On Being Broken, and the Kindness of Others

It’s graduation season all around higher ed, which means the proliferation of all sorts of seasonal trends: smart people wearing silly clothes (“academic drag,” as a colleague calls it), intricately-decorated student mortarboards, and the lilting chorus of air horns as newly-minted graduates stride across the stage. It’s also when we see the deployment of a veritable army of wealthy donors honorary commencement speakers dispensing business-speak bromides to an audience full of slightly dazed graduates, restless children, and what sounds like an outbreak of whooping cough. GOOD TIMES.

To be honest, I actually really like commencement season. There are few things better than seeing the students who struggled, or almost dropped out, or overcame some sort of significant obstacle (self-inflicted or otherwise) walk triumphantly across the stage. The students who grew, who persisted, who transformed, who challenged themselves (and me), who had the light bulb go on sophomore year, who wrote the best paper I read in a course-I celebrate all of them, I rejoice with them and their loved ones. Even the students who step on the stage while several of us whisper “holy shit; they’re graduating?” to one another-you’re damn right that I celebrate them, too.

Yet there’s always one part of the festivities that gives me pause, whether it’s at our baccalaureate service or the commencement ceremony itself: the “go forth and change the world” speech. The consistent refrains of “leadership” and “effort” and “stick-to-it-iveness” envision a world where individual effort is enough to overcome any obstacle, if you’re white, male, rich, persistent, plucky, and noble-minded enough to “see the job through.” To spin this tale to a collection of graduates going out into a world shaped by myriad structures of inequality, who’ve been told for years that good people magically bootstrap themselves into success and the rest deserved to fail, verges on the obscene. I wonder if the celebration of accomplishment–and exhortations to accomplish more–create an unrealistic and unsustainable bar over which few of our graduates can jump.

We’re not sending graduates “out into the real world”–they’ve been there for their entire lives, and most of them know at least implicitly how the deck is stacked against people regardless of how hard they’re bootstrapping. We have given our students a wide array of tools, and tried to prepare them to use those tools well for themselves and for their communities. We teach in the hopes of a better, more compassionate, and more just world. But then we tell a graduation-day story that assumes our graduates will go out into a broken world riven by hate, fear, and inequality but also that it’s their fault if that world beats them down. I don’t think we do this on purpose, but the myth is no less insidious for being unintentional. Consider this: as the college student population increases, so to has the incidence and significance of mental health concerns for our students. Substance abuse among college students exhibits several worrisome trends. The scale and scope of the sexual assault epidemic on our campuses is horrifying. The uncertainty of the post-2008 job market and the increasingly contingent and precarious nature of work in our neoliberal world present a post-graduation outlook that is bleaker for this generation than it was for any of their predecessors (to say nothing of the victim-blaming from those very forebears).

These are interrelated and telling concerns; they describe a significant portion of our students’ reality. Yet we’re telling them that effort and pluckiness will suffice to change the world, just like that effort and pluckiness got them to graduation. But it wasn’t just effort and pluckiness. For many of our students, the path to graduation was strewn with detours, interruptions, even crises like the ones detailed above–perhaps the way forward for them will be littered with similar obstacles. We celebrate the triumph over adversity, as well we should, but I wish we would give ourselves permission to recognize that adversity as something more than the thing we get over and never speak of again. If we don’t sit with the rough edges of our journey, we forget how we made it. Our students make it through like we did: sometimes through individual effort, but more often from the support, compassion, and vital companionship and affirmation of those around us. I don’t think we pay nearly enough attention to that fact. Nobody does it all by themselves, but I worry that we’re telling our students they have to do exactly that, rather than giving them permission to fail, to fall short, to admit they need help. Because those lessons are hard ones to learn, all the more so if there aren’t examples or encouragement for us to follow. Believe me, I know.

For me, this graduation season came with a reflective and somewhat melancholy ambiance, as my reservations about the message we send intertwined with my own remembered experiences. As I sat in the crowd this year, I wondered what I would do if it were me at that podium. How would I say the things I just wrote above? What would I tell our students? I think that if I was a commencement speaker, I would give the graduation address I now wish I had heard when I was 22 and “commencing” into the next chapter of my life. It might go something like this:

Good afternoon graduates. Well, congratulations. You made it. I know it’s a proud day for you and for those who love and care about you. There is so much to celebrate, and I’m sure all of you will do so robustly and enthusiastically in your own ways after we’re done making speeches at you. You should. You deserve to. But as you celebrate this day, I ask you to remember everything–and I mean everything–that led you to this moment. Because it’s a moment that’s only possible through the efforts of a lot of people who were around you during the journey. Some of them are still with you, some aren’t. Paths converge, then diverge again. You made it through a lot to get here today, but if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll recognize that the process of “making it” didn’t occur in a vacuum. There were times when others’ paths were the same as your own, and you journeyed together. And just as that was the case in the past, so it will need to be in the future. None of us do this thing alone, and the sooner we realize that it’s not only OK, but absolutely vital, to seek the help of those around us, the better our journeys will be.

 

Some years ago, I got off my bicycle at the edge of a pedestrian bridge high above the river, stepped over the rail, and thought about how long it would be until I hit the water. 

Everyone has their war stories, and I’m no exception. I had it harder than some, easier than many. I’m a sexual abuse survivor. I often felt trapped in violent mood swings that seemed to take control of me and thus everyone else around me. I took a lot of antidepressants, but they didn’t work very well since I drank lots of booze every day (pro tip: don’t do this). I had always kept things together pretty well, I thought, but it had become apparent that was not the case. There were the proverbial cries for help; I wrote a pseudonymous essay on substance abuse in academia that represented my getting honest for about a half hour (appallingly ironic in retrospect). But short-term catharsis was no match for long-term habits, and nothing changed. That night on the bridge, I believed I’d gotten to a point where I was thoroughly –and I thought permanently–broken.  I had no faith in my own ability to navigate what had become a pretty thorough mess of a life. A series of choices over the short and long-term brought me to that point, where I was considering (albeit in a substance-induced haze) perhaps the worst choice of all. 

But I chose differently. I chose to get back on my bike and to go home. It was no epiphany or miracle, but plain old fear. I was afraid of jumping, but I was more afraid of where I’d arrived. I guess that’s what made the difference.

The next day, I called for help. I checked into rehab. I started therapy. Over the next few months, I had to depend upon family, friends, and strangers in a way that was completely foreign to my experience. It is worth emphasizing that, almost immediately, I realized that I did not want to actually do any of this. I told myself I’d over-corrected. I knew, intellectually, that this process was good for me, but every other fiber of my being sought to resist. It seemed completely absurd. Why had I come through all of that to only flinch when the solution seemed so near? 

I was afraid of other people, and afraid of what I’d learn from them. I believed asking for help was an admission of defeat. I’m in a career field that places a high value upon the appearance of professionalism; I’m expected to have it together, to know what I’m doing. To admit that wasn’t the case was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I can see now that I wouldn’t have done it were it not for the people around me who helped me feel safe and supported when I was at my most raw and wounded. I didn’t want to talk about my past, what I’d done, or what had been done to me, but those around me helped me realize that if I didn’t, I would continue to carry it with me. Doctors, nurses, counselors, clergy, spouse, parents, siblings, co-workers, others in recovery, random strangers, Vin Scully, my pets–it was their voice, their connection, and their freely-given kindness that sustained me.

It was not the smoothest or easiest road from there to here; don’t cue the happy closing music yet. I still struggle. I still need lots of help. I still act like a jerk to the people who are helping. But I have learned this truth: there are times when life will break me. The problem isn’t being broken, it’s in not letting others help put me back together. When I graduated, I went out into the world, and the world beat me up while I sat and watched. I thought fighting back was a solo project, so I failed. Only when I gave others the chance to help me, and accepted that support and affirmation honestly and without begrudging it, did I stop getting beaten up.

That’s my advice, then, to you graduates. You will go forth and hopefully forge many successes for you and your loved ones. But you will also fall short. There will be failures. There will be wounds inflicted by yourself and by others. You will find yourself in places you did not plan to be. You may even find yourself broken.  And when that happens, remember that you are neither the first nor the last to end up there. Others have, too, and they can help. It is no defeat to ask for others to help you, and to depend upon that assistance. It’s a victory over fear and anger, that’s what it is. As a society, we tell ourselves that the individual reigns supreme. But it does serious damage when we take that ethos too seriously. Not every problem can be solved by an individual. Not every success is the product of an individual. There is no shame in recognizing those facts as they operate in our lives.

So find your people. They may be in front of you already, or you may meet them down the road. But find them and keep them close to you. Foster your communities–the ones in which you live, you learn, and you work. Most of all, I earnestly wish that you learn that it is OK to be broken, to stumble, to slide, and to fall. Just let the rest of us pick you back again. That’s all I ask.

 

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13 thoughts on “On Being Broken, and the Kindness of Others”

  1. Brilliant, Kevin. Absolutely brilliant. This is a commencement speech I would remember.

  2. This is the greatest commencement speech I ever read or heard (about). Telling truth to new graduates, a creative and radical proposition!

    Thank you, Kevin.

  3. What if you have trouble accepting help not (just) because you’re stubborn, but because everyone who’s ever tried to help you before has done it in the most hurtful, counterproductive way possible? I mean, I’ve had people eagerly offer to “help” me with my problems and then it turns out they think “helping” means “making all your decisions for you and throwing a hissy fit if you don’t like that.” I have trouble believing now that anyone who offers to help me isn’t secretly out to control me in some way.

    1. That’s a tough situation, for sure. I think it’s important to seek help from people who understand that help doesn’t mean control. Sometimes the hardest part for me has been to tell people honestly what I need, exactly, so there isn’t a conflict about what “help” means. Those are tough conversations, but my experience has been that being honest about that has worked.

      1. Thanks very much for your reply, Kevin. That’s a good point; usually people aren’t malicious, but sometimes there are misunderstandings about what kind of “help” is wanted. In the future I’ll try being more direct about what I need, even if it makes me anxious to say so.

  4. We’ve never met, but I always enjoy, and learn from, your posts and tweets. This wise, beautiful, honest, heartbreaking, and brave essay deserves as wide an audience as possible and should be shared with everyone who cares about education at any level and in every stage of life. I said to a colleague sitting beside me at our commencement last Saturday, when the chairman of our board of trustees welcomed our 2017 graduates to “the real world,” “…either there IS no ‘real world,’ or it’s ALL ‘the real world.’ Enough of this ‘college vs. the real world’ junk.” And for what it’s worth, I am honored to say we are historians out of the same Ph.D. program at the University of South Carolina. God bless you and all you do.

  5. When I read your post, I wanted to cry. Not from laughter, but for the dark place you must have been in in order to even have actively considered taking that final step. Thank you for not taking that step that would have ended it all; the world would definitely be a worse place without you, your insights, humor, pedagogy, etc., in it. And, there is no shame in asking for help; I hate how society perpetuates the belief that people need to be able to do things on their own, that they should be able to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps (but what happens if you can’t afford the boots to begin with or they don’t even fit?). To paraphrase a quote I ran across once, “If conflict, negativity, pain, etc., begins to take away your peace and harmony, your sense of self and who you are, seek help [through counseling]. Asking for help is an act of courage and strength. It shows that, although you don’t have all the answers, you’re willing to work to solve the problems [you are encountering/ that are blocking you from being the person you can become].” One thing that we have to be cautious of, in asking for help, is identifying the correct type of help that we need. Nothing can be more toxic than obtaining help that makes the situation worse or diminishes yourself even further (if you’re in that dark place).

    (My original response was much longer and a bit more detailed, but probably would not have been a good idea to post here.)

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