A Non-Cynic’s Guide to Life

Some thoughts for the class of 2012.

The question is: Why should I try to love when the world is so full of horrible things?

The answer is: because you have to.

You all have been given an incredible opportunity to attend this school. You have been given so much in life, and like me, you will be given more. Most of you will go to college. Most of you have nice homes and nice families. Most of you have been given a lot, and a lot is expected of you. But going to college and being a doctor and making a lot of money cannot be it. It just can’t be.


We are so busy going, going, going, getting to the weekend, getting into college, getting into grad school, saving, spending, impressing, prepping, making people proud, making the most of ourselves, that we don’t see the miracle of everyone else. Where are we going? What’s wrong with this moment? What are we so afraid of seeing if we slow down and look around?

Maybe it’s this: We’d see that we’re not that important.

You are one person out of seven billion people on Earth. Our solar system, eight planets, is over three trillion miles long. Manhattan is 13 miles long.

And after the Sun, the next closest star is 4.3 light-years away. And that’s one of 300 billion stars and 100 billion planets in the 100,000-light-year-long Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way is one of an estimated 125 billion galaxies in the universe.

And our universe is expanding constantly, and it will continue to expand until the end of time.

So maybe you should be nice, because you’re not special. And that’s not mean, that is liberty.

Ch’ing Yuan, Zen Master, said this:

Before I had studied Zen for 30 years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to a point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

So the question is: Okay, I’m insignificant and no better than anyone else, and I will be nice forevermore. Why do I have to be in the arena, exposing my body, my feelings, my desires and my fears?

The answer is: because that is where real life is lived.

When was the last time you got lost in someone’s eyes? For many of us, when was the last time we looked someone in the eyes at all? Really looked at them, without giggling or making a joke or feeling scared. When was the last time you got lost in someone else and realized that that someone, no matter who, is as real a person as you? When was the last time you really touched someone? Felt their skin or their shirt or their hair? When was the last time you really tasted what you were eating? Really heard what you were listening to? Really smelled what was around you? When was the last time you got lost in someone’s eyes?

Living a sensual, open life full of kindness and love feels good. But that moment of true availability is hard to access. That is why I think everyone should fall in love every day. At least once, and not be afraid to say it. Make it a reflex. I have fallen in love today, again, with my friends in the back who have come to support me, my friends from Haverford. I love them. They mean everything to me, and they are what is important in my life. They are my best memories, and if it all ended today, I would not regret one moment we spent together doing nothing. Doing nothing with you guys is the joy of my life.

Please tell your friends and parents and coaches how much they mean to you. There is no reason not to other than our overwhelming fear of what people will think about us if we show them we can be affected by them. That is what is behind bullying and elitism and exceptionalism. We don’t want to be seen as weak and unimportant. But there is nothing weak about being empathetic and open and available. It requires honesty with yourself, respect for those around you, and the courage to be soft.

Conan O’Brien in his last Tonight Show>:

Please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism, for the record; it’s my least favorite quality, and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.

Mikhail Lermontov:

After all, the worst you can do is die, and you’ve got to die sometime.

Jack Kerouac:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

I love you guys, and if you are ever in New York, please call me, I’d love to get coffee with each and every one of you. Don’t be scared. I mean it.

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  • Diane

    I loved this young man’s comments, and would love to send this onto my young nephew (who I love with all my heart) he is a HS senior. What wonderful words to live by.

  • Diane

    This is wonderful great comments from a young man.

  • D Ciotti

    Without a doubt, one of the finest representatives of The Haverford School, and it’s great to read this and know that Joe’s talent and love for life will now be appreciated by many others. Remember the name — he’s going places!

  • Allen Wing

    As a member of the Haverford School class of ’99, its comforting to see that brilliance is still the norm at such a hallowed institution.