I won’t name any examples of these fine speakers; it isn’t my point here to dwell upon the particulars of their speeches, but merely to say that this is the high bar to which any commencement speaker must aspire.
This leads me to a most fanciful thought, a wild “what-if” scenario that has an approximately zero percent chance of actually occurring: What if I were asked to speak at a college commencement? What could I conceivably say to a few thousand people, mostly in their twenties, who’ve been grinding away for years in various fields of study, all with the goal of receiving their diplomas and moving on to The Next Thing?
When I think of it that way, part of me has an even greater respect for anyone who undertakes the writing and performing of such a speech. But then another part of me rises up and becomes indignant; wondering how anyone has the gall to tell a diverse bunch of adult strangers how to think about their lives. I replay some of these sage speeches in my head and I think, “Where do you get the nerve to talk that way? How friggin’ big is your ego?”
But then I take a step back and realize that there’s another way to look at this. After all, I believe in organized education. I believe in higher education. Like most things worth doing, it is worth doing well. It can be one of our most powerful tools for fostering growth and protecting against society descending into chaos and mayhem (and yes, now and then people come away from college seemingly determined to cause chaos and mayhem rather than prevent it, but I’m painting with a broad brush here; the general outcome is far, far more positive than negative). On an individual level, education is a powerful tool that can empower us to take fuller control of our fates and expand our potentials. Therefore, I’d like to do everything I can to empower and inspire anyone who has chosen a path of higher education, so maybe this idea of commencement speeches is a worthy one after all.
So we circle back to that persistent question: What would I tell those cap-and-gown-clad folks if it fell to me to make the big speech?
The first issue I would have to deal with is the aforementioned issue of Ego. Ego isn’t a bad thing, you know. There are many fields of endeavor that would be impossible to execute without a healthy dose of it, but ego is a beast and a naughty little boy that must be managed and focused in order to become truly useful. So the most essential step in preparing the speech would be this: Accept and embrace that I have the right to speak my mind to you. I will do such research as becomes necessary, but the words and ideas presented must belong entirely to me. I must speak not as a deity on Mount Olympus but as a fellow traveler; otherwise, my speech is at risk of being nothing more than highbrow entertainment rather than possessing actual significance.
Upon further reflection, I realize that the single most bothersome element that crops up in almost every commencement speech is the notion, either explicitly or implicitly stated, that you new alumni, now armed with your degrees, are about to embark upon your public lives, as if you’ve suddenly become ordained and will now begin your public ministry. Yes, there it is. This is my message to the graduating class:
You have not been shut away from the world all this time. You have not been disconnected from a world that you will now begin to inherit. No. This world has been yours for some time now. You’ve already begun your adult lives. Whether you wish to embrace it or not, you are already creating yourself and remaking the world in your image. Every. Single. Day.
Your life is not something that occurs in the future. You haven’t been living your lives provisionally until now, even if you’d like to think so. That is to say, your college life isn’t something you’ve been doing until your real life begins. This college has not been a hiding place. You’re already in the world. You’re already changing it. You change it every day.
And so do I. I, who am so much older than you, I change the world every day I am in it, even if some believe I have already ceded the world to a younger generation. This is our shared identity as living humans on planet Earth, regardless of our respective ages and socio-economic positions.
The implications of our ownership of the world are considerable. It means that if I have been living my life only for my day-to-day amusement, then those actions (or inactions) are my indelible stamp upon the world. If the main thrust of my life is to work nine to five, collapse on the couch at night, and spend my weekends drunk and smiling – or drunk and frowning – then that is my sculptural tweak to the clay of the Earth. Am I telling you to live the life of a monk? To devote yourself to the betterment of mankind? No, I could not presume to say anything of the sort, nor do I embody that ideal myself. I do not seek or crave your appraisal of my life. What’s more, I don’t think you’re fit to judge me in such matters. I extend the same courtesy to you. I am neither fit to judge you nor fit to prescribe a course of action. My life is in my hands; your life is in yours.
All that I have to offer is a small reminder; an awakening of consciousness to anyone who wishes to hear it, and a question that only you can answer: What do you think of your life? No, don’t tell me the answer; it wouldn’t mean much to me. Answer only to yourself. Maybe you’ll like what you tell yourself. Maybe, very quietly, you won’t like what you hear and you’ll pretend you didn’t hear it, or you’ll have a list of reasons why you must be excused for not meeting your own standards. Those answers are all fine, but I believe you must ask the question, and ask it often, if you have any wish of finding your footing in life. Socrates said it long ago: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates was more to the point, more downright harsh, than I’ve been. I agree with his general sentiment but it is more in my nature to avoid such absolutes. Nevertheless, old Socrates made a pretty fine point. So my notion is not a new one, but it’s a notion that bears repeating to every new generation that comes along.
In closing, my fellow travelers, I urge you all to tip well unless your service has been truly loathsome, to keep your bullshit detectors finely tuned at all times, and to revel in any small true thing you may find along the way. As you exit, I’ll be selling autographs in the lobby.