Living Through History – Remembering what you’ve learned

A UMass professor delivers a graduation message to her "distanced" students.

Editor’s note: Jarice Hanson is Professor Emerita from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, where she was a member of the Department of Communication.

To my graduating seniors at UMass:

If I were standing in front of you in our classroom, I’d look at you with pride and hope. I’d want to say just the right thing that would stay with you as you enter the next chapter of your lives, and I’d want to remind you that in our class we focused on dealing with the unexpected changes in our lives, and the joys and challenges of living in a world in which change happens faster than you may think you can comprehend.

I know you’re frightened and anxious about your future. That’s normal. But remember, you’ve also learned some extraordinary lessons along the way and you’ll be surprised what lessons you keep relearning. We’ve talked about how you fear “adulting”—the process of becoming an adult with all of the responsibility that comes along with becoming independent, but you don’t have to leave all of the good things behind—you can choose to think about your life lessons and see how well they serve you.

“Adulting” is remembering the child you once were. Photo: Fredy Martinez Enamorado from Pixabay

I want to remind you of every moment in which you realized you had far more power than you ever thought you could have. Some of that power came to you when you felt something resonate in your mind—whether it was a new way of thinking about a problem, or a new challenge that you mastered—or maybe it was just a moment of clarity that helped you feel more resilient. Sometimes your energy exploded by meeting someone who woke you up with a fresh perspective or a statement that made you realize how much it means to connect with someone new.

Do you remember the time we talked about how children have an instinct for how to calm themselves when they’re frightened? Children pant, or breathe deeply. Their little shoulders rise and heave as they take in breath to calm themselves. Adults forget that basic technique. What do adults do when they get frightened? They hold their breath. They do everything a child doesn’t do, and with what effect? Have they “unlearned” something they once knew instinctively? Perhaps. But I want you to remember the lessons you’ve learned not just at the University but throughout your life.

You may think that “adulting” is leaving childhood behind you. You could not be more wrong. Adulting is remembering the child you once were, and using the imagination you once had to lift your spirits and find something that makes you smile. Something that takes you away from the place of fear and makes you become optimistic that change is not always bad, but that it’s a new opportunity to see the world in a fresh way. I think of it as seeing through the eyes of a child who hasn’t yet “unlearned” to see potential for something wonderful.

A couple of weeks ago I asked you what you thought would change once the pandemic ends.   Every one of you said you thought our lives would return to what they once were. I don’t think that answer is worthy of you. If you can’t see a world of possibilities at the end of the pandemic, I’ve failed you. My goal was always to stimulate your imaginations, wake you up to the wonders of science and humanity, and to remind you that people, when they pull together, are capable of remarkable change and growth.

We look around us now and see heroes that we didn’t see before. We see structural inequality that begs for action. We see people who need our help in a whole new way. And I think that one of the most exciting challenges we have before us now is to imagine how we use what we know and our talent to create change that lifts us all up to a new standard of equality and connecting with each other.

If we keep remembering to exercise our imaginations, we have no limits on what we might achieve.   How do we do that, you ask? We do it the way we approach any problem. We break it down to the smallest parts and start to imagine the path along the journey, step by step.

Photo: Gerd Altmann from Pixabaya

If I could give you one image to help you exercise your imagination, it would be this. Find one beautiful thing every day. Make this a habit, like brushing your teeth, or having a cup of coffee in the morning.  You might look into a loved one’s eyes. You might watch a baby laugh. You might see something in the clouds that gives your logical mind a respite and lifts your eyes upward, where the imagination thrives. You can tell someone a story that makes you happy, and share your imagination with others. Surround yourself with people who remind you to use your imagination and share with them. Whatever you do, practice. Reinforce those valuable lessons that are easy to avoid when “adulting” becomes scary.

Whatever you take from this course, or your University education, remember that learning is a life-long process. Fear, change, and fear of change are normal. But if you remember your lessons and trust yourself, you’re going to get through this “adulting” phase and you’ll be surprised at how resilient you’ve become, and how much you’ve learned.