For many of us, the closing of the tumultuous 2021 academic year, marks the beginning of one of those unofficial seasons within the summer season: making the rounds to graduation open houses. Most of us probably know or know of someone who has just graduated from high school or college this year, and may have already received an announcement and an open house invitation. To be fair, some of those announcements will be coming from family or friends that we have not seen in long time and whose lives we have only intermittently followed on social media. And while some of them may be genuine attempts to reconnect, if we are honest with ourselves, we will recognize that some of them are just blatant (but understandable) attempts to raise funds. Nevertheless, graduation is an achievment worth acknowledging, so we will at least pick up a card, have everyone in the house sign the it, and stuff some cash or a check in the envelope on the way to the open house or before popping the card in the mail.

However, what if the announcement comes from someone we know and love, and who we have watched grow and mature over a lifetime? Someone whose goals and ambitions we are intimately familiar with, and someone we have a genuine interest in helping and motivating them into the next phase of their life. It is people like these, that we are willing to take the extra time and effort to get them a gift that is more meaningful or memorable than some generic card and money.

An Achievement that May Still Leave One Wanting

Graduation is one of those key milestones in life, and no doubt the recent grad is feeling the same mix of emotions all of us felt at the time of our graduations: an uncertain sense of eagerness about our ability to transform our education and experiences into something that our friends and family would be proud of.

Needless to say, this is a perennial sentiment among young adults as they take their first steps into adulthood, but according to physician and psychologist Leonard Sax, these feelings are more sorely felt today in our contemporary culture. In his 2007 book Boys Adrift and its companion book Girls on the Edge, Sax lists five factors that have lead to a severe lack of meaning and motivation amoung young men and women that is unlike other depressed periods in our nation’s history. He has called this phenomena a “failure to launch”, whereby teens and young adults are unwilling or unable to see past the mundane realities of life and to be drawn (or called) to pursue the ambitions they are fully capable of imagining.

One of those factors, which is germane to graduation, is the fact that our culture lacks any widely-recognized and meaningful rites of passage from youth into adulthood. To be sure, there are many events that our children experience during their formative years that are capable of conveying a sense of growth and success such as academic, sports, or other personal achievements. However, few if any of those seem to be able to impart a sense of meaning or indelible change on the person in such a way that they recognize that they are not the same person afterwards. Even in families who have rich sacramental lives, and especially confirmation when it is properly done (bring back the slap!), if the reaction to last year’s pandemic and the recent polls about dwindling church attendance are an indication of anyting, there still seems to be a dearth of fire and fealty among the young towards their faith, their fortunes, and their futures.

With that in mind, if you have received a graduation announcement this year, and it is from someone that you would truly like to help see the world they are now entering in a brighter light, then I would challenge you to rethink the gift you were planning on getting them. By all means be generous in giving them money and advice, but instead of a gift that will be forgotten in a few months, consider giving the graduate the proverbial “mustard seed." A gift that might not seem like much at first glance, but which over time and with a lot of prayer, patience, and hard work, will increase their knowledge and skills, their confidence, and of course their faith. In short, something that has the potential to grow into something life-changing

Obviously, you will have to use your best judgement based on what you know of the graduate’s temperament, but use that knowledge to get them something that they can not only see the benefit of, but that they will be inclined to use or do. Below are five suggestions for a mustard seed gift, from the simple to the complex.

1. Something to Read

Besides money, books, are by far the most commonly given graduation gift, since they are a tangible and enduring repository of knowledge and wisdom. Obviously, picking one title amoung the multitude of great books out there is a daunting task, and while many of us might have our personal favorite, try to keep the personality of the graduate in mind and get them one they are likely to read. So while I whole-heartedly recommend Saint Augustine’s Confessions or even Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, they are not for everyone and might not be fully appreciated by the casual reader.

For graduates that are not the reading type, I have always found the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling a potent but understandable read that encapsulates a measured but stoic sense of endurance that many a young person would do well to develop into a habit. Be warned though, that Kipling wrote it for his son and thus the poem ends with line, “you’ll be a Man, my son.” However, despite the ire of literary purists, I have given the poem to young ladies, and have only swapped out the last line with the graduate’s name after the words, “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.” None of the recipients have ever taken offense at the switch.

Otherwise, if you want something like Peterson’s thought but in a more compact form, then give a copy of Admiral William H. McRaven’s Make Your Bed: Little Things that can Change Your Life...And Maybe the World. The book is based on a graduation speech McRaven gave at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014 that went viral, and is a short and concise read that reminds the reader that no matter how big and bold one’s dreams are, they are always achieved one step at a time.

2. Life Lessons

While many graduates will probably feel thoroughly schooled out by the beginning of summer, they may not be completely adverse to learning altogether. So why not give them the chance to learn new skills or other activities they felt they never had the time to learn, by paying for classes or lessons at community centers or online sites like Skill Share, Master Class, or The Great Courses. Depending on the path the graduate is taking, they can be something as practical as business or computer skills to get a jump start on college or a new job, or they can just be fun skills that they will use throughout their life. But whatever lessons they take, the point of giving such a gift is to instill in them a lifelong love of learning that they can use to form themselves into a more confident and well-rounded person.

One skill I have rarely known anyone to not be interested in, is photography. After all, most of us are carrying around cameras of exceptional quality in our pockets and yet use only a fraction of what they are capable of. Hard to imagine someone not wanting to learn how to take better pictures. Other ideas could include learning skills such as cooking, dancing, or any number of arts and crafts. For those wanting more of a challenge, considering offering to pay for courses in CPR and First Aid, outdoor survival skills, a marital art, or even firearms instruction.

3. Life Kits

Once when I was in college and trying to cook some venison my stepfather had dropped off after his hunt, a guy on my floor gasped in horror that I would cook such “choice meat” with only salt and pepper. He ran back to his dorm room and returned with his “little white box” which was one of those cardboard boxes that copier paper comes in. Inside was a small cache of spices, sauces, and other cooking items that a relative of his had assembled by carefully selecting various travel-sized items that covered a wide range of cooking situations. With his help the meal came out great!

Moving out of the house and on your own for the first time is a daunting task, so why not make it easier for the graduate by assembling a “little white box” or some other life kit of their own that will fit their needs. It could be one for cooking, one for a first apartment with a few basic tools and cleaning supplies, or a roadside emergency kit for their car. These kits will obviously take a little more time and effort to assemble, but done right the kit's recipient will recognize and appreciate your efforts and kindness. Moreover, these kits should be given with the expectation that the recipient will take the time to properly learn how to use them.

4. Entering the Mission Fields

It is becoming more common for high school graduates to take a gap year away from formal schooling to pursue other interests and honestly, to simply step back from the breakneck pace their lives have been up until that point. Most will work and some will do a little travelling- oh those post-grad road trips!- while other will want to take the time to strengthen their faith. This has usually been done by going on a mission trip, where the youth will send out letters asking others to help fund their trip to some place like Haiti or Central America to help the needy. Granted, I have had some gripes with a few mission trips I’ve seen people take in the past, in that they were more like a summer camp where they were allowed to bring video games along (“So the apostles dropped their nets and followed our Lord, but you couldn't leave your Nintendo at home huh?”) or the “work” they did was arbitrary and a way for the sponsoring ministry or church to get free labor.

Nevertheless, heading out into the mission fields is still a very wortwhile thing to do, and if you have read St. Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life, you will know that you don’t have to go to some far off exotic place to serve our Lord. You can find ways to live out and strengthen your faith in ways and for people that are right near your home. The key of course is to find a good spiritual advisor that you trust enough to recommend a wortwhile mission trip or that can help the grad form his or her own missionary plan.

Lastly, don’t forget about pilgramages. Whether you can afford to go to Lourdes or Fatima, or you know of some shrine, monastery, or other noteworthy holy site near you, they are also a great way to encourage young people in their faith. Also, a holy site place doesn’t need to be famous for reputed miracles to be worth visiting, after all every church has a relic of a saint in the altar so there are always graces to be obtained by visiting them. Consider giving them an ornate folder that contains information about the pilgramage destination and a pre-paid fuel card for them to use to drive there. Better yet offer to take them on a road trip to visit the place, or even challenge them to walk or bike there, or at least the last mile or so to the site.

5. Planting a Seed that will Grow and Bear Fruit

In the early 00’s a Canadian blogger named Kyle MacDonald did something remarkable. He started with a single red paperclip and through a series of online trades over the course of a year, of one object for another, he ended up with a two-story house. I thought it was interesting at the time, but after years of reflection I can now see how MacDonald’s One Red Paperclip project was a fascinating embodiment of the Parable of the Mustard Seed, in that something small and mundane blossomed into something far greater than expected.

All of us have heard that parable, but how many of us have really lived it out? Well, graduation is the perfect time to challenge a young person to put God’s grace and their grit to the test by taking something small and insignificant and turning it into something that will grow and bear fruit. And while some may laugh or scoff at this idea (and trust me they have), I not only see it as perfect way to strengthen one’s faith but it is also the perfect antidote to all of the indifferent, entitled, or anxious moods that permeates so much of youth culture today.

So if you can deal with the initial shock of the recipient’s reaction to receiving such a gift, and have the patience to stay involved with the grad to offer advice and guidance along the way, you will be surprised how something as simple as saying, “I trust you with this” will go a long way in building up a person’s confidence. Some ideas to consider are,

1. Enroll them in a course on basic finance and investing, and then give them something to invest- a lump sum of money, a small portfolio, or given the current fears over inflation maybe even some crypto currencies.

2. Give a sum of money for them to make micro-loans at places like Kiva or other peer-to-peer micro-lending sites, where they can loan out what to us are small amounts of money to invest in businesses around the country and the world. It is a great way to teach basic economics as well as teaching idealistic young people that the best way to get the world’s poor out of poverty is not with feel-good handouts but by investing in business and industry which in turn create jobs and wealth.

3. Or practice subsidiarity by offering to purchase a few basic items for the grad to start a business or a side-hustle of their own. A few hundred dollars worth of cleaning, painting, or lawn care supplies in ambitions hands has the potential to make many times more than the initial investment. Or perhaps a computer or other equipment to run an online business. Encouraging young people to start their own businesses (even a small one) will teach them a whole host of life skills such as negotiating, accounting, and paying attemtion to the little details in life. Moreover, letting a young person experience what it’s like to work above and beyond what is expected of them and to take risks in pursuit of their ambitions, will go a long way to quash the current obsession with Socialism among the young.

4. Explain the red paperclip story to the grad, then take them to the Goodwill, buy a basket, fill it with some random items, and then challenge them to see if they can sell, trade, or auction off the items for a profit. Or for the more “hands on” sort of individuals, give them an item that is in need of repair or refurnishing, and see what they can do with it. I have known many people who were given “hooptie” cars, broken machines, old furniture, or other antiques that they fixed up and sold for a profit. Then they repeated the process with ever-more expensive items. Thus at the same time that they were learning valuable repair skills, they also built up a little nest egg.

In the end, with a little imagination and a lot of love, you can you turn a gift that most of us reflexively and unthinkingky give into something that is not just a gift for them, but a gift that will ultimately be about them. What they do with it will show what they are really made of, or more importanly in terms of growing in their faith, what they are made for as they begin to discern the calling God has in mind for them.

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