Posted by: Kathy Harmon on 6/19/2012 | 0 Comments
Every year schools across our country invite noteworthy individuals to give their commencement address.  I cannot name the person who spoke at any of mine but I was struck by this one given by David McCullough at the 2012 Wellesley High School graduation.  His advice is timeless.  I think that all of us could benefit from a good rousing commencement address now and then.  What McCullough speaks about isn't just a generational issue - it is a cultural one.  If you could use a little advice, motivation and inspiration pretend you are in his audience, in cap and gown, with your life ahead of you and decisions to make.  It's never too late to craft an extraordinary life.  Enjoy!

"So here we are… commencement… life’s great forward-looking ceremony.  (And don’t say, “What about weddings?”  Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective.  Weddings are bride-centric pageantry.  Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there.  No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession.  No being given away.  No identity-changing pronouncement.  And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos?  Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy.  Left to men, weddings would be, after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent… during halftime… on the way to the refrigerator.  And then there’s the frequency of failure: statistics tell us half of you will get divorced.  A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East.  The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.)But this ceremony… commencement… a commencement works every time.  From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.

No, commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism.  Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue.  Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field.  That matters.  That says something.  And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all.  Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same.  And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. You are not special.  You are not exceptional.Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special. 

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped.  Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again.  You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored.  You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie.  Yes, you have.  And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs.  Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet…But do not get the idea you’re anything special.  Because you’re not.  ...

Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools.  That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs.  But why limit ourselves to high school?  After all, you’re leaving it.  So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.  Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching sixty-eight hundred yous go running by.  And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe.  In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it.  Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although that hair is quite a phenomenon.“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection!  Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!”  And I don’t disagree.  So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. 

You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s “So what does this get me?”  As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors...

By definition there can be only one best.  You’re it or you’re not. If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning.  You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.  (Second is ice cream…  just an FYI)  I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.  It’s where you go from here that matters.

As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.  Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison.  Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction.  Be worthy of your advantages.  And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect.  Read as a nourishing staple of life.  Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.  Dream big.  Work hard.  Think for yourself.  Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.  And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.

The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer.  You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots roller skate on YouTube.  The first President Roosevelt, the old Rough Rider, advocated the strenuous life.  Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow.  The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil.  Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem.  The point is the same: get busy, have at it.  Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you.  Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands.  (Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life.  Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.)

None of this day seizing, though, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence.  Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct.  It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things.  Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them.  And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.  The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.Because everyone is.

Congratulations.  Good luck.  Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours extraordinary lives."                                                                    David McCullough

I volunteer at my church and is well known among the parishioners  - as is my cell phone number.  Over the past few years I have received several calls from seniors in assisted living facilities wanting to share the “goings on” of their community.  They frequently describe what someone said at dinner or the behavior of some notorious resident whose name, I am supposed to have committed to memory from previous conversations.  I frequently give advice on what response I might have to the words or deeds of these unkind acts.  For the most part this all seems rather silly or maybe the result of too little to do.    But a dear friend sent me an article yesterday that labels some of this behavior as bullying and perhaps that is what it is.

In the article Gina Kaurich, an executive director at FirstLight HomeCare is quoted as saying, “There is, in some regard, a caste system among residents,” Kaurich says. “There would be an elitist type of table in the dining room where you had people who could eat and drink and carry on conversations very well together. And if an individual who had trouble eating tried to sit with them, they would ignore them or say, ‘Why do you always seem to drop your fork?’ They’d speak meanly to them. It was like high school.”

“In the recreation room, if somebody didn’t participate the way somebody else thought they should, you’d see them get into that person’s face,” she says. “They’d be literally shaking their finger and saying, ‘How dare you call out Bingo when you don’t have a Bingo!’ or ‘How dare you sing that hymn that way!’ Even if the person was in a wheelchair, they’d be looking down at them, shaking their finger in their face.”

The article went on to quote a source called Bonifas to estimate that “10-20 percent of seniors are bullied with some type of senior-to-senior aggression in an institutional setting, much of it verbal abuse.  Both men and women can bully… but women tend towards passive-aggressive behavior like gossiping and whispering about people when they enter a room while men are more  ‘in your face’ With men, it’s more negative comments directly to the person…with women, it’s more behind your back.  But it doesn’t always stop at back-biting and bickering. Seniors have also been the victims of violence…sometimes over something as trivial as a coveted spot at the dinner table.”

I was shocked.  Somehow I thought that when we moved into the next stage of our lives it would be lovely to have all of these delightful neighbors for company.  But I found that when I hit middle age I got my first chronic ache and started to gain a few pounds.  That made me mad.  Part of the anger was directed at me for not being more disciplined about exercise and diet but some of the anger was about the aging process which I could only temper not stop.  Maybe some of these folks are angry, frustrated, hurting and end up taking it out on each other,

I checked with my own personal “senior circle” and found that indeed moving to an assisted living or skilled nursing community involves a social adjustment.  Being the “new kid” in the building can be every bit as traumatic as changing schools mid-year in grade school.  One likened the senior cliques to prison gangs with the same intimidating behavior patterns you see on TV.   She admitted that might be a bit strong but said the power of feeling picked on or ostracized in a group setting can be extremely painful.

If you have family or friends in a senior community pay attention to the dynamic when you visit.  Ask those you visit how comfortable they feel, who they like and dislike and why.  If you uncover any bullying or isolation behavior, meet with the staff or other professionals to seek advice on how to solve the problem.  Acceptance is a human need.  Isolation and loneliness can lead to depression and illness. Bullying isn’t just a kid problem.

I am honored to be a recipient of messages from Norm McNamara, a man that I have never met but whose messages from Britain I anxiously await each morning.  He is one of the great Alzheimer's missionaries who, once diagnosed, embarked on a quest to find a cure for himself and all the victims of this and future generations.  In his most recent message he tells what it feels like to be bombarded by grandchildren's questions, the chaos of a home filled with family on holidays, the fear of losing precious memories and the blessed understanding of his wife and caregiver.  Please share this with anyone who you believe might benefit. 

Message from Norm McNamara:  "I wrote this on Boxing day and i hope it goes some little way of explaining how someone with the diagnosis of Early onset Alzheimers feels on such special days, hope it helps, best wishes, Norrms and family xxxxxxxxxxx

Alzheimer`s On Christmas Day

I have nine grandchildren, two of which live in Australia, one who still lives in the north of England, and six who were in the same front room as me on Christmas day. Can you imagine how hard it is sitting there watching your grandchildren, both young and old run riot, when you know that there is such a good chance you are going to forget all of these happy faces? I have absolutely no memory of last Christmas so being sat there wondering how long it would be before I forget this one was one of the most emotional times I have ever sat through. 

The sheer enormity of the situation runs through your bones like shockwaves!! I sat there, trying to smile through complete anguish whilst trying to answer a million questions at once from my darling little ones. It was grandad this? Grandad that? And I have trouble keeping up at the best of times!!LOLL but through all this, all I saw was their smiles and their hopes in their eyes, I could almost feel their future mapping out in front of them, so much to look forward too, so much to do and so much to SAY!!!LOLL 

Just then, a hand slipped into mine and when I turned it was my “Angel” Elaine who always seemed to know when I was struggling a little bit. She gently squeezed my hand and smiled at me just at the point where I thought I was going to collapse into a heap, sobbing and upset. I smiled back and nodded at her, saying in my small way I had just caught up with myself and was ok for the time being. Elaine is my tower of strength and without her and my family I wouldn’t have the courage to do what I do now. 

When you have been diagnosed with Dementia/Alzheimer’s you don’t think about Christmases, weddings, births ECT, in fact you don’t think about much at first because your mind is in such turmoil. Being diagnosed with early onset and knowing you have it can be a curse as well as a blessing. The blessing is that you can spend precious time with your loved ones and your friends, you can cherish every moment of the day, and in my case I can continue to raise awareness to this awful disease and hopefully be around when the stigma that goes with it is totally eradicated and a cure found. 

The curse is knowing you have it, which is sometime`s just as bad as having Alzheimer’s. Along my travels in life I have met someone who had a brain tumour and survived. I have met a few who have been diagnosed with Cancer and now look the picture of health. I myself 16 months ago had to have an operation for a serious Hernia which had its complications. The surgeon told my wife Elaine and me just before I went to the operating table that I had less than a 10% chance of survival because of my heart problems so if we needed to say anything now would be a good time, I survived!! 

But!! I have never met ANYBODY YET who has survived Alzheimer`s!!! NOT ONE SINGLE SOUL!!! Can you imagine the frustration that runs through me when you hear of certain medical bodies who will not put patient before cost??? Can you imagine the frustration at knowing that millions still think its and elderly disease and not a disease of the brain? 

All these things and more just give me the drive and determination to change things. But most of all, the thing that drives me forward more than anything is the look of hope and expectation in my grandchildren’s eyes!! The sheer innocence of what is yet to come and the longer we can keep that innocence in their eyes the better!! This is why a cure must be found and found soon. I don’t want my grandchildren or anybody else’s grandchildren going through the horrors of seeing their grandmothers of grandfathers succumbing to this horrendous disease. 

I mentioned earlier about never having met anybody who has survived this disease, and unfortunately that statement is 100%true, but I would like to introduce the first person who WILL Survive it, and that person will hopefully be yours truly, myself, and thousands of others who come after me. The time has come now to raise our voices and make 2011 the year we all survive. Let’s hope and pray this is the year that everybody who is connected in some way with this disease see`s an end to the turmoil and destruction this illness brings. 

We Must Live In Hope 

Where There Is Hope, There Is Life 

Very best wishes, Norrms, Elaine and ever increasing family!!LOL xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx"

I will do all that I can to help Norm win this battle.  Please help.

I just got off the phone with my friend Mollie.  You’d like Mollie.    She’s beautiful, talented (musically gifted), funny, fit, has a great marriage and is a terrific mom.  You would probably never guess she spent 25 years of her life with a binge eating disorder.  But she did and this is her story.

Mollie remembers that at around age 12 her gymnastics coach suggested it might be better if she lost five pounds or so. Lots of people in her extended family had problems controlling their weight.  Her mom – a fabulous cook – put on weight easily and was vigilant about diet and exercise.  Her older sister had a medical condition that  produced muscle in abnormal amounts and prohibited the type and amount of exercise she could do and still retain a feminine form.

Mollie remembers that early on, from a variety of sources, she acquired the belief that only thin women “could get a man”,  or “a good job”,  or  “the audition for the musical.”  No one is specifically to blame for this: the message is everywhere.

That first diet introduced her to a sense of control.  She lost the weight but then put it back on, then lost it and put it back on (plus a couple of extra pounds).  Mollie has never been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder but she and some of her friends, believe she is a classic case.  She never does anything at a “C” level.  It’s  “A+” or nothing.  For those of you who strive for perfection in all that you do, you know how difficult it is to achieve, let alone sustain, that standard.

From her early teenage years Mollie remembers binging.  She would take a box if cereal to her room and eat it all.  She was literally a closet eater.  She never over overindulged in front of others; she actually sat on the closet floor stuffing herself, hidden from the outside world.  When she lived on her own she would buy a half- gallon of ice cream and make malts. She points out that she didn’t own a freezer so, of course, she had to consume it all in one sitting.  Or, she would order take out, not from one, but from all her favorite restaurants and eat until she contemplated a visit to an emergency room.  She couldn’t stand or bend and could only breathe if she was prone, physically in pain and wondering if her stomach would burst.

Had this been her only extreme she would likely have weighed 500 pounds.  But, there were the alternating diet phases.  She would exercise three times a day.  She tried every diet ever conceived (including prolonged fasting for as long as 30 days).  She remembers her tea and cigarette diet with particular horror.  I asked if she ever purged.  She said she has always been terrified of throwing up, couldn’t do it even with a bad case of stomach flu.  Mollie believes that if she had combined purging with binging she would likely be dead.

Eating for her was never normal.  She always thought about food.  When she was binging she felt terrible shame and guilt.  Her self- talk was all about “If only I were thin...then I’d be happy, have a great job, a wonderful relationship…but I’m such a failure.” When she was dieting and exercising obsessively she thought only of the specific food she would eat as soon as she hit the magic number. 

I asked if she was ever happy.  She remembers once feeling happy for about two hours.  She competed in a grueling fitness competition several years ago that required a brutal regime of exercise, diet and discipline.  There was a sizable monetary prize for the winner and Mollie, the consummate overachiever, focused on being number one. After 90 days she placed in the top 10 our of more than 20,000 contestants.  “I was incredibly fit and proud of myself for what I had achieved.”    But the  “happiness” drifted away within a couple of hours and was replaced by the overwhelming desire to eat her favorite food and then by the guilt and shame that followed overconsumption.

There is a happy ending to this story.  Mollie met Paul in her late 30’s.  She had pretty much given up on finding the perfect mate but there he was.  As the relationship progressed and she knew that she loved this man, she felt she had to share this terrible secret.  His reaction was.  “That’s all????”   Mollie felt an immediate lifting of the guilt and shame accompanied by the fading of “food” thoughts.   

“It wasn’t miraculous but close.  I still had bouts but they were far less frequent.  Recently, when I was pregnant with my first child, my friends told me how hard it was to lose weight after the birth and I was scared the old habits would return”.

The baby came and the weight came off with exercise and good food choices.  The old habits did not return.  When I asked her about how she views food now, she laughed.  “Paul and I love to eat but there is balance in our lives.  We go all out when it comes to food and eating.  When we travel, we plan entire trips around the restaurants we will visit.  But the next week we ramp up our exercise and eat a little ‘cleaner’ and we get right back to normal.  The key is that it is never guilt–laden.  It’s more like a game”.    I asked if she is happy now.  “Happier than I could ever have imagined.  I have a great husband, a beautiful child and a fulfilling life.”  Mollie credits Paul’s acceptance and the experience of motherhood as the stepping-stones to her healing.

1 2  Go to Page:  

  • In the years has been online, we’ve received hundreds of e-mails from visitors asking questions about legal documents, how to start retirement planning in their 50's, as well as advice on traveling with grandpa and the kids and making everyone happy.   We’ve also received personal stories of triumph and tragedy including the creative, often humorous ways people cope with stress, relationships, balancing career and family, 70 hour work weeks, job loss and the "agony and defeat" they encountered starting a new company.   In our newsletter, I periodically share stories about my glorious 86 year old mother and have named a collection after her.  This is YOUR SPACE.  Ask for advice.  Share stories.  I love your e-mails. It's simple.  Just click here!