Live Your Life As If It Really Matters

by | Jun 29, 2008 | THRIVE! JOURNAL | 0 comments

things I wish someone had told me in high school

special guest

by Derrick Jensen

I WAS ASKED TO GIVE A TALK to the students at a boys boarding school, grades eight to twelve. I was scared, far moreso than at prison. I told the boys that, and I told them why: when I was in junior high or high school and was forced to attend all-school assemblies, I would sit in the back of the auditorium, hands in my pockets flipping off whomever was giving the talk, just on principle. I asked them to show me their hands. They laughed, and did.

I had long agonized over what I should say to them—how I could manifest the first rule of writing or speaking, and especially what gifts I could give to them that would be worth the honor of their time—and finally decided that as usual, when all else fails I should tell the truth. I said I was going to tell them some things I wish someone would have told me when I was their age.

“I guess the first thing I wish someone would have told me is that it’s okay to hate school, that it’s really crazy to expect people to sit motionless and to pretend to be interested as you bore them out of their skulls, and it’s even more crazy to expect them to like it.” The boys perked up. So did the administrators, but I suspect for different reasons.

“The only thing that got me through school was daydreaming. I spent all of eighth grade in the batter’s box in the seventh game of the World Series. Two outs, bottom of the ninth, down by two, runners on first and second, the count is 0-2. The pitcher hangs a curveball over the plate and BAM! There it goes over the left field fence. Okay, so that got rid of about fifteen seconds. Again, it’s game seven of the World Series. Two outs, bottom of the ninth. . . . I spent ninth grade repeatedly winning the NBA championship with a turnaround fadeway at the buzzer. You may have heard of me. In tenth grade it was a fingertip catch in the endzone to win the Super Bowl. I never did sink as low as hockey.” (A few years ago I forgot where I was and told that joke in Wisconsin: I was at a Buddhist retreat center, and I don’t think you can say you’ve lived until you’ve been chased down the street by a bunch of pacifists waving hockey sticks.) “After football, I cut right to the chase and spent my junior and senior years of high school and all of college fantasizing about putting plastic explosives under teachers’ desks, as well as the desk of anyone who committed that most unpardonable of all sins, asking a question with less than three minutes left in class.”

The boys were cheering. Judging from their faces, some of the administrators were wishing for some plastic explosives themselves.

“The next thing I wish someone would have said to me is that things will get better, especially if you take charge of your own life. At my high school graduation the valedictorian said we would someday look back on these days as the best of our lives. The first thing I thought was, ‘Boom, there goes the whole stage into a thousand pieces,’ but right after that I thought, if this is really as good as it gets, I may as well kill myself right now. But things get better. Junior high stunk. High school stunk. College stunk. The twenties were hard, maybe as bad as school, because it took that long to recover and begin to see and think and feel for myself. To teach myself how to think, and how to be in the world. But the thirties were good, because by then I had an idea of who I actually am, and I began to live it. And so far the forties are grand. (Thank you very much, Derrick, you’ve just condemned us to at least fifteen more years of hell.) So don’t give up. Things get better. So far as we know, you have only one life, and there’s almost nothing more worth fighting for than to figure out what you want—not what you’ve been told you want by parents or teachers or pastors or advertisers or army recruiters or people who write books and then come sit on this stage and tell you their teenage fantasies about blowing up their schools, but what you want—and then pursuing that if it takes you to the ends of the earth and to the end of your own life.

“The third thing I wish someone would have said to me is that I shouldn’t be such a wimp, that I should go ahead and ask the other person out.”

The looks on their faces told me this was advice they could use. I told them that the last thing my mother said to me as I got on a plane to California for the summer between my junior and senior years in high school was, “Make sure she’s eighteen,” and I told them that was the best thing she could have said to a very shy, very unsure young man who had never been on a date (a description, by the way, that also fit nearly all of my friends). There’s something else I wish I had told them, but I did not because the language didn’t come to me until later, and that is that I regret my mistakes of timidity more than those of recklessness; actions undone more than actions done. Regrets have never come from following my heart into or out of intimacy, no matter the pain involved, but when, because of fear, I didn’t enter or leave when I should have. Regrets have come when fear kept me from my heart. I wish I had told them that this has been true not just with women, but with everything.

I told them about high jumping. Although I’ve always loved high jumping, I was too afraid to jump competitively until I was a sophomore in college. That year, the coach discovered me messing around on the pit and convinced me to compete. I eventually broke the school record and won the conference championship, but then graduated and ran out of time. Because I’d been too fearful to begin jumping sooner, I’ll never know, I told them, how good I could have been. I vowed not to allow that to happen with my life: When I run out of time, I want to have done what I wanted, and what I could.

I also told them, “I sometimes think timidity is destroying the planet as surely as are greed, militarism, and hatred; I now see these as aspects of the same problem. Those in power couldn’t commit routine atrocities if the rest of us hadn’t already been trained to submit. The planet is being killed, and when it comes time for me to die, I don’t want to look back and wish I’d done more, been more radical, more militant in its defense. I want to live my life as if it really matters, to live my life as if I’m alive, to live my life as if it’s real.”

I took a breath.

“And I want to apologize, just as people in the generation before mine should have apologized to me, for the wreckage of a world we’re leaving you. The people of my generation are passing on to you the social patterns and structures, the ways of being and thinking, the physical artifacts themselves that are killing the planet. We’re blowing it, badly, and you’ll suffer for it. I’m so very sorry.

“Which brings me to the next thing I wish someone had told me. This one would have saved me years of distress. You’re not crazy, the culture is crazy. If it seems insane to you that our culture is systematically dismantling the ecological infrastructure of the planet, yet we pay less attention to that than we do to professional sports (Go Mariners!), that’s because it is insane. If it seems senseless to you that our culture values money and economic productivity over human and nonhuman lives, that’s because it is senseless. If it seems crazy to you that most people spend most of their waking hours working jobs they’d rather not do, that’s because it is crazy. There’s nothing wrong with you for thinking these things. In fact it means you’re still alive.

“I wish also that someone would have told me—one hundred times if that was what it took for me to hear it—that it’s okay to be happy, it’s okay to live your life exactly the way you want it. It’s okay to not get a job. It’s okay to never get a job. It’s okay to find what makes you happy and then to fight for it. To dedicate your life to discovering who you are.”

My time was up. The boys started yelling. Some rushed the stage (I could tell that some administrators considered doing this, too, though once again I suspect for different reasons). A tall, slender boy asked, eagerly, “Does all of this mean we never have to do anything we don’t want? Does it mean it will all be easy?”

“No. It will be very hard. You’ll make a million mistakes, and you’ll pay for them all, one way or another. That’s the only way you learn, or at least it’s the only way I learn. But the hard parts will be your hard parts, they won’t be hard parts other people have imposed on you for their own reasons, or maybe for no reason at all. And your ownership of them—your responsibility to and for them—makes all the difference in the world.”

this essay was excerpted from Walking On Water: Reading, Writing And Revolution

photo credits: High Jump © public domain, per the Wikipedia Commons

Derek JensenDerrick Jensen is the author of The Culture of Make Believe, A Language Older than Words, Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Eros, a USA Today Critics Choice for one of the best nature books of 1995, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, and How Shall I Live My Life?: On Liberating the Earth from Civilization. He writes for The New York Times Magazine, Audubon, and The Sun Magazine, among many others.


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