'Get to know your fears': Journalist Maria Shriver encourages UM grads to overcome their doubts

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor – When Maria Shriver was asked to speak at the University of Michigan graduation ceremony Saturday, she first said no.

Past UM commencement speakers were U.S. presidents and Nobel Prize winners. Who was she to stand on such an august stage?

But Shriver, a TV journalist and prominent Alzheimer’s advocate, realized she was just scared. She was worried people would be disappointed by her selection as speaker.

She’s a big believer in facing down one’s fears and so that was what she did, she told the 14,000 graduates Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

“I showed up because I didn’t want to hide behind my fear,” she said.

University of Michigan commencement ceremony keynote speaker Maria Shriver addresses the crowd during Saturday morning's ceremony at Michigan Stadium.

As graduates begin their post-college journey, some may be facing trepidations of their own, she said. Get used to it. Dread can pop up at any stage of life, she said.

But fear is an illusion, she said. So is the belief that they're small, or that someone else is better, or someone knows what is best for them.

If grads don’t push through that uncertainty, they will be left with unrealized versions of themselves, she said. And that was something to truly fear.

“Fear is a deadly virus for which there is no vaccine,” said Shriver. “By embracing that which terrifies you, you will discover what makes you feel most alive.”

University of Michigan graduate Hallie Rehwaldt of Chicago sports the same maize and blue overalls her daughter Leanna wore when she graduated 10 years ago.

Graduates shouldn’t wait to pursue whatever makes them feel alive, she said. They shouldn’t limit themselves to what their parents did because it’s more comfortable or they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.

The good news is they don’t have to wait, she said. They’re entering a world where the old ways no longer apply, the rule book has been shredded.

Young adults can use their imagination to change the world, she said. In fact, the times demand it.

“Go forth and believe in yourself and act like this world awaits your authenticity, your wildness, your guts and your bravery -- because it does,” she said. “And I, for one, can’t wait to see you light the place on fire.”

When Shriver was leaving college, she wished someone had told her that everything she needed to overcome her self-doubts were already within her. She wished she had known that her fears would dissolve and that they were more about keeping her small rather than safe.

She told the students to trust themselves and become lifelong learners of what makes them tick. As the world shifts, so will they.

To calm her own doubts, she turned to meditation, expressive writing, her faith and therapy.

It also is important to spend time alone because it allows you to process how events in your life have impacted you, she said.

“Get to know your fears,” she said. “Poke them, prod them and test them.”

Like Shriver, students will stumble in life, and, like Shriver, they will doubt themselves for making choices that went sideways, she said.

They will fight their fire and wildness, but they shouldn’t, she said. Their fire and wildness is what allows them to hold their ground, live outside the lines that were drawn for them.

When they find themselves in that dark place, they should remember life has multiple chapters, she said. They just need to strive to reach the next one, and be strong enough to do so.

“Life will feel like hell a lot of the time,” she said. “Walk through hell like you own the place.”

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

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Twitter: @prima_donnelly