people’s daily lives has bypassed you. You have done nothing to deserve this favored treatment. You’ve been lucky, that’s all, and for reasons not of your own making. Remember: life is not about you.

2. Never forget that life is all about you.
Jesus once said, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” When it comes to confronting the global challenges of this generation, relatively few young people in the world can make the kind of difference you can make. You possess or have ready access to everything you need to help people whose lives are ravaged by poverty, disease, oppression, and violence. The problems of the world are your problems, and the quality of life on our planet in upcoming years will be about you—your commitments, your choices, and your actions. Never forget that life—your life and all of life—is about you and the difference you make.

3. Relationships of necessity will forge your character.
Some of the most important relationships in your life are ones that you did not choose. You did not choose your mother or your father. You also did not choose your stepmother. Though all of us love you deeply, none of us is perfect, and there are doubtless things you would change about each of us. Nonetheless, these and other relationships of necessity—with teachers, classmates, colleagues, and bosses, among others—pose an essential test of your character. Will your relationship with these people be framed by their limitations or by your aspirations? You may not have chosen someone’s presence in your life, and you may not be able to change their personality, but you can determine your attitude and your approach toward them. The way you deal with relationships of necessity will forge your character.

4. Relationships of choice will determine your destiny.
Someone once said that we become the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. Increasingly for you, these five will be relationships not of necessity, but of choice. Choose wisely and well. Some people will bring out the worst in you, or what is more likely, will make you feel all right about being second-rate and mediocre. Others will help you become first-rate, even better than you would be on your own. Continue to surround yourself with the best friends and colleagues you can find: you’ve made excellent choices thus far. Your relationships of choice will determine your destiny.

5. Mastery will give you a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
Sigmund Freud identified love and work as the twin pillars of human endeavor. By love he meant relationships that give us a sense of wholeness and belonging, and by work he meant pursuits that give us a sense of competence and completion. It takes time and devotion to master anything worthwhile, whether it’s playing the piano, baking a soufflé, teaching organic chemistry, negotiating a corporate merger, or navigating your way around the night sky. Today, we expect things to happen quickly, even instantly. Good things almost never do. They take time. Cultivate the pleasure of anticipation; develop the discipline of a long commitment in the same direction. Master at least a couple of things—one that will earn you a livelihood and another that gives you pleasure despite its lack of economic value.

6. Being a dilettante will give you a sense of playfulness and wonder.
The secret to a satisfying life is having the discipline to do a few things well and the courage to do a lot of things badly. If you’re going to have any fun in life, you have to be willing to make a fool out of yourself from time to time. Otherwise, you’ll take yourself too seriously, and all manner of bad things will happen as a result. I realize that when I walk down the street singing a tune from Wicked or Mama Mia or even a popular one from the radio, it’s more entertaining to me than it is to you. Even so, remember to lighten up once in a while. Make a mess of something. Be a dilettante, a dabbler, an amateur. If you don’t, your life will soon become risk-free and insipid. People will start yawning when you approach, and dogs will fall asleep. Always keep in touch with your inner kindergartener. Nurture a sense of playfulness and wonder.

7. Open yourself to the kindness of strangers.
You will need the help and support of many people in your life, most of whom you haven’t met yet. You don’t even know who they are. Make certain, however, that you watch for them and welcome them when they show up. People who are complete strangers to you today might be close friends in a few months, key classmates in a couple of years, and vital business colleagues in a decade or two. They’ll never have a chance to join your team unless you’re open to their presence and their kindness. Give people a chance to show up for you. Keep your mind and heart open to the kindness of strangers.

8. Protect yourself from the brutality of friends.
The odds are overwhelming that if you suffer physical or emotional violence in your life, it will come at the hands of someone you know. Of course, you should also protect yourself from the brutality of strangers, but you already know how to do that, and it’s often easier to see those dangers lurking. The brutality of friends is more difficult to defend against. A classmate who betrays a sensitive confidence, a date who violates the intimacy limit you’ve set, a spouse who treats you in a humiliating and degrading way—these situations pose a mortal danger to your long-term physical and emotional health. The question isn’t whether you’ll know what you should do, but whether you’ll be immobilized by the bonds of friendship and commitment. Remember that any relationship based on physical or emotional brutality isn’t worth saving. You are worth saving. Protect yourself, and if need be, save yourself from the brutality of friends.

9. The experience of beauty will connect you with what endures.
You have the good fortune of being surrounded by beauty. Our home, while not grand or lavish, is a place of modest beauty. We also live near museums and concert halls, which we will enjoy whenever possible. We are blessed to have beautiful mountains and clear rivers right at our back door. Beauty in all its forms is important—but not only because beautiful things look and sound better than ugly things. Remember however, that beauty has built-in consequences. The consequences are best captured in our language by a single word, fairness, which refers both to the loveliness of a face and to the ethical requirement to be fair, play fair, or distribute fairly. Beauty issues a call to those who encounter it; it creates a covenant with those who experience it. It is a call to symmetry and equality—not just in music and art, but also in our relations with each other and with our world. Beauty is a call to be just.

10. The presence of ugliness will remind you of what needs to be transformed.
A famous artist once said that he wanted his paintings to be so beautiful that when one came upon them, all problems would subside. The experience of beauty makes problems go away, in two senses. At its most powerful, beauty transfixes and transforms us. The same emotion that stirs your soul when you listen to the brilliant notes of classical music of Bach or Beethoven should also stir your soul in as deep an emotion when looking at a world where so many children have so little hope. To be stopped short by the simple calm of a rolling meadow at dawn or a willow pond at dusk is to recognize that violence has no place in human relations. To be captivated by the elegance of the most beautiful ball gown or a Van Gogh painting is to know the obscene calamity that hunger and poverty represent. To be riveted by the sight of an exuberantly colored butterfly is to know that we must stand strong against those who would crush the fragile and oppress the weak. Pay attention to ugliness everywhere you find it. Ugliness will remind you of what needs to be transformed.

I have two more things to add. They’re not on the list because they are far too important. Your integrity: being honest with yourself and truthful with other people. Life is a lot simpler when the person you are to yourself is the person you are to everyone else. It may at times seem otherwise, but if you begin adjusting the facts to create a façade, people will eventually discover that you’re a phony. You don’t need to say everything you know—please don’t. But always know that what you say is true. Ride your integrity like the wind.

My final note is about gratitude, which we've talked about a lot over the years. It is the key to a well-lived life. A discipline of gratitude constantly recognizes the truth about our lives: we are utterly dependent upon the sources that make our lives possible, from the sun and the seas, to parents and plants, as well as invertebrates, instructors, and the ionosphere. Remember to say thank you. An ethic of gratitude works for a future in which all relationships—among humans, as well as between humans and the physical world—are fair, constructive, and beautiful. Remember to do your part to nurture the world that nurtures you in return.

I love you very much, and I’m proud of you. I’m grateful that I’m your mother. For me, this is a Happy Day. Love, Momma

A sermon preached by Galen Guengerich All Souls Unitarian Church, New York City June 21, 2009 (I loved it so much I thought you would benefit from his wisdom.)