An Cailín Rua
In 1997, Mary Theresa Schmich, a columnist in the Chicago Tribune, penned an essay she described as a hypothetical commencement address – the advice she would give to graduating students embarking on their future lives and careers. It is a work of art; laced with common sense and wisdom.
Many of us are familiar with that speech, which was brought to life evocatively in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ in 1999.
Schmich, like many women, hasn’t always received credit for her work; it has been misattributed at various points to Kurt Vonnegut and Luhrmann himself, and the famous line, ‘Do one thing every day that scares you’, has been frequently misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. It took Schmich four hours to write the column while ‘high on coffee and M&Ms’, something that makes this writer feel quite inadequate, despite similar dependence on caffeine and sugar.
As this head melt of a year slips away and January looms, and with it, less fresh promise, and more lockdown drudgery, it feels like a good time to hear some sensible advice. When your wings are clipped before you even attempt to get off the ground, it’s hard to remain too upbeat. I found myself wondering what Schmich would advise for 2021.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of ’21, Wear Sunscreen; if I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. (In all honesty, it probably wouldn’t, but it can’t do any harm, and if you buy one with an illuminating primer built in, you’ll look like you were somewhere other than Killala on your holidays this year. Fake it ’til you make it.)
The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. (The long-term benefits of vaccines have also been proved by scientists. Listen to them.)
I will dispense this advice now. (Pour a stiff drink.)
Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. (Never mind that. By the time we exit lockdown, the power and beauty of your youth will be long gone. Next.)
You are not as fat as you imagine. (Want to bet? After a year of this? But there’s nothing wrong with being fat if you’re alive and well. And if you’re reading this and you’re not alive, you have bigger problems.)
Don’t worry about the future; or worry; but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. (Worrying is inescapable when you have so much time in your own head. Health, money, or interminable imprisonment in your own home, the fear that you’ll never wear non-stretchy trousers again. That’s fine, but if you can’t change the thing you’re worrying about, try not to waste your energy.)
The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday. (The realisation that it’s 4pm on this idle Tuesday and this column, which was due two hours ago, is not yet written. A habit unlikely to be broken by any New Year’s resolutions.)
Do one thing every day that scares you. (Look in the mirror. Some days, that’s enough.)
Sing. (Do you really need to scare other people too?)
Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. (Thankfully, opportunities are scarce when you don’t see other people.)
And don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours (See above, while counting blessings.)
Floss. (It passes a good five minutes each day, so do it twice.)
Don’t waste your time on jealousy; sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind ... the race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself. (Ain’t this the truth?)
I could go on, and perhaps I will, but it might be wiser to heed Schmich’s warning: “Advice is a form of nostalgia; dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”
I’d recommend re-reading the original – it won’t set you wrong.
Happy new year. May it be safer, and better for us all. And don’t forget the sunscreen.
An Cailín Rua