To the Class of 2021: Resilience

The lotus flower is everywhere: novels, films, tattoos. I never really thought about why that was. But recently, I read about a Buddhist ceremony where they pieced together a broken, porcelain lotus flower. They glued it together, a painstaking process, and then rather than sanding down the glue and painting over it, they accentuated the cracks with gold paint.

They weren’t trying to hide the cracks, they wanted to accentuate them – show them off, celebrate them.

“Our liberation,” they said, “is not about transcending or distancing ourselves from trauma or pain and suffering, but in acknowledging it.”

That struck me. After all, as a people, we spend so much time in trying to get over things, to bury our grief, forget our heartbreak, ignore our disappointments.

What if that’s what keeps us from growing?

I looked into this idea, and into the imagery and I learned that the lotus flower is actually one of the oldest religious symbols. It symbolizes, among other things, regeneration and enlightenment. They are one of the oldest living organisms, they can tolerate extreme heat and extreme cold, even having survived the Ice Age. Their seeds can live for thousands of years without water.

In fact, they can thrive almost anywhere, floating on ponds and rivers, embedding their roots deep into the mud below. Each night, the flowers disappear, submerging themselves into the murky water and then reappearing each morning, perfectly clean.

Lotus flowers are common in literature, myth, and art. They are also one of the oldest religious symbols, representing rebirth and enlightenment.

The religiosity is obvious: the imagery of rebirth and resurrection. But it is also a testament to faith and renewal, to the flower’s refusal to be defeated, taking the nutrients it needs to grow and flourish, without succumbing to the darkness below.

Maybe the analogy is a little heavy-handed, perhaps kind of cliché. But it’s been on my mind a lot lately — as we approach the end of this school year, the end of this pandemic — especially when I think of all of you, and of us, and what we’ve lived and seen and lost. And I think again of our tendency to either embrace escapism or defeat, hiding our scars or keeping our wounds open and wallowing in that suffering.

We can’t erase our stories. We can’t ever defeat our demons. Instead, we learn to accept what is.

People keep talking about a return to normal, as though that’s something that we could ever achieve. We can’t return to normal. We can certainly rebuild and bounce back, but we’ll never have the lives that we were supposed to have. We’ll never have those moments, those experiences, those milestones. We’ll never become the people that we would have been.

Instead, this was our path. This was not the year that we wanted or the one that we expected. It has been a dark time in our history – for so many reasons. That’s part of my concern for all of you. There are so many problems in the world. And there are so many things that you’ll face.

How will you respond to them? To quote Hemingway, “the world breaks everyone.” What will you do at those moments?

You could choose anger. It’s certainly easier to rage against the world and everyone around you.

You could give in to despair, give up and give in. That can be tempting.

You could become numb and cynical, choosing the quiet comfort of apathy.

I hope that you don’t. I hope that you’ll get back up, tend to your wounds, and find that “afterward [you] are strong[er] at the broken places,” ready to go on with the messy business of living.

I hope that you take solace in what you learned this year. You can adapt. You can survive. You can emerge stronger and wiser than you ever thought that you could be. You can absolutely help make the world better.

I hope that you do.

I hope that you aspire to serve a purpose greater than you, that you choose to give back. But you must remember that first and foremost, you have to learn the lessons that are meant for you. To be self-aware means doing the work of unpacking all of who we are — not just our best intentions but also our most destructive tendencies — of acknowledging our flaws and shortcomings. Only then can we begin the work of being better.

To survive, to thrive and bloom, we need to be tested. The murky darkness threatens to submerge us, envelop us, but it also nourishes us, makes us stronger and more resilient.

As we close out this year, as you look forward to new adventures and new challenges, remember that your scars, literal and figurative, are nothing to be ashamed of. They are a testament to your victories. Learn from them.

Remember: you can, and you will. I believe in you.