The Hard Days

by Sue Kemple, CEO, My Last Soundtrack

On Sunday, President Obama delivered an anti-Trump commencement address at my alma mater, Rutgers University. While I’m currently all about anti-Trump rants, I’m more partial to commencement addresses that speak directly to the hearts of the graduates. Author and columnist Anna Quindlen, for instance, gave a powerful commencement address to our graduating class 25 years ago, a talk mostly about the importance of not conforming to the world’s expectations and choosing instead to discover and become who we were each meant to be.

I was pretty satisfied with myself after that talk. Because anyone who knows me knows that I’ve never been one to exactly conform to anyone’s expectations. I’ve always just been who I am. In a sense, that talk made me feel as if perhaps I’d “arrived” a bit sooner than the majority of my classmates, the ones to whom she was apparently addressing her words, the ones whom I assumed were more prone to self-doubt, wanting to fit in, and being anyone but themselves.

A month later, just after my arrival in the world as a college graduate, that world came crashing down when my brother – and at the time, my best friend – lost his life in a car accident. In the midst of my overwhelming grief, I couldn’t make sense or meaning of anything. It was only years later that I’d come to see how much I hadn’t arrived at all – unless by “arrival” one means coming to the end of one leg of your lifelong journey, and arriving at the beginning of the next.

I wasn’t, as it turns out, who I always would be.

Indeed, nothing shows this truth more clearly than loss. Which is why Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement address to the students at California Berkeley on Saturday was such a powerful one. She lost her husband just one year ago, and that loss – a pain which is still fresh and raw – has profoundly changed her.

“I am not here to tell you all the things I’ve learned in life,” she says. “Today I will try to tell you what I have learned in death.”

You can listen here to Sandberg’s intensely vulnerable and heartfelt words. (The meat begins about four and a half minutes in.)

Her words resonate with me, because I’ve been there. Indeed, I’ve learned so much from death, from the many loved ones who’ve died since the day my brother did, and the losses that have come from other places, too – the loss of countless dreams, the sons who’ve grown and don’t need me so much anymore, the projects I’ve built and led and had taken from me, losses of jobs, shocking betrayals from the most unlikely places, the loss of relationships that I’d entered into thinking they were for life. Just when you think you’ve “arrived,” when everything in your life seems to be going as well as it possibly can be… well. The question that keeps you up at night then becomes this: if I’ve already arrived, where am I headed next?

It seems like every time I’ve been in that place, that’s when the blow of some kind of loss has been dealt. That’s when I realize – again – that arrival is not the point. The journey is ongoing, until the day of your own death. Life ebbs, it flows, and the losses? As the years go by, they only come harder, faster, and more often. When you’re stuck in the midst of one, as Sandberg says, it feels like you’ll be stuck there forever.

But you won’t. A new opportunity comes along. You land meaningful work. Children are born. You find love in unexpected places. And while you never get over the losses, you do begin to put them in perspective, lay their pain in manageable places, and even be thankful for the growth they have produced in you. All the while knowing that, yes – the pain of loss will strike again. No well-meaning blog post or commencement speech can prepare you for it. But if you live long enough in this world, and love anyone or anything at all, grief will strike. It always does.

When it does, you’ve arrived indeed – but only to the beginning of the next leg of your journey. And throughout that leg, it’s the hardest days that will determine not only who you are, but who you are always becoming.

It’s such an ironic and beautiful thing.

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