Anyone who's ever gone to school is likely to feel a certain jauntiness come the end of June. Summer is here. No more classes, no more books, no more teacher's dirty looks. Swimming pools and parks beckon; trips to the mountains, beaches or grandparents loom. The world, once more, seems, as Matthew Arnold said, "a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new.
For a 17- or 18-year-old graduate, that elation is multiplied a hundredfold. School is not only out for the summer; it's over with for good. Oh, for many there's college in the offing, but that's somehow different: an Eden of parties and romance, broken hearts that rapidly heal, kegs of foaming beer, lazy Sunday afternoons at the stadium watching football, and -- after four years of mind-numbing, dizzying bliss -- a degree, rapidly followed by a high-paying job, a Porsche 911, and that first million. So goes the pastoral daydream. Alas, our barefoot boy or girl will discover soon enough that the world is actually, as Arnold also reminded us, a "darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night."
Literature offers various aesthetic pleasures, but it has also traditionally provided instruction and counsel on how to live, confront adversity and find solace. The moral essay -- from Marcus Aurelius to Montaigne to Matthew Arnold -- has a long tradition, and one that still lingers on in bestselling manuals about the lessons we learn from kindergarten and the soul's need for chicken soup. Over the years I have been an occasional skimmer of such guides but have found that most of my own ground rules for better living -- or at least for getting through life -- derive from some of the less obvious byways of my reading. Since commencement speakers traditionally offer advice to the young in June, here, in no particular order, are a dozen of the quotations that one reader calls to mind in moments of confusion, stress and sorrow.
1) "Life is trouble." So proclaims the hero of Nikos Kazantzakis's novel, Zorba the Greek. Struggle, conflict, tension, disappointment, failure -- these are all signs that one is alive. If you try new things, some of them simply aren't going to work out. But one ought to shine in use, and the all too common desire for a Lotos-land existence of endless summer is really an unacknowledged death wish. Expect the worst, says Carl Sandburg in his forgotten poem, "The People, Yes," and you won't be disappointed. Life is trouble. Only death is no trouble at all.
2) Keep an "interior citadel." The philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius passed much of his reign on battlefields. But even on the fraying edges of the Roman Empire he always strove to maintain a stoic's inner tranquility, amounting almost to indifference to the world outside. He accomplished this by retreating regularly to an "interior citadel," a place in the mind where he could fortify himself against what Hamlet, that failed Danish stoic, called the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." From there, atop the crenelated ramparts, one can metaphorically look down on troubles from a great height, serene and detached. As Satan once observed, the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
3) "Constant work is the law of art as it is of life." Balzac followed every word of this sentence to the letter, burning many candles at both ends so that he could write all night the magnificent, melodramatic novels of La Comedie humaine. If you hope to accomplish something worthwhile during your time on earth, you will have to work. As a young man or woman, your goal should be to find the kind of job, craft, profession, or useful activity that you are willing to marry, till death do you part. After all, to miss out on one's proper work may be the greatest mistake of a lifetime. If you are born to be an artist, don't settle for being a mere lawyer or stockbroker. Compared to satisfying work even pleasure pales to insignificance.
4) "Do what you are doing." This, I believe, is both a Jesuit motto and a Zen imperative. That is, if you are making dinner or playing soccer or writing a memo, really focus your whole being on just that. Do it well. Thereby, you invest even the most trivial activities with significance, turning the mundane into the spiritual, perhaps even the ecstatic. A monk tending a garden at dawn is praying. By concerted acts of attention you can make everything you do a kind of poetry.
5) "The most effective weapon of any man is to have reduced his share of histrionics to a minimum." This was the watchword of Andre Malraux, the larger-than-life novelist, adventurer, art historian, politician. Malraux believed in maturity, in being a grown-up. Our natural tendency is to exaggerate our sorrows, anger and desires. But deep within we know that we are overreacting, indeed overacting. We get caught up in the situation, carried away by our own pleasure in personal melodrama. So we perform for the audience, sometimes an audience of only one. Instead of such staginess, we should remind ourselves that clarity is as much a mental and emotional virtue as it is a stylistic one. Do we really feel this riot of emotion? Is there any point to all this brouhaha? Should a grown-up behave like this?
6) "Cover your tracks." Bertolt Brecht made this the refrain to one of his political poems. When you go into the big city, he says, know that you are never safe; people will be watching every move you make. Your only hope of getting out alive is to "cover your tracks." "Whatever you say, don't say it twice/ If you find your ideas in anyone else, disown them./ The man who hasn't signed anything, who has left no picture/ Who was not there, who said nothing:/ How can they catch him?/ Cover your tracks." For me, this phrase stands as the rough equivalent to the more famous "Trust no one" formula of "The X-Files." In fact, one should trust everyone but give away nothing that really matters -- except to those who love you. "Cover your tracks" means to be careful, destroy your rough drafts, and never let them see you sweat.
7) "A thing is only worth so much time." Parents tend to specialize in certain slogans, and this was my father's favorite. It is a doctrine that needs to be applied with caution, because some things -- painting a picture, writing a poem -- require that we spend whatever time is needed to do them right. But many activities can needlessly absorb immense chunks of our lives. You can spend every Saturday afternoon for a year test-driving new cars before you pick the wrong one anyway. You can agonize for weeks whether to go for a physical or not. You can work 14-hour days downtown. But should you? Aren't there more important matters to attend to? "The cost of a thing," wrote Thoreau, "is that which I call life, which is required to be exchanged for it immediately or in the long run." This leads on to the following, associated motto:
8) "Get on with your work." At moments of emotional crisis, people sometimes just want to plop down and cry. You can do this for a minute or two, and probably should, but also remember that, as Disraeli said, "Grief is the agony of an instant: the indulgence of grief the blunder of a life." When I grow melancholy -- the occupational disease of writers -- I start doing household chores: I wash dishes and clothes, dust and vacuum, reorganize my bureau, box up books. While performing such activities, I'm allowed to be as depressed as I want, provided I keep on working. That's the key. Usually, within a few hours I feel better. At the very least I end up with a clean house.
9) "We must laugh before we are happy, for fear of dying without having laughed at all." A corollary to this insightful observation from La Bruyere is William James's dictum that if you act as though you were happy, even when you're not, your mind will eventually trick itself into a cheerier mood. What better gift, though, could the gods bestow than a sense of humor? "One can pretend to be serious," said the French playwright Sacha Guitry, "but one can't pretend to be witty." If you don't naturally possess a light-hearted spirit, at least try to acquire a sense of irony and compassion, and learn to smile at your own foolishness -- and the world's. As a dear friend used to remind me, self-pity is most unattractive.
10) "Live all you can. It's a mistake not to," announces Lambert Strether in a climactic moment of Henry James's late masterpiece, The Ambassadors. As the years roll by, it is tempting to settle for a half-life of routine, order and accommodation. But all of us ought to strive to be overreachers, ever restless, ever adventurous. T.S. Eliot said, "Old men should be explorers," but so should young men and women and 50-year-olds. Henry James also provides excellent advice for cultivating one's spirit: "Be one on whom nothing is lost." That is, pay attention, observe, learn, be as sensitive and responsive as your nature permits.
11) Choose some heroes and imitate them. To me, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Stendhal, Jane Austen, Chekhov and Colette are not merely great writers; they are also wonderfully humane and sympathetic human beings. Shrewd, self-aware, free of cant, urbane, kindly -- they are my secular saints. Once you have imbibed the personalities of such master spirits, you can turn to them as guides through life's moral thickets and ethical swamps. What would Samuel Johnson say in this situation? What counsel would Colette give? How would Stendhal react?
12) "Memento mori." We must all die, and doubtless it will be on a sunny day when the whole world seems young and fresh. No one likes to think about that last bad quarter hour, but it will come round eventually. Theologians in earlier centuries insisted that we meditate on death, so that we might review our lives, amending them where needed. That same practice can help even the most profane among us. If I were to die now, would I be wracked with regrets? Are there matters I should have attended to? Be prepared. In one of Tolstoy's parables a peasant is plowing a field. The narrator asks the old man what he would do if he knew that Death was coming to take him away within the hour. The peasant answers, "Keep plowing." How many of us could offer a comparably serene reply?
So there's my advice to this year's graduates. Easy enough to give, I realize, and hard to follow -- as I know, too. But let me conclude with one strongly personal plea, making a baker's dozen: Read the classics. The world is awash in bestsellers and frivolous nonfiction, but just as our bodies need physical exercise, so our brains need demanding books. Set aside some part of the day for real reading. Work your way through Plato; be touched by Cather's A Lost Lady and shocked by Rousseau's Confessions; feel the burning fever of Death in Venice; listen in on Samuel Johnson's repartee, and marvel before One Hundred Years of Solitude. Books, like great art and music and love, make us feel passionately alive. And isn't that what we all want?
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com.