Today is your graduation day at Rhodes College, and I see your smiling face beaming with pride as you celebrate this momentous occasion with family and friends. I can’t believe that Commencement was ten years ago today. I have lived ten lifetimes in that decade, but you have no way of knowing about that. You’re so focused on today, and that unpacked dorm of yours, and making your final farewells to your friends that you have no time to think about what your life will be like in a decade.
I struggle to know what kind of letter I want to write to you. I wish I could warn you of every poor decision you’re going to make in this decade so that you can make the right ones instead, and I wish I could tell you who will break your heart so I can protect you from a lot of pain. But if I told you these things, then I would cease to be the man I am today, and brother, I gotta tell you, I like the man that you become. You are the sum total of all your parts, so I will not sway you from your difficult journey by unmasking what comes next.
So I want to tell you about yourself. You don’t even know who you are yet, because you have yet to walk the road that I have trudged. You will fall down many times. You will break your bones. You will break your heart. You will be tempted to give up so many times, to give up on music, to give up on God, to give up on people, to give up on you
But Jimmy, you’re more resilient than you know, and you should know that life will demand more from you than it will from many of your friends. I want you to look at our parents right now, because you will bury them both in the next decade, and you will bury your grandfather as well. I’m still adjusting to life without an umbrella, and I imagine that I will be adjusting for years to come.
You will lose the faith that you presently confess, and the religion that you cling to so tightly right now will become foreign to you. The rigorous rules of your rigid doctrine will not be able to contain or explain or even justify the many pitfalls you will encounter on the road that lies before you. You will shake your fist at God, and you will abandon Him in your heart, only to find that you cannot abandon God without abandoning yourself. This cosmic reordering of your soul may be the most traumatic part of your journey, because you will struggle to explain it to many of the men you are in community with right now. But it’s okay, because your allegiance is not to them, but to yourself. After all, of all the many relationships you will enjoy, there will be only two relationships that will last your lifetime: the one you have with God, and the one you have with yourself.
I wish that I could tell you about every wrong decision that you’re going to make in the next 10 years, and I wish that I could tell you about every broken heart you will experience before you get to my point in time. Then I could protect you from a decade of pain and loneliness, and I can steer you away from the poor choices that I made. But I cannot do that, because I am the sum total of all the decision you will make from this day forward, and the decisions we made in the days preceding. And brother, I gotta tell you: I like the man that you become.
So I can tell you, with scars on my body and my heart, that you will live. You will thrive. You will see the world, but you will feel safest where you belong, which has always been with yourself and the family that you choose. You have chosen to make a living out of music, and music will treat you well. She is a fickle muse, music is, but she will be your compass, your sextant, and your anchor.
And I can assure you, Jimmy, that you will always belong with the family that you choose for yourself. You will struggle to believe this as a 21 year old, as I struggle to believe it as a 31 year old. You will always feel the need to prove yourself to everybody you meet, and on your darker days, you will want to hold up your scars to the world to say, “do you see how you fucked me over?!” You will want to isolate yourself from the crowd, because you will always believe that the crowd will not make room for you.
So look at your friends. Look at them right now, because they will make room for you. They already have. And that journey that you’re going to walk for the next 10 years? You will never be abandoned, and you will never be left behind. Though there may be some profoundly lonely seasons, you will always have a companion to guide you on even the darkest nights of your soul.
Now look at yourself, with your Red Chuck Taylors and your graduation gown, your tassel tangled up in your beard, your diploma in hand. You don’t know this yet, but you are one tough son of a bitch. You need to know that, no matter what happens in the next decade, you will survive. You will survive every bad decision you make, and you will survive every bad decision made on you. You will live through every calamity of life, and no act of God will tear you down. I know this, because I am writing this letter to you, and my heart beats with love, my nerves pulse with passion for who you are and who you will become. Anybody who challenges your masculinity neither knows you nor respects you; you do not give them an ounce of your respect, either. You are funny as hell and quick on your feet. You love people well, and I so deeply respect your expectations for significant relationships. I am so excited for you to meet some mentors and heroes of mine on this journey; I know that you will love them well, as they love me well. But you need to stay focused on this present day, with all of its pomp and circumstance, because this day is all that you have.
Finish this season well, Jimmy. You may have the diploma, but you’ve got one more night with your friends on this campus. Finish well. Say your Goodbyes and Thank yous and I’m sorrys and I love yous, because you may never see some of these people again. Or you just might, but say them anyway before you drive away from this place.
I am so proud of you, Jimmy, and I am proud of that man that you will become.
With love and deep admiration,
This essay is part of an ongoing series on my experiences with grief and resilience. Read the rest here: