In Act I, Scene iii of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius delivers an abundance of last minute advice to his son Laertes as the young man sets off on his return trip to the university. Included in his fatherly valediction is the famous adage “To thine own self be true.” Polonius’ somewhat bumbling attempt to impart his own cache of hard-earned wisdom to his son is often interpreted in two completely dialectical ways. Some find his words to be timely and sage; others think them too little, too late and platitudinous.
I’ve been thinking of this scene a lot lately as I’ve watched friends and family send their own college age children back to various universities. In this spirit of imparting “words to live by,” I thought I’d share some of the thoughts I, in partnership with my wife, tried to impress on our sons as they left home for the first time. Much of what appears below appeared in an actual letter.
As you read this, you are at the beginning of what will be, thus far, your longest separation from home in both time and space. Trust us, as difficult as this transition is for you, it is equally so for us, but we firmly believe that it is vital to your growth as a person that you deepen your well of experiences and that you widen your encounters with different types of people in order to further define yourself in ways that are difficult to do while staying comfortable at home.
There is so much more yet to be discovered and shared with the world than you’ve been able to unearth here. We so much want you to expand the intellectual and soulful person you already are and to round yourself as a unique individual of diverse interests among the beautiful panoply of the human race. Should you do so, the universe will unveil herself to you in ways you never could have imagined and in ways that will serve to vastly enrich your unique journey through life.
It is important that you know that we don’t want you to be anything but you. We have no image of what you should be now or in the future. One of the most exciting opportunities in life is having the power to define oneself for oneself. We just want you to search under every stone and behind every curtain for the life experiences that will bring the most joy and meaning to your life.
Know that our love for you is such that there is nothing you must do to earn or strengthen it. Know that there is nothing you could do to make our love more profound. Know that there is nothing you could do to diminish it.
You have been such a gift to us. We remember your day of birth as if it were yesterday. We had never felt so proud and so sure of our own purpose in life or of a god in heaven as we did that day. Likewise, we know that soon we will wake up and our own remaining days be precious and few. Time passes so quickly and quietly. When we married all those years ago, the one unvoiced promise we made to each other was that, no matter how much we may occasionally disagree as a husband and wife, at the end of the day, we would always be there for one another. We made you that same promise when you were born: that when you woke up in the morning, we would be there, and when you went to bed at night, we would be there. That promise holds true today, even if “being there” is at the other end of a text message, phone call, or FaceTime. And wherever your life choices take you – and they are your life choices from here on out – for as long as we live, we will be here waiting for you to call or to come on home.
We wish we could share the secret of a life well-lived, with you but that secret is closely guarded in the confines of your own heart. We found ours in careers that challenged our minds and allowed us to impress the minds of those we taught. We found ours in the appreciation of time, and we make the most of it in our own ways. No one has ever gone to their grave wishing for more money, but far too many die wishing for more time. Most significantly, we found our shared secret to a life well-lived in home and family.
If we could give you one piece of advice that was guaranteed to stick, it would be to measure your wealth in family and friends and to measure your success by the good you do for others.
Good luck to all parents sending their babies off in these strangest of times. They and we all will get through this and hopefully come out on the other end a bit wiser and with a renewed sense of the priceless value of family, friends, home, and of the brief lives in this magnificent world that we’ve been allotted.
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