A visit to my genius shrink, Paul Hyman. In the course of a lengthy conversation, I asked him what he would say to college graduates about what they must know to succeed at life. He looked dubious, so I refined the question.
“I mean,” I said, “what do you need to know now that’s different from what you, let us say, needed to know in the 1960s?”
Then, his majestically smart face lit up. And he gave me a list, which I am at best paraphrasing.
First, he said, materialism has become more powerful than it has ever been in his life. The worship of money and the things money can buy is more acute, more unchallenged, than it ever has been. This is a trap, because almost no one can ever have enough. There will always be someone with more. And most of all, the occupations that lead to serious wealth are not well suited to most temperaments. Trying to jam yourself into that round hole will do you more harm than good if you are square dowel.
Second, almost no one today knows anything about history. No one has context. But life without historical context is shallow and unsatisfactory. If you don’t know how mankind suffered in World War II, if you don’t know how your fellow Jews or Slavs suffered in the Holocaust, if you do not know what Communism did to fifty million good people, you cannot possibly know how blessed your life in the United States of America is in 2006. If you do not know how much your grandparents had to work to get you where you are, you cannot know how precious that car your parents gave you is, or how lucky it is that you can study without having to work at a part-time job. If you do not know how your fellow African Americans were treated in rural 1920s Mississippi, you cannot know how lucky you are to live in an America that has the opportunities this nation now affords men and women of every race.
Knowledge of history is context and context is everything.
Third, treating people with kindness and respect is almost an antiquity. You hardly ever encounter it any longer. But it yields great results in terms of what it does for you, and it is not a sign of weakness to be kind. It is a sign of strength. Plus, it is its own reward.
Fourth, be an individual. Because all of your classmates want to go into investment banking does not mean you have to. Because your classmates want to get high does not mean you have to. Because your roommates believe it’s great to be ignorant, you don’t have to. There was a sort of ersatz individualism in the 1960s, where all young people wanted to be different from their parents and became very much the same as all other young people. But there were some real individuals who really stood out and stood up. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Bob Dylan come to mind. So, in his own way, did Richard Nixon, who dared to open up China and bring an end to the Cold War.
It will not hurt you to be an individual. Try it. You might like it.
Fifth, compassion is always useful — mostly to yourself. It builds your character and makes you into a bigger, better person. It also benefits the person to whom you are showing compassion. It is the way all great religions want you to live. As far as we know, this is the way God wants us to live.
Sixth, go with who you are. As my dear pal, Ona Murdoch, likes to say (I am paraphrasing), “Just ordinary…don’t mess yourself up.” Not “Be ordinary….”, “just ordinary…don’t mess yourself up…” Just be yourself. Hard to do in today’s world, and similar to being an individual, but slightly different and very important.
I took all this in, along with the extraordinary good fortune of having Paul Hyman, MD, in my life. I wondered if, had Paul been born in say, 1980 instead of 1937, he would have been an investment banker changing money instead of saving lives.
I walked out to my car and passed by a statuesque, attractive, not young woman who had been heavily worked on, plastic surgery wise. She told me she had written a book. She gave me a postcard ad for it. The ad said (and I am not making this or any other part of this story up), “My parents went through the Holocaust and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” As far as I can tell, the book is about how badly the Holocaust affected her exercise, sex, and eating habits. She drove off in an eighty thousand dollar car.
How often, I wonder, does she get on her knees to thank the GI infantrymen of the Huertgen Forest or Bastogne? I think I know.