As I get ready to send my second son off to college I am thinking about graduation, because in a way I feel like I’m graduating too. Perhaps mothers should be invited to write High School graduation speeches. But of course we never are. Our eighteen year olds stopped consciously listening to us awhile ago. But if we lived on an alternate planet and he asked what I thought about him graduating, here is what I would say:
Outside of someone else doing harm to our children, what most parents worry about is our children doing harm to themselves. I have spent perhaps more time than most worrying about this since, as a therapist, I have worked with many young and older people going through terrible periods of depression. And of-course this year it seems like there have been more reports of High School and College kids committing suicide than ever before.
I can hear my son saying, “Ugh moooommm, I’m fine.”
But I don’t just worry about depression, I worry about all the other normal mom things too: abusing substances, broken hearts, feeling lonely and unsure of themselves and their direction, or being rejected by jobs, girls, colleges, etc.
If my son were reading this I would put money on it that his eyes would definitely be rolling by now.. But I will keep writing, because I can. He would be the first to tell you that I really like having the last word!
The next decade, 20-30, is supposed to be the most stressful of their lives. And I can no longer kiss boo boos and make it all better. Those days are done.
A couple of years ago I went to a graduation ceremony at an exclusive private school. I was struck by the Principal who quoted from David Foster Wallace’s famous graduation speech, “This is Water”. Immediately I thought, “Why is she quoting him? Doesn’t she know he committed suicide?” And then I thought perhaps I shouldn’t be so judgmental, and should “seek to understand”. So I have studied that speech.
It is a good one. Well written and drily spoken. Skeptical and inspiring all at the same time: a millennial wet dream. But what is missing I wonder. He says the objective is to get to 30 or 50 without wanting to shoot ourselves in the head, and yet he hanged himself at 46.
Of course I understand that he had a debilitating, massively difficult way to treat depression. But his speech is not about this, it is about choosing to think in ways that lead to having a meaningful and compassionate life. He says that this is the capital T truth that will keep us going. He says it’s unimaginably hard though and that it requires time, attention, discipline and conscious awareness to choose this path.
I agree with a lot of what he writes in this speech, but I think he made one fundamentally error. I don’t think the capital T truth is about choosing what we think about life. Even though I think this is important, I think the more important truth is that we cannot choose how we feel, painful or otherwise.
For understandable reasons we often want to dismiss, deny or even put down painful feelings, because, duh, they’re painful. So we call them negative and do our best to override them, if not with drugs and alcohol, etc., then with what we call, ‘positive thinking’.
This is essentially what DFW was advocating. In that skeptical way which I associate with Millennials, my sons and my British ancestors. We still look down on or make fun of people who wear their vulnerability on their sleeves, therapists who say, “How are you feeling?”, moms who say, “I’m worried about you.”, and anyone who randomly bursts into tears or says they’re depressed in unexpected settings.
So, I understand why people want to focus on positive thinking and dismiss painful feelings as ‘negative’. No one wants to be in pain, let alone be made fun of for it.
Still, the amygdala is not the neocortex. We definitely have choices in what we think, but not so much in what we feel. Saying I have a choice whether or not I feel bad is like saying I have the choice to be hungry or not.
I think DFW’s mistake in his graduation speech was to only focus on kindness to others, but not on kindness to self. My second capital T truth is that nothing good happens, transforms or lasts without starting there.
People ask me, “If I am kind to my own or someone else’s painful feelings aren’t I in danger of getting stuck there, perpetuating painful feelings at worst, and being self-indulgent at best?”
My experience as a therapist and a mom is the exact opposite. Either the painful feelings melt away after about twenty minutes of being lovingly tended to or they are an indicator that more intervention is required, a trip to the Doctor, medication, a longer cry. In most cases twenty minutes of TLC is enough.
But here is the third capital T truth – those painful feelings are trying to teach us something about what we need. If we can believe that and value them in ourselves, we can believe that and value them in others. Then we have a life worth living, a deeper connection emerges, we feel less alone. Emotional pain may not get ‘fixed’ but it can be resolved, at least temporarily.
Of course I would end my graduation speech with something more inspiring than simply a discourse on the value of pain. I would add that your next decade is not all going to be about pain. There will be happiness and success in your careers and relationships that will hopefully set the course for much happiness in your 30’s and 40’s and beyond. But I would say paradoxically that the more loving and patient you can be to yourselves and to each other when you are in pain, emotional and physical, the sweeter your successes will feel and the more you are likely to fulfill your potential.