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The most important lessons

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Cindy Sher photo 2 

I love graduation season.

That might surprise you considering most people dread attending graduations—the bleachers, the sweat, the boredom, the caps. But work with me here.

Graduation is that time of year when millions of students are given a fresh start in life. Commencement speakers impart their wisdom to grads eager and trepidatious to take on the world. And whether you’re graduating or not, it’s a fitting time to reinvigorate and take stock of our lives and where we’re headed.

Now that graduation season has just passed, I thought I’d dish out some of my own advice to this year’s crop of Jewish graduates.

In a 1997 Chicago Tribune article by Mary Schmich—usually wrongly attributed to an MIT commencement address delivered by author Kurt Vonnegut—Schmich’s number one piece of advice to grads is “wear sunscreen.” She says that the long-term benefits of sunscreen have been scientifically proven but that the rest of her advice really only stems from own “meandering experiences.”

Indeed, wearing sunscreen is smart. Here are three other nuggets of wisdom that I’ve accumulated along my journey so far.

1) You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. This Russian Jewish proverb whispered to me by my mother throughout my life and passed down from her mother and her mother’s mother applies to everyone you encounter in life. We make a choice in the way we approach the people in our lives, both the primary players and the strangers we come in contact with each day just making cameo appearances.

Sometimes I’ll stand in the checkout line of a grocery store and watch a customer and clerk never smile at each other or even make eye contact, the shopper not even glancing up from an iPhone. Contrast those moments with, say, my recent visit to a shoe repair store where I shared a warm exchange with the man shining my shoes about Chicago politics and bad 70s sitcoms and we acknowledge one another as people. What an impact a human moment between strangers makes on the rest of the day.

2) Appreciate the blessings in your life, no matter what hand you’re dealt. I’m always amazed by the sense of perspective that certain people in this world possess, even those who face many hardships. I once read a study revealing that Africans are more optimistic than inhabitants of almost any other locale in the world, despite their poor living conditions.

Closer to home, my cousin, Ron, a brilliant Cornell University educator, received an honorary degree from Penn State this spring. In his commencement address, he spoke about his son Eric’s long battle with brain cancer, who died in his late 30s. Despite his health struggles, Eric maintained a bright outlook and sense of humor throughout his life, and managed to complete college and law school, work as an attorney, get married, perform comic improv at hospitals and senior centers, and have a daughter, and then a son—who was born after Eric passed away.

“The happiest people are not necessarily the people who are lucky enough to avoid problems,” Ron told the graduates, “but rather the ones whose ability to cope increases at a more rapid rate than their problems do.”

3) Tell the people in your life what they mean to you. I took these words of wisdom to heart during my interview with Jewish author Bruce Feiler, who recently spoke for the Chicago Jewish community about his book called The Council of Dads in which he asks six men in his life to act as father figures to his twin daughters in the event that Feiler succumb to his cancer. Thankfully, Feiler recovered from his illness and has been in remission for two years.

Why must it take a near-death experience or dramatic roadblock in our lives to take stock of our friends and family? Drop a note or have lunch with the people you care about and tell them why they are important to you.

Whether you choose to follow or ignore any of my advice, Graduates, do be sure to stock up on SPF 70 before hitting the beach.

Mazel tov!

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