What follows is a speech I recently delivered at a banquet for the National Honor Society at my old high school, Sandusky Central Catholic. I received a lot of positive responses to the theme and thought I would share it on my blog. Enjoy
It’s truly my pleasure to speak here this evening. Heck, it seems to be the only way I can get invited to one of these things. They didn’t want me when I was a student here, and they haven’t wanted any of my children. What you all have failed to recognize is that, perhaps, you’ve invited the wolf into the chicken coop. I tease.
In fact, it is an honor to be here and to share this meal and to address this collection of educators, parents, and most importantly, young scholars. And that is the challenge I make to all of my students, to be more than students, to be scholars, which to be honest, I didn’t become until the university.
Obviously, SMCC has played an important role in my life, first as a student and later as a teacher. I believe that it was in my time there that the seeds of excellence were planted in me that, as an adult, have sprouted into a commitment to excellence in all that I do. I’m going to talk about fears in a moment, but as evidence of my devotion to excellence, my biggest fear is mediocrity. Additionally, SMCC will forever be the place that gave me the good fortune of being a student and later a colleague of Mr. Gary Kelley. It was in Mr. Kelley’s classes and through his passion for teaching Creative Writing and The
Modern Novel that my vision for what would become my future was formed.
I read recently that the fear of public speaking is the #1 phobia amongst Americans. Well, let me warn you, I wasn’t in on that survey. I LOVE public speaking, so if I start to go long, please, Connor, give me the sign. Let me also warn you that when I am speaking in public, I find it almost impossible to turn off the teacher in me. So excuse me if I wax pedagogical (teacher-like, esp. in a pedantic manner). My intention is not to condescend. Even as an author, I view my writing as just another means to expand my classroom.
As a teacher, unlike Bret Michaels of Poison fame, who wanted to give you “something to believe in” (good luck getting that out of your head for the rest of the evening all of you who were actually alive in the 80’s), my goal is to give you something to think about. So, hopefully, I can at least accomplish that much this evening on the theme of “A Life Well-Lived,” on which I’d like to make three broad points.
I’d like to challenge you NHS members to live the life you imagine, and the more difficult part, I’d like to challenge the parents in the audience to allow you to. For if you allow your parents, teachers, counselors, friends, whomever, to plot your life’s course, be assured that one day they will all be gone, and you will be stuck with a life of someone else’s dreams, and it may be too late to start over.
As an example, let me offer my best friend, Bob. So Shelly is dedicated to him. The story has nothing to do with Bob or anything that would have even remotely interested Bob. It is dedicated to him because his choice to live the life of his imagining has inspired my own and because his death inspired nearly every page of that novel.
Bob died two years ago of colon cancer at the age of 46. He was the only person I’ve ever known who, as an adult, truly lived his childhood dream. As a boy, he’d watch sports on the television with the sound off while he provided play-by-play into an imaginary microphone, and after the game, he would ask questions of the players on the screen as the announcer conducted the actual interview. He drove his family crazy, and they told him, “Bobby don’t be a fool, ain’t no black boy from the inner-city of Rochester, New York, gonna be a television reporter.” Well, as an adult, after we attended college together at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Bob worked as a television sports reporter and anchor on the evening news in Rochester, Louisville, Philadelphia, Nashville, and Minneapolis, where he was working when he passed away. During his career, he interviewed the likes of Pete Rose, Mohammed Ali, Charles Barkley, and Tiger Woods, and reported from the Masters, the Final Four, and the Super Bowl.
When Bob died, I decided that my tribute to his life, love, and friendship would be to dedicate myself to achieving my lifelong dream of being a published novelist – in other words, I was finally going to commit to “living the life I’d imagined,” which, as I said, I’d like to challenge you to commit yourself to this evening
My second piece of advice on how to carve out a “life well-lived” is to find a way to blend vocation with avocation.
A VOCATION is synonymously-defined as a career, trade, profession, or in the religious sense, a calling. These are means through which we make a living. Now, as you know, when the prefix –a- is added to a word it means “not.” Therefore, an A-VOCATION is NOT a career, trade, or profession. Actually, it is typically defined as a hobby. It is something we pursue not “to make a living” but to make living JOYFUL, and JOY is the ultimate prerequisite for LIVING WELL – not happiness – happiness is a fool’s pursuit. Our culture, our very Declaration of Independence sets you up for failure in this pursuit of happiness. Happiness is an emotion. Like all emotions, it can’t be sustained. Have you ever tried to stay angry or happy, for that matter. Besides, happy people are annoying. But, if in the end, you can put a handful of joyful moments in your pocket – you’ve won; you’ve lived well – like Bob.
So, try to marry your vocation with your avocation, like Bob did, and I continue to do. I like to say that I’ve never worked a day in my life – I just keep going to school, where THEY pay ME to read and discuss great literature all day – ARE YOU KIDDING ME!? Let me advise you to choose a career – not one that is practical or that pays well – but one that brings you JOY and one that you would pursue whether or not you were paid at all.
At the very least, choose one that provides you with an abundance of the most valuable commodity of all – it’s one that you students have in abundance and for which I greatly envy you – TIME!
Although I love teaching, I also love the time that teaching affords me to pursue otherinterests. To paraphrase Emerson, I’m not a teacher, I’m a man teaching, but I do and I love other things, like writing, of course, but also traveling, exercising, reading, napping, being with my family, and just mingling with the universe before I mingle with it, literally and eternally. In order to live well, don’t let your career define you, and choose one that does not consume all of your time for other pursuits.
Remember, no one ever died wishing for more money, or a bigger house, or a faster car, but plenty have died wishing for more time. Don’t waste yours working a job that brings you no joy, no matter how much it pays or how much stuff you can buy with it.
Which brings me to my third and final piece of advice for living well. Lastly – for those of you who think I’m some kind of crazy hippie wannabe – I’ll concede that despite my best efforts, some of your children will wind up in that soul-sucking world of business, or as I like to pronounce it, busy-ness. And to prove that I’m not a hypocrite in allowing my own children to pursue the lives of their imaginings, my own son, Travis, is a busy-ness major. Deep down, I like to think that he hates it and will eventually come to his senses. But, for now at least, I’m glad that he is a busy-ness student at my alma mater,
The Jesuits there teach that even a life in the business world should be a life of service to something larger than yourself. For those of you destined for a life in business, I ask that you don’t pursue just any job making, buying, or selling widgets. Instead, work for or, better yet, start a company that somehow benefits your community at large, not just your and the stockholders’ bank accounts. Choose to work only for companies that display a sense of social conscience, a commitment to service, and respect for its employees and customers. Then, even in the business world, you can forge a life well-lived.
That’s my speech – my advice for living well, for what it’s worth. I hope, if nothing else, I’ve done my job and have given you something to think about.