The Ivy League Graduation Speech I Would Give
The surest way for a graduation speaker to be forgotten is to go all Disney on the audience. “You will all do amazing things, for you are each impossibly unique and gifted.” The students, many of whom coasted through their years of education, nod subtly. But years later, do they remember the speech?
As one who sat through numerous such addresses, I can confidently say the answer is No.
This got me thinking. No one has asked me to be a graduation speaker this year. I am receiving no honorary degrees. Similarly, I expect to go undrafted by the NBA for the twelfth straight time this June. What my self-esteem is lacking, however, my brain is making up for through a hypothetical graduation speech. Make sure that tassel is on the correct side and shift awkwardly in your seat, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s time for the speech our graduates should be hearing.
Assembled graduates, dignitaries, worthies, functionaries, financially despairing parents and friends:
I ascend to this desk to speak with you of an important matter: your lack of amazingness. I recognize that in selecting this theme, I am failing to make good on The Official Twenty-First Century Graduation Speech. Mea culpa. You would know, if you had been forced to get a real education, that this phrase means roughly “I am sorry.” But you were not forced to learn Latin, and for that I am sorry as well. My sorrow, in sum, superabounds.
You have been relentlessly told that you are brilliant. Several years ago, playing youth soccer, you all received trophies. Many of you have in your youth more “followers” than the great Russian novelists did in their entire lifetime. But here is the thing: most of you are not brilliant. Not even close. You’re full of dignity. Your life bears promise. But little of the promise to be reaped in your life and mine has any relation to brilliance. Brilliance is way overrated. It tends to make you nasty and egotistical and other traits that qualify you for a reality-TV show and an ill-advised active wear-line.
The promise in your life, my friends, has much more to do with old-fashioned things, concepts like humility, service, duty and courage. Your intellect, you must understand, is a service instrument. It will serve what your heart most loves and your affections most desire. If you are driven by the quest to flatter the whims of your authentic oversoul, then you may well squander even a prodigious intellect. If, on the other hand, you seek to serve something greater than yourself — a spouse, a family, a church, a vocation, a nation, God — you will find the transcendence that you have been trained, wrongly, to find in yourself.
A life dedicated to something bigger than you will prove challenging. Your feelings will get hurt. Your basic convictions will suffer attack. You will feel small, and you will instinctively reach for your smartphone, and for the soothing mechanism enacted when you salve the emptiness inside by broadcasting it, airbrushed and filtered, to the world. People will not necessarily agree with you. They may not affirm you and your choices. When this happens, in a weird way, you should thank them.
Your professors here at this school, those who trained you to inhabit the moral ecosphere of sensitivity trainings and trigger warnings? They have done you a great disservice. You will rarely feel more alive, my friends, than when you engage others who have an equal claim to life but who differ with you to the full. Disagreement unto reflection, after all, is the gateway to conversion, the prelude to the salvation of your immortal soul. Take away the possibility of an intellectual or spiritual challenge, and you lose all prospect of necessary personal transformation.
I could drone on about such platitudes, but I will spare you. In the spirit of what I have thus far intoned, let me leave you today with ten tips for fruitful modern living, non-amazing style.
If you have a choice between modesty and revealing yourself, choose the former. It is, I assure you, the far more sensationalist choice today.
Carve out at least some space for privacy. Create a sphere in your life, one properly moral, that no one can stream or view. Revel in the deliciousness of solitude. In our day, it is like oil far beneath the surface — undiscovered but precious.
Embrace conversations with people who believe you are dead-wrong in your fundamental convictions. Don’t yell at them. This will be challenging, for you have been encouraged to regress to intellectual infancy when this strange alchemy arises. Listen, debate and ponder. Worlds may open up as you do so.
Do not doubt the truth. Doubt your doubts. Do so especially when God has spoken to you and revealed his very mind in the Bible. There is a cottage industry aimed at getting you to distrust the Word of God. Before you take on the intellectual heft of refuting God, aim at refuting your fellow man. It will be fun.
Build something. Build a six-decade marriage. Build a happy family. Build a vocation. Help build a church. Build a stronger community. Build, in a tiny way, a better country. By the grace of God, build stuff. You may have fewer dots on the “Places I’ve Traveled” app than some peers, but you will have contributed to something beyond yourself. Bonus points for killing selfishness!
Read books about outsized lives and individuals. Churchill, Chuck Colson, Augustine. Lift your eyes from your own spectrum with regularity to see the bigger stakes, and map out a course for your own existence.
Dream big, but dream with definition. Have a life-goal of not being the guy in his fifties still living off the fumes of being told he was the next Paul McCartney one time at an open-mic night. Don’t be that guy, or that woman.
Put your gifts and talents to work. Neither overestimate nor underestimate them. You are likely less skilled and amazing than you’ve been told. But here’s the thing: you are skilled enough to be dangerous. In other words, you can put a small dent in the world. Go for it.
Resolve that passing shadows, work-wise, will not draw you off. If you’re given a family, then by all means put them first. Be very suspicious of the promotion that sounds perfect but will rob you of all the small pleasures of life: eating breakfast together, singing around the piano, reading Tolkien out loud. You will have less to brag about around your neighbors, perhaps. You may be less meritocratically impressive. But you know what? That will be a good thing.
Remember that more than a mind, more than a mere body, you are a person, one who will live for eternity in either heaven or hell. Jesus Christ is the only sufficient Savior. He’s the point of it all. Go with him, and never turn back.
There you go, graduates. You may not be amazing, but you can be faithful, dutiful, courageous and wise. So there you have it. Carpe Diem!
(Sorry: That is Latin for “Seize the day.”)