Indian visitors look at books at a publishing house stall during the 27th edition of the New Delhi Book Fair, one of India’s longest-running book fairs, in New Delhi on Jan 5, 2019 (Photo: AFP)

Every so often comes the invitation, usually from the head of an institution, “It’s Convocation Day next month. Please say a few words to our students, who are passing out this year.”

A few words? Any sort of advice to the young is suspect, and what can one really say to a group of young adults, impatient to be up and doing?

After all, what really counts in life is whatever brings meaning to one’s own.  Mine are four. Here they are, take them for what they are worth.

Access to knowledge

Never let a day pass without having learned something new. At a practical level, this means the love of reading.

Does this sound quaint in the age of television and the internet? Perhaps it does, for reading is a skill hard to acquire, and even more difficult to retain. The pressures of work, family cares, power cuts, general fatigue… all edge out the habit of reading, which demands silence and an attentive mind, not easy to come by.

Books provide a link to the past and a grasp of the present. But even more, in the silent conversation between the reader and the words on the page, something else grows; the reflective mind, an independence of judgment, a depth of purpose, a connectedness with the human spirit of all ages.

This is why despotic rulers have always feared books and destroyed them.

Work strengthens the hands

Where reading stimulates the mind, work strengthens the hands. Hands give us a grip on things, and working allows us to grasp reality, and so to shape the world.

Men particularly are shaped by what they do; their job, their office, the money they make, and the status they aspire to. Women work too, but differently.

For centuries, women’s work has been circumscribed by domestic controls, even as it has been a stabilizing force in society. Now that women are going out of the home to work, their presence is slowly changing the workplace and its values.

But whether men or women, competence at work divides those who’ve made it in life, from those who never will.

Work comes in various kinds, but intrinsic to it is the joy of creation, of productivity. In other words, we work because we enjoy what we do.

Not everyone can say this, of course; slaves, for example, couldn’t. But it is one of the ironies of modern life that work has become commoditized in that all that matters is its cash value, not its intrinsic worth.

The ancient monk labored in his garden; the medieval nun ministered in her hospital. They were hardly wage-earners, but their work was productive, therapeutic, and generally valued. Today work is devalued unless it carries a large cheque, and in this distortion, we can see the cancer of contemporary life; avarice, envy, and the stress of competing. The ancient curse of Midas is evoked anew.

Travel enraptures

Work bases one where one is, travel takes one to what is beyond. Until one has crossed one’s tribal boundaries, one is still a “frog in the well”; croaking suspiciously at everything new, rigid and prejudiced, believing one is the center of the world.

Travel relativizes: one man’s meat is another’s poison; one woman’s gown is another’s dust cloth.

Travel enraptures; not just the natural wonders of planet Earth with its majestic beauty and awesome energies, but civilized man himself in his infinite variety of social custom and technical artifice.

A word to the heart

Books nourish the mind, work shapes our world, travel expands our imagination, and friendships secure the heart, and make our homes happier, safer places.

All of us long for that gift: true and lasting friendship.

In the ancient world, only men could be friends. A woman might be the object of lust, or become the (unequal) partner in a marriage; but rarely were women friends; not even with each other. Why this is so is a long and complicated story, but happily, it isn’t so anymore.

One reason is that friendship demands both closeness and distance, transparency, and objectivity; qualities not always found in a single person.

Our age places great value on friendship even while deploring our inability to come together. Aggressive individualism and covert manipulation are the enemies of true friendship, so is also the fear of being vulnerable and of showing compassion.

The bond of friendship today calls for qualities of the soul, which earlier times did not value. For friendship does really bring about a change of heart.

Reading, working, travel, friendship; these four have I loved, and they have all enriched me. Each value leans on the other and helps it stay in proportion, and the joy of living comes from the balance that is achieved.

But is this a formula that can be universally applied?

The answer lies in how one lives one’s own life and understands its meaning, its symbols and its vitality. – UCA News