Wednesday, June 6

My Commencement Address

I wasn't asked to give a commencement address, but if I were. . .


Family members, friends, faculty: You are here today to celebrate a loved one’s graduation. It’s been 4, 5, 6. . .maybe more years in the making, but that day is at long last here. You will weep, you will laugh, you will heave sighs of relief, and you may yet groan a few more times when some of the final bills arrive. But, in the end, we all must believe that the entirety of this experience has been and will be worth it. 

Your stories are worth telling and I hope you will have the opportunity to do so. In fact, you may have noticed a booth in the lobby as you came in and some of you may have already availed yourselves of it. You are invited to tell at least part of your story: recording a message about your loved one’s journey to this giant stepping stone from university to what we call “real life.”

And now, to those of you who have one foot raised in anticipation of the final literal or figurative walk across this stage: that moment when you are handed what symbolizes this threshold of an end and a beginning.

What people typically say during a commencement speech has to do with celebrating what you have done so far and looking forward with boldness and anticipation for what you will yet accomplish, what you will yet become. Students are given admonitions to be men and women of integrity, to continue to challenge themselves, to be unwilling to settle for less than their best. Students are exhorted to discover their true passions and to strive to follow their dreams to help make the world a better place.

Of course speakers are making a lot of assumptions about you. We’re assuming you want to make the world a better place. We’re assuming you have hopes and dreams beyond paying off your college debt. We’re assuming you want to be a person of integrity and good will, that you want to do more and be more than you imagined possible. Maybe all you really want right now is a nap.

But right now all of us are caught up in the moment. We’re dazzled by the bright, freshness of possibility and opportunity. Some of us older folks are reflecting on the blur that was our own graduation, wondering what lofty words were shared with us and what we were challenged to try to be and do. Well, other than gainfully employed. I wonder how many of us have thought about the message we might write to our younger selves if we had the chance, now that we’re definitely older and quite possibly wiser.

This is the letter I would write to my younger self, the one who sat in that huge convention center with my department classmates and played dots on the program with my friend Gordon—yes, that much I remember.

Dear Elaine:
Don’t sweat the small stuff, not that you usually do. You have an idea of what you want to do next and that’s good. You have a plan, sort of. But you already know that plans change because of the thousands of factors you don’t even know to consider. This will be true for the rest of your life, so go ahead and make plans but be flexible. In fact, as much as you are able, be prepared for the unexpected because those unexpected turns may lead to the very best adventures.

Life is an adventure, by the way. It’s a collection of episodes, wrong turns, new people and situations, opportunities that don’t come to fruition and unexplained doors opened at random times. I could get preachy here but you’re not yet ready for that, but I’ll let you know that nothing is a surprise to the Sovereign of the Universe. All of those machinations of trying to make things work out a certain way will likely lead to greater frustration so, in the immortal words of Elsa, let it go. (Even without the character reference, you know what I mean.)

Do I have any actual advice for you? Sure. Look around you. Look up and around. There’s stuff going on in this big world and you’ll miss a lot of the important stuff if you’re constantly looking at your phone (which you don’t actually have yet so this will make more sense in time). And when you look up and around, take the time to wonder about the world around you.

There will always be negativity in the world. There were always be those who will believe the worst about anyone and everyone. Be better than that. When you see people, SEE people. See individuals, see personalities, see possibilities, see undiscovered talent. There will always be some people who are better able than you in many things and people from whom you can learn. There will always be some people who just set your teeth on edge. See them all as individuals and be prepared to learn even from those who make you want to scream. You have to trust me on this.

Most importantly, perhaps, don’t stop learning. I don’t mean just school learning because a lot of the most important things you’ve learned in this collegiate journey had nothing to do with the classroom or a content area. You learned from the way professors handled themselves; you learned from the way you interacted with your friends, your classmates, and those people foisted on you during group work who did nothing or not enough. You learned a lot about yourself and you learned some valuable skills, some of which you won’t recognize or realize for a while.

At a commencement address you will hear in the future, a provost will say that college is not a parenthetic; it is not just that bit between life before college and life after college. It is a part of your life experience. I cannot express how much you have learned about yourself and about the kind of human being you will be because you will not even know about it for weeks, months, even years.

Yes, graduation from college is a singular event. Not everyone gets to do this, and it’s possible that some in your graduating class and waited a lifetime to get here. It marks a significant milestone in the making of you though it is by far the last significant milestone in your life.

There will come a time you will look back on your college days—many of which you will choose to forget and some of which you will just forget. You will see these days much differently, and that’s part of life and learning in life, through life.

But today you are looking ahead. You are looking towards Possibility and towards Adventure. So go and be and do. Inhale deeply. Feel profoundly. Wonder. Be amazed. Learn whenever you can even about stuff that intrigues you. Be curious. Be prepared to be wrong, to be hurt. Laugh. Cry. Hug. Be considerate of others. Be passionate about what moves you. Be nice even to those who aggravate you. Be content. Push the edges of your boundaries. Be reckless on occasion but try to moderate the stupid. The world is a strange, frustrating, terrifying, aggravating, and amazing place. Experience as much of it as you can and learn from those experiences.

And now it’s time to put this particular experience behind you and take the literal or figurative step into your future. So go, and never lose your curiosity and your sense of wonder about the world.

Thank you.

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