At our high school graduation ceremony I remember thinking it was strange to refer to the event as ‘commencement exercises.’
I thought, “But this ceremony marks ‘the end’ of high school, and for the majority of the graduating class of Wilmington High, (all 73 of us in the class of ’58), it’s the end of formal education.”
I got the point, of course, even before I became familiar with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. It was in the fourth quartet, Little Gidding, that he penned the famous lines:
“What we call the beginning if often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
College graduation was different – it meant the beginning of a career I planned for, and I had no trouble getting a job as a high school teacher. My goal in life, as inscribed for all eternity in my high school year book was ‘to become as good a teacher as Mr. D.’
Seven years of teaching later I started seminary I did something that has since become more common – I changed my career path.
This year’s college graduates are lucky to find work that is all related to their career path – if they even had a career path. Thus the sermon topic: what are the challenges to this year’s college commencement as speakers as graduates face big loans to pay off and lack of employment.
There’s really nothing particularly unique about the challenges faced by this year’s commencement speakers:
To avoid platitudes…to resist the temptation to be long-winded or preachy…or too cute…or patronizing…or entertaining. (In other words, the kinds of challenges we clergy face every week!)
I want to remind you of a few commencement talks of late, and another that is more than 400 years old…and I want to offer my own commencement address to you graduates.
This morning (June 12, 2011) there is a two-page spread about this year’s commencement speeches, analyzing 40 of them by counting the number of times these forty speakers used certain words, showing how they redefined success in today’s world—how they dealt with the challenges of talks to the class of 2011.
Graduates were told to have ‘courage in an uncertain world,’ and were warned about ‘technology overload,’ and were told they had to ‘save the world.’ In fact the word ‘world’ was the most frequently used word; used 296 times by the chosen forty.
There were 243 references to jobs or careers; love and passion got 118 hits.
To my delight, the forty speakers included the cafeteria cashier at Hampshire college, Roberta Tudryn, where my grandson graduated a couple of weeks ago.
I appreciated what Ms. Tudryn had to say, and the personal way in which she said it, but I was especially impressed by the fact that she was on the speaker’s platform – how often have you seen a cafeteria cashier, or any service worker, give a talk at a college commencement ceremony?
Instead of having a famous politician or block-buster actress tell the graduates to find meaning in serving others, they had a woman who worked in the cafeteria for 33 years offer a testimonial to the service work in which she found a great deal of meaning…satisfaction. There were no platitudes.
In June of 1977 Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, gave the commencement address to the graduating class at Lake Forest College in the form of a poem. He prefaced his talk:
“It seems behooven upon me to bring forth great words of wisdom to this graduating class as it leaves these cloistered halls to enter the outside world. My wisdom is in short supply, and I have managed to condense everything I know into this epic poem consisting of fourteen lines:
My uncle ordered popovers
From the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And when they were served,
He regarded them with a penetrating stare. . . .
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
And he sat there on that chair:
“To eat these things,” said my uncle,
“You must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid . . .
BUT . . . you must spit out the air!”
And as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
That’s darned good advice to follow—
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air,
And be careful what you swallow!
As it turned out, the graduates in the class of 1977 were in for some difficult times with high unemployment centered especially on young people. Inflation was a big problem. There was a lot of ‘hot air’ that needed to be sorted out. Novelist Tom Wolfe had coined a term for the 70’s – he called it ‘the me decade,’ to describe the emphasis on individualism as opposed to the 60’s emphasis on communitarianism.
Commencement speeches are always a challenge – the big danger is in making them too long. Dr. Seuss solved that one.
He avoided platitudes: “The world is your oyster…live your dream…appreciate every moment of your life…be all you can be…you are the best and the brightest…”
Three years ago, when Harry Potter was still ‘all the rage,’ even on college campuses, on June 5, 2008 to be precise, JK Rowling introduced her Harvard commencement address by saying:
“The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.
“Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said.
“This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.
“You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.”
She went on to talk about the need to learn how to fail, or to learn from failures. She said, “On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure.”
She said, “The fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.”
As it turns out, her commencement comments were quite timely. Just a couple of months after her talk at Harvard we were hit with a severe economic failure in what has come to be called ‘the Great Recession,’ sparked by the financial crisis of the late 2000s.
This year actress, Amy Poehler, gave a commencement speech to the Harvard grads. She avoided platitudes by keeping to her strength, which is humor.
Toward the end of her remarks she touched a cord with me when she said:
”Would it kill you to be nicer to your parents? They have sacrificed so much for you and all they want is for you to smile and take a picture with your weird cousins. Do that for them. And with less eye-rolling, please.”
If I were to give a commencement address I would start by saying, first of all, watch your language.
What I mean by that has nothing to do with refraining from profanity – what I mean by ‘watch your language’ is to be aware of the ways you use words that can be hurtful, both to others and to yourself.
We all talk to ourselves – and we can talk ourselves into being who we want to be, and we can talk ourselves out of being who we want to be, or what we need to do in order to preserve our health, our primary relationships and our reputation.
Regarding self-talk, be aware, first of all, of the effect of what it is you are saying to yourself.
If you are playing baseball, for example, and you’re up to bat and you swing and miss, you may be temped to tell yourself that you are just not a good hitter, or that you’re over the hill. Or you can say to yourself, “I know what I did wrong that time, I’ll hit the next good pitch.”
Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, but he struck out 1,330 times! He said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”
That’s a perfect example of what I mean when I say, ‘Watch your language!’
Paying attention to your language can provide insight into the reason you’re so critical of yourself. You may realize that the criticism you made about the other team’s batters comes back to you. When the other guy swings and misses you can say, ‘What a loser,’ or you can say, ‘What a great pitch!’
There’s a bit of truth in the old proverb, “Judge not lest ye be judged.”
So, watch your language. You’re making a name for yourself. You were given a name, but you must ‘make a name for yourself’ by what you do and say, and by what you refrain from doing and saying as well.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Beware of wallowing in guilt and shame and failure – accept your limitations, accept your faults and failures and learn from them.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Lighten up. Don’t take me too seriously – I’m only trying to do my best, and most of what I have to tell you about life after graduation I’ve learned the hard way, which may be the only way.
Be aware of the story you tell yourself, and others, about yourself (your personal myth). It will work for you or against you. You can talk yourself into feeling sorry for yourself; you’ve been treated unfairly, you’ve been abused and cheated, you’ve had a bunch of bad luck.
You’ve also had a major share of good fortune, you’ve been one of the most advantaged persons among the six billion on the planet. Consequently (and no fault of your own) you have one of the most extreme sense of entitlement. The world doesn’t owe you a living.
So, as you talk to yourself, watch your language – it’s a built in GPS system that leads you down one road or another. That’s the point of my usual benediction:
“Now, say to thyself, ‘If there’s any good thing I can do, or any kindness I can show to any person, let me do it do it now, let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Watch your language in relationships – which often means ‘bite your tongue,’ don’t criticize too quickly; don’t say whatever you want whenever you want to. Restrain yourself. Instead of saying the first thing that comes into your mind, listen, allow for some silence…ask for clarification to let the other person know you are actually listening, and that you care.
Moments of thoughtful listening provide the building blocks of friendship, and friends are one of the seven keys to the kingdom.
Watch your language, and you can build lasting friendships and make new ones. Deliver your criticisms softly—not only criticisms of the person to whom you are speaking, face-to-face, but be gentle in expressing criticisms of someone who is not present.
Practice listening – resist the urge to show how smart or clever or funny you are. The art of friendship depends on your ability to listen more than your ability to express opinions or to make grand pronouncements about ‘the truth of the matter.’
Watch your language – express gratitude, express your appreciation for what life has given to you so far. As a member of the class of 2011, you have been over-exposed to a culture that does its best to convince you that ‘you deserve a break…today!’ Now! Don’t wait. Don’t delay gratification. You’ve been told that you deserve instant gratification, and you must not settle for second best – translation: don’t be satisfied, there’s always ‘more.’
The one thing we all seem to want is ‘MORE.’ That’s the attitude that grows the economy. More, more, more!
Practice being a student. Your diploma is given to you in commencement exercises – commencement – the word means ‘to begin.’ In the end is your beginning.
Your diploma or graduate degree is not a ticket to ride first class – it’s an expensive piece of paper, to be sure. It comes in handy as a ticket that gets you into the dance, but you have to move those feet.
My friend Harry Friedman, of blessed memory, had graduate as well as undergraduate degrees from MIT – I didn’t know that until I was a guest in his house and made use of the bathroom – where his degrees were on display.
So, watch your language, and watch your step. Be careful. Don’t fall down, and if you happen to fall watch your language! You’re not a clumsy jerk.
As a student of life you are allowed to fall and to fail, it’s inevitable. Learn from it. That’s what being a student if all about.
As a college graduate you join the ranks of the 27% of your fellow citizens in America.
Your diploma entitles you to a degree of satisfaction – it’s a significant accomplishment about which you can feel a sense of pride.
One of the most well-known commencement speeches was put into the mouth of a character in Hamlet. Shakespeare has Polonius say to his son Laertes as Laertes is about to strike out on his own:
“…my blessing with thee.
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
(Watch your language)
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade.
(a glad hander – one lacking sincerity)
Beware of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man…
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!”