As the school year comes to a close, and those of you who are seniors prepare to graduate and move on to the next phase of your lives, I wanted to share a few pieces of advice to assist you with your ongoing transition to adulthood and independence. Some of my recommendations may seem a bit counterintuitive, but I hope you’ll consider them nevertheless.

  1. If everyone is special, then everyone is. If you’re like most Notre Dame students, you’ve received praise for your academic achievements, your hard work and good study habits, perhaps your athletic prowess, your involvement in meaningful activities, leadership skills, or any number of other accomplishments and positive attributes. You have every reason to be proud of them.
    That said, you are of inestimable value not because of your GPA, your degrees, your awards, your job on Wall Street or anything on your resume, but because you are made in the image and likeness of God. Remember as you make your way in the world that this is also true of every other human being on the planet, regardless of their position or status.
  1. Focus on the small things. How often have you been told to “dream big,” “reach high,” “shoot for the stars,” or “change the world”? What can be lost in grand ambitions—even very worthy ones—is recognition of the importance of the countless small interactions we have with others every day. Each of these has tremendous, and underappreciated, impact. Former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammerskjöld once wrote, “It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses.” Don’t let your aspirations to do good for the world blind you to the needs of those closest to you.
  1. Virtue is a choice. Even in a culture where everything is acceptable, you still have the freedom to make good decisions. You simply need the will. Remember, also, that a government like ours committed to individual liberty depends upon a virtuous people. Second President John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
  1. One person’s conduct matters more than you realize. You have no idea how many people are observing you at any given time. The way you live your life and the decisions you make on a daily basis can inspire and strengthen those who know you or give them cover for their own poor decisions. Assume others will emulate your behavior; then ask yourself what kind of influence you’d like to be.
  1. The method is more important than the result. I will confess it has saddened me in recent years to see how many students profess to believe in the Notre Dame ideals, but cheat on their homework and exams to get the grades they want. Character isn’t about attitude; it’s about actions, and it is made up of those same small, daily (sometimes difficult) decisions. As I have often said in class, every good decision makes the next good decision easier. Every bad decision makes the next good decision harder. If you compromise your principles in small matters (and you will discover that your grade point average is a small matter in the grand scheme of things), you will find yourself more likely to compromise them in larger matters where the stakes are higher and the results matter more. Character is like a muscle—if you don’t use it, it atrophies, and you won’t have the strength you need when it truly matters.
  1. Seek truth in all things. One of the most distressing developments of my adult life has been watching academic institutions and people in other positions of leadership reject truth in favor of alternative objectives like “compassion” or “equity” or “public health” or “saving our democracy.” A healthy but respectful skepticism will serve you well. And societies are stronger when they encourage inquiry and do not silence those who express doubt, demand proof, or offer alternative information. That which is true can withstand questioning; that which is false cannot.
  1. Be suspicious of power and of those who seek it, even—perhaps especially—if they claim to have the best of intentions. In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Satan tempts Christ by offering Him all the power and authority of the world’s kingdoms, saying, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” In my opinion, the real temptation here was not glory or fame, but the kind of power that would enable Christ to force humanity to do what is right; as an omnipotent God-King, Christ could most certainly have forced humanity to do what is right.
    But He didn’t. He chose obscurity and what appeared to be utter powerlessness. Christ understood that virtue never arrives at the point of a spear, or a gun, or a government agency, all of which can compel obedience, but nothing more. True goodness must emerge in the human heart and mind as an exercise of love and free will.
    Beware, therefore, of those who abuse earthly power in the name of doing good. C.S. Lewis put it in his inimitable fashion when he said, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
    The most oppressive and even murderous regimes in human history have justified their actions as being done for the betterment of mankind. Recognizing the inherent dignity and value of each human being means valuing the necessity of persuasion over the exercise of raw power.
  1. If you are a Christian, try to bring people to Christ. If you believe that Jesus Christ is “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” live that way. I’m not talking about preaching. Preaching is easy; practice is hard. The most persuasive evangelization is being a living witness to Christian principles.
  1. Forgiveness heals. Christ told us to forgive “seventy times seven times.” This is not some mere exercise in self-abasement to obtain benefits in the afterlife. Forgiveness reaps rewards in our earthly life. It releases from emotional torment those who have done wrong and those who have been wronged. It heals people and transforms relationships. It makes peace possible. We all make mistakes—sometimes grievous ones. If it’s yours, apologize and make amends. If it’s someone else’s, forgive.
  1. Aspire to wisdom above all else. In the Bible, wisdom is described as “the pearl of great price.” One of the most revered names for the Blessed Mother is “Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom,” and it is perhaps the greatest grace God has granted Her to bestow upon those who ask. Wisdom makes good decisions and virtuous behavior easier. It makes understanding possible. It makes forgiveness natural.  
  1. Be grateful. What you look for, you will find. Look for reasons to be grateful every day, and you will discover that your life is made immeasurably better.

I know I speak for all the faculty, administration and staff when I say that I wish you every success in life: good health, happiness, love, prosperity. May God go with you all and may all you meet see God in you.

Laura Hollis is Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Foundations of Business Minor, Teaching Professor of Accountancy and a faculty advisor for the Irish Rover.

Photo Credit: Matthew Rice

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