This Uncertain Moment Is Your Gift
Good morning, Michigan! I’m really excited to be here today in the Big House to celebrate YOU, the class of 2022!
Now, let me be honest: I initially said no to the invitation to be your speaker. I said I had a scheduling conflict, and that I was already planning to be here next weekend for my son Christopher’s graduation. He was part of the class of 2020, the only class in Michigan history to not have a graduation ceremony. Thank you, Covid! But now, finally, his class will have their own moment to shine right here next Saturday!
So yes, I said I couldn’t possibly come to Michigan two weeks in a row. That just felt overwhelming. Like so many of you, I struggle to keep up with all the demands that life throws at us these days.
But then Coach Harbaugh emailed me to say it was important that I come. Then President Coleman—the first female president in your university’s history—called and said the same. When I tried to explain my scheduling conflict to her, she said, “Hey, I just upended my entire life to come back and lead the university during these uncertain times. So, your scheduling conflict? It doesn’t really work for me.”
Then I mentioned all this to my sons over dinner one night. I told them about the invitation to speak, and that I didn’t think I could do it. The looks on their faces said everything.
“Why would you not do it?!” they asked. “It’s the coolest thing ever to be invited to speak at the Michigan graduation. What is wrong with you?!”
I told them about my busy schedule, and they just stared at me. Then I confessed how I really felt.
“Look," I said. “The truth is that I’m worried the graduates will be disappointed if I’m their speaker. They’ll say, isn’t she just some kid’s mom? I mean, Michigan could get anyone. Why’d they pick her? Couldn’t they have gotten Tom Brady? He could talk about retiring from football, and then deciding not to retire from football. Or what about Giselle? She could talk about what really sent Tom running back to the Buccaneers. Or why didn’t they invite Stephen Ross? He could talk about how to make millions of dollars. With all this inflation, that’s what we really need to know. Or what about actor James Earl Jones. After all, he’s a Michigan grad AND the voice of Darth Vader! All he’d have to do is walk out here and say, ‘I am your father,’ and they’d be thrilled.”
Then I realized something as I was sitting watching Ukrainian President Zelensky on the news one night. He stood there, with shelling all around him, and said: “I’m not hiding. And I’m not afraid of anyone.”
I took a beat and said to myself, “Wow, Maria. I think you’re hiding! You are making up excuses because you’re scared to walk into that Big House. What is up with you?
I mean c’mon, girl! You’ve interviewed presidents, criminals, and dictators. You were married to the Terminator, for God’s sake! You’ve covered riots, conventions, inaugurations, and given countless speeches before. What are you so afraid of? Not being good enough? Embarrassing your son? Are you worried that you’ll just be compared to your uncle President John F. Kennedy, who first announced the idea of the Peace Corps in his speech at Michigan? Or, are you worried that you won’t have anything valuable to say to the students at this unique moment in history?”
Um, yeah, all of that. So, once I got real with myself, I called President Coleman and said, “I’m in.”
You see, I’m a big believer in facing your fears head-on. It is how I’ve found my own courage, my own bravery. It’s how I’ve discovered my truth, and most importantly, it’s how I’ve discovered who I really am.
For example, I was afraid to enter the news business, even though I knew I wanted to be a journalist. In fact, the first time I ever anchored a live show, I threw up in the bathroom before and after—convinced they’d never invite me back. I was also afraid to write every book I’ve ever written—worried that no one would buy them, or worse, that I’d be ridiculed in the public square. And I was afraid to become the first lady of California and be a Democrat in a Republican administration. I was sure I would be ruining everything my family had fought for and stood for.
I was also afraid to have children, sure I would mess them up. (So far, knock on wood, I haven’t.) I was afraid to get married, and even more afraid to leave my marriage and carve out a new path for myself at midlife.
And, for sure, I was beyond afraid to become an entrepreneur in my 60s.
But if there's one thing I’ve learned since I was your age, it’s that fear can show up at every stage of your life, no matter what you’ve accomplished. And not pushing through your fear, not pushing through that which scares you…will leave you feeling that you are not brave. It will leave you with an unrealized, unfulfilled version of yourself. And believe me, graduates: that is something to fear!
Because to truly know who you are, you cannot hide who you are, not from yourself, or from others. And the truth is, most people hide.
So that’s why I showed up today. I showed up because I didn’t want to hide behind my fear. I showed up because it doesn’t matter if I was your first, second, or third choice. That will always happen in life. What matters is that I didn’t let self-doubt keep me from being with you here today. I didn’t let imposter syndrome keep me from accepting this honorary degree from your prestigious university, which my son reminded me on the plane here that I am worthy of receiving.
What matters is that when I asked myself if I had something valuable to say to you—something that I wish I had known at your age—the answer turned out to be yes.
And what I want to share with you today is this: fear and certainty are an illusion. So is the belief that you are small, or that someone else is bigger, better, or braver than you. Or that someone else knows what’s best for you. They don’t. Your life, graduates, is best chartered by you. By your heart and your mind.
You know what else is an illusion? That success is the brass ring my generation told you it was. Or that you should wait to pursue that which lights you up. Graduates, don’t EVER wait to pursue that which makes you feel alive.
And the good news is, you don’t have to. Because your generation has been given the gift of a shredded rulebook, a wide-open field. So much of what used to be called normal is gone, and that...is actually a gift. In fact, this uncertain moment that you and our world are facing, it’s an incredible opportunity for you. And those fears you’re feeling? They are actually a window into your own bravery. And this moment…it’s for the brave.
Graduates, you are not here to do a repeat of your parents or other famous Michigan grads. You are here to live your own wildly authentic lives. And it’s your authenticity, your determination, your creativity, and your imagination that our society needs most at this uncertain time.
You are the generation that gets to reimagine how we will work, how we will live, and how and who we will love. You get to rebuild our institutions, you get to rethink our politics, and you get to redefine what success actually means. You get to show the world and each other how to live lives of meaning, belonging, and purpose.
So, how do you do all this? By really getting to know yourself. By making trusting yourself your top priority. Now that you have a degree in business or psychology or the arts, get a master’s in you. Commit to being a life-long learner of you, because as the world shifts, so will you.
So be curious about your fears. Get to know what’s hiding behind them. Poke them, prod them, test them. See fear as your teacher and your lifelong companion instead of your enemy.
Also, develop a practice that you can use throughout your life to calm your fears and process your feelings and anxiety. I turn to meditation, expressive writing, and faith. On more than one occasion, my faith has actually saved my life. I’ve also turned to therapy. Don’t let anyone tell you that therapy is only for the weak. It’s not. It’s a safe space for the strong to work out what scares them.
Also be brave enough to spend time alone with yourself throughout your life. Spending time alone allows you to process how the events of your life have impacted you. This is a practice that will prove helpful because when things shift or rupture, and they will, you’ve got to know how to handle the waves, and you have to believe you have what it takes to survive them, which you do.
That is another thing I wish someone had told me at your age: that everything I needed to get through my life—through my fears, through my self-doubt—it was already within me. And that’s what you need to know. What you need is within you. It’s not outside you. It’s not in a job or a title. It’s not in someone else. You are way stronger than you know. And the best way to access your own strength is by doing everything you are afraid of, right now and in the future. And I mean everything.
So, if you are feeling afraid right now, congratulations. This is normal. To be afraid is to be human. It means you are awake and aware. In this digital age of AI, AR, and the metaverse—we must not lose sight of the gift of being a multifaceted, alive, feeling human being.
I wish I had known all this much sooner. I wish I’d known that fear was more about keeping me small than keeping me safe. I wish I had known that whenever I was brave enough to speak up, my fears would actually dissolve. I also wish I had been wise enough to expand my view of bravery in myself and in others.
Yes, bravery is what we’re seeing in Ukraine. But bravery is also being a journalist and pursuing the truth. Bravery is standing up to bullies who perpetuate lies here at home and abroad. Bravery is standing up for the democracy your ancestors fought so valiantly for.
And, as your parents know, bravery is required to raise a child in today’s world. That, my friends, is an understatement. It’s also required for getting old in a society that reveres youth. So be compassionate and gentle with your parents as they navigate their own futures.
Bravery is also having your heart broken and trying again and again until maybe you get it right. It is saying, “I’m not OK and I need help.” Bravery is believing you are here for a higher purpose—which you are—and then using your time here on Earth to shine a light on others.
And speaking of others, we need to be brave enough to drop our judgment of others. We NEED each other. Your generation is the loneliest in our history, and relying on others—on community and each other—is the solution that’s hiding in plain sight.
Right now, Americans are more fearful of one another than ever before. They are afraid to speak up, terrified of being canceled. They are afraid for our climate. Afraid of their own anxiety and mental health. People are afraid of death, and even worse, afraid of life.
Fear is a deadly virus for which there is no vaccine. But the cure? It’s within you. And by embracing that which terrifies you, you will discover the things that make you feel most alive.
Now, every decision you make will not work out the way you hope. Like me, you will stumble and fall. Like me, you might get fired. Like me, you might find yourself doubting or criticizing yourself for choices gone terribly wrong. You will wonder why you couldn’t have just done it the quote “right” way. And, for sure, you will fight your wildness. It will probably scare you, and it will scare others. But don’t let it.
Do the opposite. Your fire and your wildness are what enable you to hold your ground, live out your values, and speak your truth. And now more than ever, we need YOU, the class of 2022, to speak truth to power and live outside the lines that society has drawn for you.
Being brave enough to live out loud is what will keep you from settling. And the truth is, most people settle. They just do. They want comfort. They want safety. They’re afraid of their own brilliance and their own power. Many people stay trapped far too long simply because they are too scared to face the unknown, too scared to hurt someone’s feelings, too scared to leave and move on.
Their fears get the best of them. I get it, but Michigan graduates: you are NOT most people. You are the most well-educated, diverse, technically savvy generation in this country’s history! You are a generation in pursuit of the truth! We need your energy, your work ethic, your creativity, and your drive.
We need you to save our democracy and our climate. We need you to discover new medicines that can cure Alzheimer’s, dementia, MS, cancer, and Parkinson’s. And we need you to unite our country that so desperately wants to be united with your thoughts, your words, and your deeds.
Because all this work will be done by those who are afraid, but take action anyway. It will be accomplished by those who are brave, by those who are bold, by those who are blue.
Many years ago, my father Sargent Shriver came to this university to sign up the very first Peace Corps volunteers. He knew the students here at Michigan wanted to be part of changing the world. He was right about you then, and I’m right about you now.
So, graduates, go forth and lean into the uncertainty and chaos of this moment. Do not allow it to make you scared or hold you back. At times, you will find yourself alone, but when you do, I want you to remember this: most people’s stories are like mine. They are filled with great joy, great accomplishments, family, beauty, and peace. But they’re also filled with heartbreak, loss, grief, major stumbles, and dark lows.
So, whenever you find yourself in a dark moment, I hope you will remember that every life has multiple chapters and that another always awaits you on the other side. And you are strong enough to get there.
Trust me, graduates, you’ve got this. So put your shoulders back, hold your head up high, and walk through hell like you own the place. Cause trust me, life at times will feel like hell. But go forth, believe in yourself, and act as if this world awaits your authenticity, your wildness, your guts, and your bravery. Because it does.
And I, for one, can’t wait to see you light the place on fire!
PRAYER OF THE WEEK
Dear God, help me to not shy away from my fears. May I lean into them, continue to grow, and surprise myself with the joy found in not letting fear win. Help me to speak up, trust my intuition, and use my creativity to understand my passion and purpose. Amen.