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American achievement, American values


This is your time to write poetry. Tough times are the best because it is then that we are most stripped bare of the impediments to understanding our own souls.

And if this sounds kind of strange, remember that you will look back on these times someday and see them as some of your best moments. They are the most formative and informative.

Work hard, live well. If works gets in the way, live well. And please always remember that the high-class clientele you speak of is generally a bunch of people who feel very important. Everything around them convinces them they should feel important. Everyone wants their money, leading to a lot of kissing up, which only continues the cycle.

Be practical. Your customers are people who should be treated with the same love and understanding you afford your friends and family, regardless of how much more love they seem to expect. The servers are generally only “bad” because no one trained them and no one really gives too much of a shit about what happens to them–that competitive thing breeds this sort of treatment of workers, and it’d the kind of thing that pits one set of workers against another. I’m not saying it’s not a pain in the ass. But walk a mile, they say. It took me a long time to learn to do the job, love the people, and be kind, regardless of the circumstances, the way I’m treated, or what I think I deserve.

Capitol Grille, GE, small business, it doesn’t matter–captors and jailors like to keep their prisoners hungry. That way, when they throw a loaf of bread into the cell, the prisoners will fight each other rather than take out after their oppressor. It doesn’t matter how well you do, you will always have to prove yourself. Some people think this is a great way to run a society. I think there are better ways and so participate as little in it as I can.

The trick, I think, is laying your head in at night knowing you did everything you could and that you gave it all the best you have. I ask myself at the end of the day if I did. If I haven’t then I know what I can do the next day. None of this, despite everything in the culture that says otherwise, is for a lifetime.

Saluda, do not count yourself out because you have some challenges or that you haven’t had the greatest of advantages. Why not aspire to medicine if that’s what you want? Let your innate abilities and talents guide you, not some idea of what you can or can’t do. The kind of fulfillment you want lies not in career or job or reputation. Those are standards others put on you. Self-fulfillment comes with serving with love and kindness, putting selfish desires aside for the good of others. Certainly, education may lead you to greater service. But seeking education for money, and then equating money with self-fulfillment only leads to an emptiness and sterility of spirit that can never be quenched.

Let no person or number of people tell you what you can or cannot do. Let your limitations of intellect and talent do that–and then make up for some of that with hard work and persistence. Medicine is an expensive endeavor, for instance. But the fact of you having to work for a living ought not stop you from serving others through a profession in medicine–or whatever labor you seek. You will have to make choices. You may not be able to go directly from A to B. You may, as many working people do, have to go from A through M, S, and Q before you get to B. Medical school, engineering school, law, whatever. None are a picnic and you have a lot working against you, so you ought not work against yourself. You will never have the luxury. But that makes you’re your struggle even more instructive to you and, ultimately, more helpful to others.

I understand the resentment you may feel toward those students who seem to have things handed to them. First, you do not know what they have to go through–what the privilege you see may be costing them. Nothing is free, even the silver spoon. Second, one of the great American character defects, particularly among working people, is a sort of schizophrenic hatred of those who have something we think we don’t have or don’t have access to. In fact, that resentment has beneath it a want for the things we think others have, no matter how hard we try to say we would never want those things.

One time, I asked a seasoned reporter/columnist, a famous guy, about how I could write a news story when there were so many other people writing about that same subject, event, person, etc. He told me this: “Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Pay attention to what you’re doing.” Sounds simple, but it was a revelation.

Another friend of mine told me his dad used to tell him all the time to “bring the food to your mouth, not your mouth to the food.” At first, he thought it was a simple tableside admonition, but his dad told him that at odd times–when he thought he’d been wronged or cheated or didn’t have the advantages that others had. Then, when he was about 20, my friend got it. If he was looking for free or easy ways to get things, he was sacrificing his independence and self-stand-uppedness. If he was chasing free or easy, he was bringing his mouth to the food. When he was earning his way, avoiding living in the opinions of others, he was bringing his food to his mouth–maintaining his independence and principle.

I suppose I’m asking you to understand what you have rather than what you don’t have, what you may or may not get, what you think you deserve. Obsessing about what you don’t have, what others have that you don’t, the advantages other have that you don’t is wasted energy. Go forward with all the confidence that it doesn’t matter what others have. It’s what you have that you must see, use, and expand. You need not hurt or push anyone aside for that. You do not have to compete or climb over anyone else. Leave all that and act and be and see and think on your own.

You may have to sacrifice the job to go to school. It may mean a smaller apartment, a cheaper car, fewer entertainments. These are all distractions anyway, money down the tubes. Your goal of practicing medicine or law, or owning a business, or whatever, that is what’s important.

And why that? Why not travel? Living and working in another country? State or city? What have you not done that you want to do? What do you want to do? Learn? See? You will learn what’s needed, what’s absolutely necessary, when you have to carry what you need on your back. You will learn the difference between necessity and desire, need and want. Even if you don’t choose to do something like this, think about it a moment. Think of it in relation to the Capitol Grille and all those hours and work and money. What is it that you need? Answer that honestly and you will have learned a great deal about yourself.

I’ve gone on too long. But I want to leave you with a piece of writing that embodies that part of Americanness that’s often neglected in the struggle for money, career, position, and material things. It is, for me, holy writ.

Thanks for being in my class. And don’t apologize for yourself. Put that energy into you.


“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

–Preface to the 1855 edition of The Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

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