2020 may be a year unlike any other — but Savannah’s valedictorians are going places. Here, our outstanding graduates strike a pose, backed by a heartening commencement address by celebrated writer (and Savannah native!) Bruce Feiler.
The Wolf In the Fairy Tale
WORDS ON COMMENCEMENT
Stop for a second and listen to the story going on in your head. It’s there, somewhere, in the background. It’s the story you tell others when you first meet them; it’s the story you tell yourself when you visit a meaningful place, when you flip through old photographs.
It’s the story you’re going to tell yourself about your high school graduation. The one that didn’t happen. Or happened online. Or with a box of free doughnuts. Or three months late, with a commencement speech delivered in a magazine.
It’s the story of who you are, where you came from, where you dream of going in the future.
It’s the story of your life.
And that story isn’t just part of you. It is you in a fundamental way.
Life is the story you tell yourself.
But how you tell that story — are you a hero, victim, lover, warrior? — matters a great deal. How you adapt that story—how you revise, rethink, and rewrite your personal narrative as things change, lurch, or go wrong in your life — matters even more.
Recently, something happened to all of us: We lost control of that story. For a time, we didn’t know who we were; where we were going.
We were lost.
What I’d like to tell you today is that as graduation presents go, having the plot of your life be disrupted in this way, while certainly not pleasant, may be the most valuable gift you’ve ever received.
The reason: All fairy tales go awry. Wolves have a way of showing up. But it’s what happens next that makes the story a fairy tale.
The hero shows up, too. And my message to you today: Be the hero of your own story.
I’d like to begin by bringing up something we don’t talk about a lot but that plays an oversized influence in how we think about ourselves: Our lives take all different shape. The parents and grandparents among us grew up with an idea that may seem old-fashioned today: Our lives would follow a predictable path. We would go from low-level jobs to mid-level jobs to higher-level jobs to retirement; we would go from being single, to being married, to being parents, to being empty nesters.
Libraries of books were written about this idea; entire university departments were devoted to this.
Our lives were predictable, straight- forward, linear.
None of this is true today.
Worse, the idea itself is dangerous. It holds you back.
Today, the once-routine expectation that you’ll have one job, one relationship, one faith, one home, one body, one sexuality, one identity from adolescence to assisted living is deader than it’s ever been.
For all the benefits of living nonlinearly — personal freedom, self-expression — it obliges us all to navigate an almost overwhelming array of life transitions.
That means our stories will be interrupted by lots of wolves, lots of ogres, lots of twists and turns.
So how do we do that?
That’s what I’m here to share.
I graduated from high school in Savannah in 1983 and spent the next 25 years living what we might consider to be a classic, linear life. I discovered what I wanted to do early on; I did it for no money for a long time, then I found success. I wrote books that made the bestseller list; I hosted television series; I got married and had beautiful children.
But in my 40s I had a back-to- back-to-back set of experiences that shattered that linearity. First, as a young dad, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer; then my family was hit hard by the Great Recession; then my family suffered a wrenching crisis.
I spent the last five years, crisscross- ing the country, collecting hundreds of life stories of Americans who’ve been through similar, life-altering experiences. What I discovered is that I wasn’t alone. All of us face a quickening of disruptors, one every 12 to 18 months, according to data I collected. One in 10 of those becomes what I call a lifequake and leads to a massive life change. We spend half our lives in a state of transition. You or someone you know is going through one now.
In fact, graduating from high school may be the first significant lifequake you’ve ever experienced.
So what advice can I offer you about how to get through these times?
In a word: Turn your lifequake into your life story. Turn the most upsetting, destabilizing, discombobulating thing that ever happened to you into a story of how you triumphed in the face of unbeatable odds.
Here are three concrete ways to do that:
Write it down. When the pandemic first hit, the one thing I compelled
my teenage daughters to do was write about their feelings. Boy, did they resist! Three decades of research has shown that people who write about their most stressful life experiences develop greater insight into their emotions and learn to express themselves more fully. They also get new jobs more quickly, new relationships, even new health benefits. Why? Because they turn their misery into meaning.
Tell a friend. Revealing your problems to someone else releases soothing chemicals in our brains and activates systems in our bodies that help us relate better to others. When people relate their most traumatic experiences, their blood pressure and heart rate rise in the short term, but afterward fall below where they started — and remain there for weeks. As the old saying goes, “A problem shared is a problem halved.”
Nail the ending. Researchers have found that the most important quality to a story that helps heal us is a story that has an upbeat ending. The event may be positive or negative, but the story ends on a positive note. The larger point here is worth emphasizing: We have a choice in how we tell our life story. We do not write it in permanent ink. There are no points for consistency, or even accuracy. We can change it at any time, for any reason, including one as simple as making ourselves feel better.
Which brings me to the ending of this story.
Transitions, disruptors, lifequakes. At their heart, they’re interruptions in our life stories. But conflict is the one precondition of a story. For there to be a narrative at all, something unforeseen must happen. The purpose of the story is to resolve this breach.
The Italians have a wonderful expression for this phenomenon: lupus in fabula. Fabula means fairy tale. Lupus means wolf. Lupus in fabula means the wolf in the fairy tale, and Italians use it as the equivalent of speak of the devil. Just when life is going swimmingly, trouble appears, ogres arrive, pandemics pop up.
I’d love to tell you that what just happened to you this year will be the last such disruption. But it won’t. Wolves will be a regular part of your life. And that’s OK. Because once you beat one wolf, you know you can do it again. That’s why we need fairy tales. They teach us how to slay our fears and help us sleep at night. Which is why we keep telling them year after year, bedtime after bedtime. They turn our nightmares into dreams.
Congratulations! Go outsmart your wolves. Go write your own endings. Be the hero of your own story.
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