I haven’t been asked to give you a speech today, because frankly, who am I? I’m thirteen years out of a prestigious private university, and everything I have done in my life is in the broadest view completely unimportant.
My BS in psychology is lost. I literally don’t know where the diploma ended up, nor have I used most of the rote knowledge I gained from earning it. If you gave me the tests I passed 13 years ago, I would fail them, I think. If you asked me to write the essays or do the research and projects again, I’d balk at the idea. If you showed my psychology career on paper to my professors from thirteen years ago, they’d probably balk, too.
This is not to imply that I’ve done other things with my life. I haven’t, in fact, done too much in other career fields, either. Most of my time I’ve spent teaching children, performing, or writing. I haven’t in this process earned a teaching degree, nor have I ever taught full-time. I haven’t performed anywhere that more than a half a percent of the population has heard of, and fewer than 200 people have read my writing.
I have backed out of, messed up, and failed at things. The aforementioned diploma was probably left with my ex-fiancee when I moved out. I’ve moved five times since then and kissed no fewer than a dozen women, most of whom I hoped would like me. Like, really like me.
Professionally, I’ve dropped out of the Second City Conservatory. I’ve been rejected by theatre companies too small to even register on the Boston scene and not landed roles in student films clearly desperate for actors. My first and only sketch comedy group stayed together for two years. That’s more years than we got laughs from an audience. I have a collection of rejection letters from agents, publishers, and play festivals. One told me my book was exactly what they were looking for—then they read it. I have also almost daily chickened out of stand-up comedy.
So, no one has invited me to speak to you at this important time in your life. Instead, they’ve probably invited someone wealthy and reputable who may have also attended your university, someone who wants to give back or serve as an example of all that your hard work has set you up to deserve.
Which of us are you going to trust to advise you on your way forward?
If you’re smart, you’ll choose neither, because neither of us can say with any true certainty what happens for you from this day on. Neither of us know what your life will be like. In fact, nobody knows what your life will be like.
Nobody, for example can predict with any certainty that if you are smart and persistent, you will generally get what you want. Nobody can promise you that if you get what you want, you will be happier. It may be the opposite. Nobody can safely advise you to behave if you want to stay out of trouble. Good behavior is sometimes rewarded with cruelty if not mild disrespect, and bad behavior may well go unpunished or even rewarded. People who tell you to be patient are lying to you and maybe to themselves. There may be absolutely nothing ahead of you, nothing worth waiting for, no light at the end of your tunnel. You may never see the end of the tunnel. After all, strictly speaking, nobody can guarantee you that the sun will rise tomorrow. One day, it won’t. You may or may not be around for that day. Nobody knows.
Probably you will need or want to get a job. If that’s the case, you will probably have to choose between your financial standing and your personhood. Most jobs that promise monetary success come from social factions that are in some way exploitative. Of their employees. Of their customer or fan base. Of the poor. Of the weak. Of the innocent. Of the environment. Of me. Of you. I can say with some certainty that you already have and will continue to be asked to support exploitation in your career path.
If you choose instead to go out on your own, to reject the support of any exploitative elements of human culture, then I imagine that most of your projects will fail. This may not be true. You may make major financial gains for yourself. You may achieve recognition, respect, and honor. These things may bring you great happiness, and swiftly.
Probably not. Probably, your ego will be beaten to death by an ever-growing population that doesn’t find you nearly as special as you have been brought up to believe you are. Consequently, I hope you don’t believe that dreams come true. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. Often they kind of come true. Usually they change.
None of what I just wrote--depressing, uplifting, or otherwise--is certain or reliable. If there is a logic to the fate of individual humans, it has proven itself for centuries to be well beyond our collective comprehension.
What, then, can I (the man who has not been invited to speak to you) guarantee you? If there is no promised connection between your choices and how much freedom, pleasure, and privilege you receive in return, then what is the purpose of making choices at all?
Hermann Hesse wrote a possible answer into the pages of the iconic novel, Steppenwolf:
“You have a picture of life within you, a faith, a challenge, and you were ready for deeds and sufferings and sacrifices, and then you became aware by degrees that the world asked no deeds and no sacrifices of you whatever, and that life is no poem of heroism with heroic parts to play and so on, but a comfortable room where people are quite content with eating and drinking, coffee and knitting, cards and wireless.”
In this passage lies a priceless and timeless truth: that the world needs heroes, and that you, so long as you are in charge of your mental capacities, will have the opportunity to be one.
It doesn't take much.
You can be heroic in looking at human need when others are looking at their bank accounts. By responding with patience when met with angst. By guiding intolerance with the eye of acceptance. By meeting adversity, whatever form you face, instead of sidestepping it for the sake of convenience. In the personal truth with which you live your life. In the forgiveness of self and others.
Heroism happens in the gaps between moments and is rarely noticed on a wide scale. But it happens.
There are many people, most of whom will appear or claim to be socially superior to you, who will encourage you to aim your heroic impulses at the immediate and the simple, to build ant hills instead of empires, to undersell yourself because, really, what is heroism going to get you? You, dear graduates, do not have to listen to those people. You can throw that idea right back in their face and go on and be heroic anyway. As a reminder, probably no one will notice your choice or congratulate you. Your life might suck from a material stand point because you didn’t put yourself on the auction block. Your ego might ache.
Sound fun? There’s a reason people try to turn away from heroism. And yet, there is also a reason it follows them: because it is one of the only reliably true things this world has to offer any of us.
This graduation speech may seem like a pathetic and depressing one. If it strikes you as such, consider two things. One, no one asked me to give a graduation speech. Two, consider a second passage from the same book by the same well-commended author:
“The image of every true act, the strength of every true feeling, belongs to eternity . . . even though no one knows of it or sees it or records it or hands it down to posterity. In eternity, there is no posterity. . . It is there that we belong. There is our home. [And] our only guide is our homesickness."
I hope that you, now that you are no longer away at college, will always feel a little homesick.