Motivational Story of the Week
Living or Existing
Commencement Speech at Villanova by ~Anna Quindlen~
It's a great honor for me to be the third member of my family to receive an
honorary doctorate from this great university. It's an honor to follow my
great-Uncle Jim, who was a gifted physician, and my Uncle Jack, who is a
remarkable businessman. Both of them could have told you something important
about their professions, about medicine or commerce. I have no specialized
field of interest or expertise, which puts me at a disadvantage, talking to
you today. I'm a novelist. My work is human nature. Real life is all I know.
Don't ever confuse the two, your life and your work. The second is only part
of the first. Don't ever forget what a friend once wrote Senator Paul Tsongas
when the senator decided not to run for re-election because he'd been
diagnosed with cancer: "No man ever said on his deathbed, 'I wish I had spent
more time in the office."
Don't ever forget the words my father sent me on a postcard last year: "If
you win the rat race, you're still a rat."
Or what John Lennon wrote before he was gunned down in the driveway of the
Dakota: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
You walk out of here this afternoon with only one thing that no one else has.
There will be hundreds of people out there with your same degree; there will
be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you will
be the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular
life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on a bus,
or in a car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life
of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.
People don't talk about the soul very much anymore. It's so much easier to
write a resume than to craft a spirit. But a resume is a cold comfort on a
winter night, or when you're sad, or broke, or lonely, or when you've gotten
back the test results and they're not so good.
Here is my resume:
I am a good mother to three children. I have tried never to let my profession
stand in the way of being a good parent. I no longer consider myself the
center of the universe. I show up. I listen. I try to laugh. I am a good
friend to my husband. I have tried to make marriage vows mean what they say.
I show up. I listen. I try to laugh.
I am a good friend to my friends, and they to me. Without them, there would
be nothing to say to you today, because I would be a cardboard cutout. But I
call them on the phone, and I meet them for lunch. I show up. I listen. I try
I would be rotten, or at best mediocre at my job, if those other things were
not true. You cannot be really first rate at your work if your work is all
So, here's what I wanted to tell you today: get a life. A real life, not a
manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house.
Do you think you'd care so very much about those things if you blew an
aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast?
Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a
breeze over Seaside Heights, a life in which you stop and watch how a
red-tailed hawk circles over the water gap, or the way a baby scowls with
concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first
Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love
you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work. Each time you look at
your diploma, remember that you are still a student, learning how to best
treasure your connection to others. Pick up the phone. Send an e-mail. Write
a letter. Kiss your Mom. Hug your Dad.
Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas in the
suburban neighborhood where you grew up; look at a full moon hanging silver
in a black, black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is the best
thing ever, and that you have no business taking it for granted.
Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take
money you would have spent on beers and give it to charity. Work in a soup
kitchen. Be a big brother or sister. All of you want to do well. But if you
do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough.
It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so
easy to take for granted the color of the azaleas, the sheen of the limestone
on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kids eyes, the way the melody in a symphony
rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy
to exist instead of live.
I learned to live many years ago. Something really, really bad happened to
me, something that changed my life in ways that, if I had my druthers, it
would never have been changed at all. And what I learned from it is what,
today, seems to be the hardest lesson of all. I learned to love the
journey, not the destination. I learned that it is not a dress rehearsal, and
that today is the only guarantee you get.
I learned to look at all the good in the world and to try to give some of it
back because I believed in it completely and utterly. And I tried to do that,
in part, by telling others what I had learned. By telling them this: Consider
the lilies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby's ear. Read in
the backyard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy. And think of life
as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and
passion as it ought to be lived.
Well, you can learn all those things, out there, if you get a real life, a
full life, a professional life, yes, but another life, too, a life of love
and laughs and a connection to other human beings. Just keep your eyes and
ears open. Here you could learn in the classroom. There the classroom is
everywhere. The exam comes at the very end.
No man ever said on his deathbed, "I wish I had spent more time at the
I found one of my best teachers on the boardwalk at Coney Island maybe 15
years ago. It was December, and I was doing a story about how the homeless
survive in the winter months. He and I sat on the edge of the wooden
supports, dangling our feet over the side, and he told me about his schedule,
panhandling the boulevard when the summer crowds were gone, sleeping in a
church when the temperature went below freezing, hiding from the police
amidst the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Cyclone and some of the other seasonal rides.
But he told me that most of the time he stayed on the boardwalk, facing the
water, just the way we were sitting now even when it got cold and he had to
wear his newspapers after he read them. And I asked him why. Why didn't he go
to one of the shelters? Why didn't he check himself into the hospital for
detox? And he just stared out at the ocean and said, "Look at the view, young
lady. Look at the view."
And every day, in some little way, I try to do what he said. I try to look at
the view. And that's the last thing I have to tell you today, words of wisdom
from a man with not a dime in his pocket, no place to go, nowhere to be.
Look at the view. You'll never be disappointed.
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