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Wisdom for Grads

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The author (right) dancing a hora -- as her mom always advised her to do -- at a dear friend’s wedding.

I just love graduation season and all its hopefulness: The sweet scene on a beautiful spring day of a graduate clad in cap and gown hugging proud loved ones on the street. The "places you'll go" words of encouragement promising big things for grads on greeting cards, books, and diploma-gripping teddy bears near the cash register at the bookstore.

But most of all, I love the wisdom that extraordinary people impart to the graduates.

As we grow older, and move further away -- ahem -- from our graduation year, the lessons keep on coming if we let them. In fact, if we're doing it right, I'd bet most of us are more open to hearing those lessons now than when we were in school.

I'm constantly collecting nuggets of wisdom to guide me on a life's journey filled with joy, light, meaning, and love. I piece together lessons wherever I can find them: from reading, from rabbis, from TED and ELI Talks, and from friends and family members.

In fact, the best piece of wisdom I ever heard came from a commencement address delivered by my cousin Ron, a brilliant Cornell University professor. In his speech, he spoke of his late son Eric's long battle with brain cancer. Despite his health struggles, Eric -- who passed away too young, in his late 30s -- always maintained a bright outlook and sense of humor about life.

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

Here are a few other lessons I've gathered along the way -- lessons that come in handy no matter when you marched to "Pomp and Circumstance"…

Tell them.

Tell the people in your life what they mean to you. After all, life's short, and we won't always have the chance. Jewish journalist and author Bruce Feiler, who survived cancer, advised this guidance in his book The Council of Dads. Why, he asked, 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 even a text message, or make a lunch or margarita date with the people you care about and tell them why they matter to you. 

Be amazed.

As the great Jewish sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: "Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. Get up every morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed."

What a beautiful way to see the world. There's so much stress, routine, and noise in daily life. Let's try to be more mindful and intentional in how we live -- and be present. Every so often, let's put down our phones, breathe, and observe the beauty that infuses so many moments of our day -- if we just let it.

Own it.

Take up space in the room. I attended a Jewish women's empowerment seminar a few years ago, where we discussed this concept, and then the theme resurfaced in Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, advice to women on how to succeed in the workplace. Just recently, I watched the number one most viewed TED Talk, delivered by Amy Cuddy, who gives a fascinating lecture on body language and how exhibiting confidence physically can make you feel more confident on the inside. While women, in particular, could heed this lesson, this advice is directed to all people: Who you are and what you have to say matter. Be confident, look confident, and don't apologize for who you are. Own it.

Just dance.

My mother is one of the wisest people I know, and she imparts advice to my sister and me through her super lovable Jewish mom lens. One of her favorite things to tell us is "I hope you dance," referring to a popular Lee Ann Womack song. My mom, who was a ballerina as a young woman, figuratively and literally hopes we dance -- even though her transmission of amazing ballet skills to her progeny didn't quite take. But, no fancy pointe work is needed for the hora, says Mom, and she encourages us never to sit out this traditional Jewish circle dance.

"The better the hora, the better the marriage," she's proclaimed to us often. At my sister's wedding, I remember the guests hoisting my parents on chairs, and my fearless mother clapped to the rhythm of a fast-paced Hava Nagila, feeling zero need to hold onto the arms of the chair. My mom's wish for her girls, as most parents wish for their children, is for us to grab all the joy that life has to offer-and a big part of that joy is a dizzying, sweaty hora.

Got some wisdom to impart to the grads? Email me at cindysher@juf.org and I'll post your advice online.

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