To the students of this school, twenty years ago I was where you are today, in your place, except unlike most of you—I hope—I wasn’t listening. I was too busy dozing off while the commencement speaker talked about her life. I was too busy spacing out, thinking about the future and what it had in store for me, that I probably missed opportunities at a series of lessons—lessons I had to learn the hard way years later. Moral lesson of the story? Listen. Listen like every speaker is worth your time. Listen like you were some international spy who needed to find all the information she could about something that was supposedly top secret. Listen as if the person speaking to you would kill himself if you didn’t listen. Listening helps a lot. It helps you, and it helps the person you’re listening to. It’s one of the few acts that benefit both ends. Just, please, make sure it isn’t junk you’re listening to.
When I first started working as a clinical psychologist years ago, I came upon a man whom I had diagnosed to have manic depression. This psychological illness, also known as the bipolar disorder, describes a category of mood disorders defined by the presence of one or more episodes of abnormally elevated mood. Symptoms of this include depressive episodes in the patient, mixed episodes in which features of both mania and depression are present at the same time, and psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions. At its worst, it can closely resemble schizophrenia. Anyway, this man was of the cyclothymia subtype, meaning he wasn’t the type to undergo major depressive and manic episodes. He called me up one fine early morning. It was 1 a.m and being my usual selfish self, I told him I’d be seeing him later anyway during our scheduled appointment. I hung up before he could even reply. Bad move on my part. He missed our appointment that day. Turns out he tried to kill himself, but failed. He called me thinking I’d successfully talk him out of it. He failed himself by attempting at a suicide. I failed him by not listening. I failed him, I failed myself, and I failed everyone around him. I was more of a failure than he was.
But failures teach us lessons—they’re probably the best teachers you will ever have. I learned that everyone was worth my time and that if at first a person seems fine, dull, or rude at first glance, then I just had to look deeper. I learned to look into people, to be in tune with their thoughts, their feelings, and their whole being. That feeling of empathy—of understanding—suddenly seemed so familiar. I realized I had already possessed these when I was younger and that I had just forgotten how to empathize and understand. I had been able to empathize while remaining detached, and at that time when I was responsible for an attempted suicide, it seemed like the only thing that lingered in me was to remain detached. The call of reality made me that way. It made me make an excuse for my apathy and my detachment. It made me feel fine with an excuse to back me up. Two more lessons here: one, excuses are lies guarded and they not only make you look foolish, but they also do make you a fool; and two, reality brings out the worst in you and it’s your choice whether or not you will allow it to do so.
After years of humiliation and guilt, humility finally planted itself in me. It took a huge failure to strip me of my pride. Humility comes from humiliation—and I don’t mean just the word itself. Humiliation teaches humility; guilt teaches fear of making the same mistakes. And even if I had been able to restore my competency as a clinical psychologist, I still hadn’t been able to restore myself. Pride was thrown out the window and regret was always in sight, croaking like Poe’s raven, eternally reminding me of my “Nevermore”.
Apparently I sooner or later did something right—or maybe I got lucky—but a situation presented itself to me. I was asked to see a little girl who had been kidnapped. Having written a book in college that revolved around stockholm syndrome entitled “Keeping Her in the Light,” I was familiar with the syndrome the little girl had shown signs of having. She had become dependent on her kidnapper during the few days she had been kidnapped, and my task was to make her see the light—the truth that her captor wasn’t the good guy she made herself believe he was. I did succeed, thankfully, but that wasn’t the point. You see, when I said a situation presented itself to me, I meant that it opened a lot of doors. I had to close one door, though, to be able choose which open door to take. Know though that there will always be at least one door open. Anyway, because of this situation, I was able to discover that I had a knack for offender profiling. Without knowing the kidnapper, I was able to make accurate assumptions regarding his behavior, background, patterns, etc. based on simple case files. I tested this knack I had on stories of criminals on the internet. All the classics: Ted Bundy, Edmund Kemper, Albert Fish, and the like. Most assumptions were accurate. Things started looking up—maybe my luck was improving, or maybe God was telling me I was in the wrong field—and in a few years time I was out there, pointing out that a certain killer was insecure simply because he had broken every mirror in every house he had decided to drop by.
Thing is, you’ll never know what you’re supposed to be doing until you’re actually doing it. Only when you’re out there doing what you’re supposed to be doing will you realize you’re doing the right thing. Remember, when one door closes, another one opens. Heck, ten more open, actually. And you will be left to choose which door to take only when you have fully closed the door you’ve emerged from. But know this: All roads lead to the same main road; all doors will lead you to the same room sooner or later. It’s just a matter of taking shortcuts. It’s just a matter of knowing that who you’re meant to be is who you are. The rest will follow. Whatever road or door you take, you will turn out to be who you’re meant to be. And if you turn out to be a garbage collector, don’t worry, you’re probably going to find some ingenious way of turning garbage into precious gems. You’ll probably turn out to be the alchemist of this century, turning useless things into something useful, transforming the ugly to the beautiful. Or you’ll save a baby that was thrown along with the trash. Either way, you do something profound; you turn something mundane into something extraordinary.
We should all be alchemists, actually, in our own little way. Talk to a criminal, listen to him, empathize with him, understand him, change him. For life moves forward, recollections move backward, and you have the power to make sure history does not repeat its mistakes.
To the listeners and alchemists of this year, I wish you good luck.