Some people have asked to read the commencement address I delivered this morning to the 2013 graduates of Butler University. So here it is.
My own commencement speaker, who shall remain nameless, began with a lame joke about how these speeches only come in two varieties: Short and bad. This raised my expectations, and then he went onto speak for 26 minutes, so I’m just going to tell you now: 12 minutes flat, 11:45 if you don’t laugh.
Congratulations to all of you here today, and I do mean all of you—parents, families, friends, professors, coaches. Every single person in Hinkle today has given something to make this moment possible for the class of 2013—well, except for me. I really just showed up and put on the robe.
But special congratulations to you graduates. Before we get to the Life Advice You’ll Soon Forget portion of the program, I want to engage in a time-honored tradition of American commencement addresses: Stealing from other commencement addresses, in this case one by the children’s television host Fred Rogers. Think, if you will, of some of the people who helped get you to today, people who’ve loved you and without whose care and generosity you might not have found yourself here, graduating from Butler, or watching someone you love graduate, or seeing your students graduate. Think for one minute of those who have loved you up into this day. I’ll keep the time.
(1 minute of silence)
Those people are so proud of you today.
We will return to those people soon, but first I have to deliver terrible news, which is that you are all going to die. This is another time-honored tradition of American celebration, the Raining on the Parade. I remember when I got married, the priest devoted most of his homily to telling me how challenging and laborious marriage would be, and I kept thinking, “Well, sure, but can’t we talk about that, like, TOMORROW?” But no, it simply cannot wait. You are going to die. Also everything you ever make and think and experience will be washed away by the sands of time, and the Sun will blow up and no one will remember Cleopatra ruling Egypt or Crick and Watson untangling the structure of DNA or Ptolemy fathoming the stars or even that improbably wonderful Gonzaga game.
So that’s unfortunate.
But I would argue that it’s good to be aware of temporariness when you are thinking about what you want to do with your life. The whole idea of this commencement speech is that I’m supposed to offer you some thoughts on how you might live a good life out there in the so-called Real World, which by the way I assure you is no more or less real than the one in which you have so far found yourselves. But I can’t give any advice about how to live a good life unless and until we establish what constitutes a good life. Of course, that’s much of what you’ve been up to for the past four years, and I’m not going to swoop in here at the end with any interesting revelations. I would just note that the default assumption is that the point of human life is to be as successful as possible, to acquire lots of fame or glory or money as defined by quantifiable metrics: number of twitter followers, or facebook friends, or dollars in one’s 401k.
This is the hero’s journey, right? The hero starts out with no money and ends up with a lot of it, or starts out an ugly duckling and becomes a beautiful swan, or starts out an awwkard girl and becomes a vampire mother, or grows up an orphan living under the staircase and then becomes the wizard who saves the world. We are taught that the hero’s journey is the journey from weakness to strength. But I am here today to tell you that those stories are wrong. The real hero’s journey is the journey from strength to weakness.
And here is the good news nested inside the bad: Many of you, most of you, are about to make that journey. You will go from being the best-informed, most engaged students at one of the finest universities around to being the person who brings coffee to people, or a Steak n Shake waiter, as I once was. Whether you’re a basketball player or a pharmacist or a software designer, you’re about to be a rookie. Your parents’ long-asked questions—what exactly does one DO with a degree in anthropology—will become a matter of sudden and profound relevance. Your student loans will come due and you will need a very good answer for why exactly you went to college, which answer you will have a hard time coming by as you sit at your job, provided you are lucky enough to find a job, and suffer the indignity of people calling you by the wrong name or, if you are forced to wear a name tag, people calling you by the right name too often.
That is the true hero’s errand—strength to weakness. And because you went to college, you will be more alive to the experience, better able to contextualize it and maybe even find the joy and wonder hidden amid the dehumanizing drudgery. For example, when I was a data entry professional, I would often call to mind William Faulkner’s brilliant letter of resignation from the United States Postal Service, which went:
As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation. William Faulkner.
Having read that letter in a Faulkner biography in college had nothing to do with my job typing numbers into a database, but it was still profoundly useful to me. Education provides context and comfort and access, no matter the relationship between your field of study and your post-collegiate life.
But still, you are probably going to be a nobody for a while. You are going to make that journey from strength to weakness, and while it won’t be an easy trip, it is a heroic one. For in learning how to be a nobody, you will learn how not to be a jerk. And for the rest of your life, if you are able to remember your hero’s journey from college grad to underling, you will be less of a jerk. You will tip well. You will empathize. You will be a mentor, and a generous one. In short, you will become like the people you imagined in silence a few minutes ago.
Let me submit to you that this is the actual definition of a good life. You want to be the kind of person who other people—people who may not even born yet—will think about in their own silences years from now at their own commencements. I am going to hazard a guess that relatively few of us closed our eyes and thought of all the work and love that Selena Gomez or Justin Bieber put into making this moment possible for us. We may be taught that the people to admire and emulate are actors and musicians and sports heroes and professionally famous people, but when we look at the people who have helped us, the people who actually change actual lives, relatively few of them are publicly celebrated. We do not think of the money they had, but of their generosity. We do not think of how beautiful or powerful they were, but how willing they were to sacrifice for us—so willing, at times, that we might not have even noticed that they were making sacrifices.
So with that in mind, I’d like to share a few pieces of what I believe to be rock solid advice about proper adulthood or whatever:
First, do not worry too much about your lawn. You will soon find if you haven’t already that almost every adult American devotes tremendous time and money to the maintenance of an invasive plant species called turf grass that we can’t eat. I encourage you to choose better obsessions.
Also, you may have heard that it is better to burn out than it is to fade away. That is ridiculous. It is much better to fade away. Always. Fade. Away.
Keep reading. Specifically, read my books, ideally in hardcover. But also keep reading other books. You have probably figured out by now that education is not really about grades or getting a job; it’s primarily about becoming a more aware and engaged observer of the universe. If that ends with college, you’re rather wasting your one and only known chance at consciousness.
Also a word about the Internet: Old people like myself are terrified by their ignorance of it, which you can and should use to your advantage by saying things at your job like, “You don’t have a tumblr? Oh you should really have a tumblr. I can set you up with that.”
Try not to worry so much about what you are going to do with your life. You are already doing what you are going to do with your life, and judging by your gownedness, you’re doing all right.
On that topic, there are many more jobs out there than you have ever heard of. Your dream job might not yet exist. If you had told College Me that I would become a professional YouTuber, I would’ve been like, “That is not a word, and it never should be.”
And lastly, be vigilant in the struggle toward empathy. A couple years after I graduated from college, I was living in an apartment in Chicago with four friends, one of whom was this Kuwaiti guy named Hassan, and when the U.S. invaded Iraq, Hassan lost touch with his family, who lived on the border, for six weeks. He responded to this stress by watching cable news coverage of the war 24 hours a day. So the only way to hang out with Hassan was to sit on the couch with him, and so one day we were watching the news and the anchor was like, “We’re getting new footage from the city of Baghdad,” and a camera panned across a house that had a huge hole in one wall covered by a piece of plywood. On the plywood was Arabic graffiti scrawled in black spraypaint, and as the news anchor talked about the anger on the Arab street or whatever, Hassan started laughing for the first time in several weeks.
“What’s so funny?” I asked him.
“The graffiti,” he said.
“What’s funny about it?”
“It says, Happy Birthday, Sir, Despite the Circumstances.”
For the rest of your life, you are going to have a choice about how to read graffiti in a language you do not know, and you will have a choice about how to read the actions and intonations of the people you meet. I would encourage you as often as possible to consider the Happy Birthday Sir Despite the Circumstances possibility, the possibility that the lives and experiences of others are as complex and unpredictable as your own, that other people—be they family or strangers, near or far—are not simply one thing or the other—not simply good or evil or wise or ignorant—but that they like you contain multitudes, to borrow a phrase from the great Walt Whitman.
This is difficult to do—it is difficult to remember that people with lives different and distant from your own even celebrate birthdays, let alone with gifts of graffitied plywood. You will always be stuck inside of your body, with your consciousness, seeing through the world through your own eyes, but the gift and challenge of your education is to see others as they see themselves, to grapple with this mean and crazy and beautiful world in all its baffling complexity. We haven’t left you with the easiest path, I know, but I have every confidence in you, and I wish you a very happy graduation, despite the circumstances.