“All those who wander are not lost.” J RR Tolkien
Probably being a “wanderer” is not the first word that comes to mind when looking out at a sea of scholarship students who have stayed the course and not wavered in their goals to graduate with honors. And yet today I would like to encourage you to wander.
Each student sitting here can be extremely proud of what you have achieved. I am sure that each of you, looking back at the path that led you to this point, has a story to tell of ups and downs, defeats, missed opportunities and successes. Sometimes you were discouraged. Sometimes you were encouraged. It wasn’t always easy. There were times when you wanted to give up. Seemingly insurmountable challenges came your way. Yet, somehow, each of you found your own path. Through it all you refused to be swayed. You kept on going. Each of you found the method that worked for you, each of you found the strength and determination to take that extra step, that step that most people aren’t willing to take. And that is why you are all sitting here today, feeling, with good cause, proud of yourselves.
So I am not worried that you have focus. I am not worried that you do not understand or value your education and the doors that it will open for you in the future. I applaud you for setting high standards and for taking the initiative to achieve your goals.
What I would like to encourage you to do is to wander a bit. Step outside of your comfort zone and try new things, be creative, take a leap of faith every once in a while. You have been cocooned for these past years in a safe environment—in the really exceptional school that is East Los Angeles Skills Center. You have had people who have influenced your lives in the best possible way: Teachers, counselors, a great principal and staff. Now, you are being thrust out into the world. Many of you already come from challenging environments so you know what it’s like to go against the norm, stay in school and succeed where many around you have not. But your home environment is still a very small world and not at all indicative of what is out there beyond its borders.
And it is a BIG world out there filled temptations and distractions on the one hand and amazing opportunities on the other. It is a world with many mysterious doors waiting to be opened, leading in all kinds of fascinating directions. If you have your sights set on a certain career or a particular type of college studies, take the initiative on your own to do something that will enhance your learning experience. For example, work with a nonprofit during the summer building houses in another country. Go someplace that will take you completely outside of your familiar environment. Take a skill that you are good at—carpentry, art, writing, athletics, organizational skills—anything—or choose something that you’re not yet proficient at but have always wanted to learn, and use it to benefit others. Start now by making this type of mentality a priority in your life. These types of experiences lead us in unexpected directions, opening doors that we would never have found if we had simply followed an easier, more traditional path.
Don’t be surprised if you spend years studying one thing and end up working at something completely different. That’s okay. Your studies are never a waste of time. Every pursuit in your life that teaches you self-discipline and that opens your mind to learning is going to benefit you in the long run—no matter if it is traditional education or an unexpected experience.
My father study mathematics and business at UCLA. He became a successful businessman but he wasn’t happy. He wanted to be a writer so at the age of forty he did a bold thing—he stopped being a businessman and started to write. As a result he carted our family off on an amazing journey traveling the world so he could gain inspiration for his books. If he hadn’t had the courage to take that leap of faith and completely change his life, my life would not have been as rich. What he did greatly influenced me. It opened the world to me and helped me to realize that I, too, could do anything I wanted; I could follow my dreams no matter how fool-hardy some people might say they were.
It’s important to remember that we are all connected. What I do affects you and what you do affects me. What my dad did changed my life. What I choose to do affects the lives of my children. What you do affects the lives of those around you. Here’s an example:
A few years ago I was in Boston attending the Reebok Human Rights Awards. This was an inspiring event. Awards were given to a small, select group of individuals from around the world who were working to bring change in their communities, facing adversity and often danger. I remember one man from an African country with a repressive government received an award for a newspaper he was producing. It was quite likely that this man would be put in prison when he returned home for having had the nerve to travel to America and receive this award, bringing international recognition to the plight of his countrymen and women. So these weren’t some kind Hollywood awards where people were patting each other on the backs. No. These people meant business—they were standing up for basic human rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, proper health care and the like. They were doing this in spite of facing severe persecution for their actions.
After attending the ceremony, a group of us went to lunch at a very nice restaurant across the street from where we were staying. We were all aglow, greatly inspired by what we had witnessed over the course of the conference. After lunch we exited the restaurant, well-fed and content. It was a freezing cold day in early spring. The Boston air was misty. You could almost see the moisture turning to ice before your eyes. Immediately we realized that there was a commotion on the other side of the street. We looked, barely able to believe what was happening. A few yards from us stood a man who was completely naked. Never before that day had I seen anyone who was literally blue with cold, but that man was. I cannot describe to you how surreal and horrific it was to see him in that cultured setting, right when I was feeling so inspired and, I have to say, a bit smug for having attended this award ceremony and being in the company of such inspiring people. That man was an assault to my senses. That man was a harsh reality that could not be denied, could not be hidden or somehow shuffled away. He was the essence of what the ceremony had been all about. And now, what was I going to do about him?
We all just stood there for a moment, shocked. People were passing by the man, making a wide path around him. Some people were smirking, looking back at him in distaste as they hurried by. Others looked afraid, others horrified.
I felt a growing sense of urgency over the course of those few moments of standing indecisively, wondering what to do. Something had to be done. This poor man couldn’t keep walking like that completely naked, freezing to death. But what could I do? I mean, really, what could anyone do? What possible difference could any action of mine make? And I noticed that no one else was doing anything. I told myself that this wasn’t my city. I was just a visitor passing through. But on the other hand, I had just come from this inspiring ceremony where, coincidentally, one of the recipients was a woman who worked with the mentally ill street-people of New York. I thought to myself, what would she do? I knew the answer.
There were about six of us in our lunch party. I started to walk towards the man and the others followed behind me, questioningly. I had on a warm new coat that I had bought especially for this trip because in Los Angeles I didn’t really need such a big coat. But I was not a well-to-do person. I was a struggling single mother with my own money worries. In fact, I was by far the poorest person in our group. Yet I could not stand there and do nothing. So, I did the only thing that I could. I took my coat off and approached the man, holding it out to him. He became very emotional. He told me not to come near him—he said it as if he was some kind of lower form of creature and he was not worthy to have anyone approach him. He told me to put the coat down, walk a few paces away, and he would take it. He blessed me for my kindness. Other people had now stopped to watch the encounter. I put the coat down, then stepped back a few paces. He tip-toed up, shivering badly, and took the coat and put it on his body, thanking me profusely. At that moment, a police car arrived to take the man away. The officer asked if I wanted my coat back. I said no, I’d given it to him and it now belonged to him. The officer asked me again, shaking her head as if I was a fool. I faltered a bit, but still said no, it belonged to the man.
The man was taken away, the crowd disbursed, some people looking at me and smiling and shaking their heads—and I thought to myself, wow, they think I’m an idiot. We walked back to our hotel. I was deep in thought. What was the point of what I’d done? The man would probably lose the coat or it would be stolen from him in jail. Or maybe he was just so crazy, he did the same scenario over and over, walking around naked until some bleeding heart like me gave him a coat. Who knew what he did with the coats, threw them away? I mean, he was a crazy man! And I couldn’t afford to lose that coat. Boy, was I naïve!
So I was talking to myself in my head like this when a young woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, “Excuse me, I just want you to know that I saw what you did and I will never forget it. It made a huge impression on me. I mean, to do that for someone else, it took a lot of courage…thank you so much!”
She was a college student. I don’t remember her name. I’ve never seen her since and probably never will again. But I realized something extremely important that day: I realized that I should never be afraid to follow my instincts—never be afraid to break away from the crowd and take a stand for what I believed to be right. None of us is responsible for anyone’s actions but our own. I was not responsible for any of the other people on that street. Only myself.
It can be lonely, I assure you. People can ridicule you for it. But really, for most of us, life isn’t about making a big statement on a stage. Most of us aren’t going to receive the Reebok Human Rights Award—although I wouldn’t put it past any one of you to receive such an honor. But our lives are about the little choices that we make every day. Sometimes those choices can seem insignificant, even absurd and surreal—like giving a naked man a coat on a freezing cold day in Boston. But we never know who might be watching or listening—who we might be influencing. Because everything that we do has an impact on someone around us.
Taking a chance, moving outside of our comfort zones, being courageous…this is what will make our lives exceptional. This is what will lead us towards life-changing encounters with other people. Each of us has a limited amount of time on this planet. And all of you are at an important crossroads, really at the point where you begin to take control of your own lives. We must ask ourselves: what are we going to do to make the time that we have on this planet meaningful and extraordinary? If we live within the confines of what is easy and comfortable, chances are we will have a decent life, but if we choose to wander a little, take a leap of faith here and there, we will have an exceptional life.
That is my hope for each of you here.
All who wander are not lost.
Take it to heart. Take a trip to an unknown destination and see what awaits you. If you have built a firm foundation, which each of you has, of self-discipline, a love of learning and a desire to do your best in all things, you will never be disappointed. You might be discouraged, your courage might be tested, but with each step you take you will become stronger and you life will be filled with exceptional and meaningful experiences. This is a golden opportunity, sitting here right now, to make a resolution to wander.
- Teaching WORDPOWER to probation youth at East LA Skills Center