Hello, everyone. I know that approximately none of you are excited to listen to a speech right now, and honestly I am with you. I’m not sure why we feel the need to torture graduates further, after they have already completed decades of group projects, by making them listen to a stranger. All you want to do right now is walk up here and get your fake diploma. But here we are, so this is my promise to you: this will be a very good experience because this commencement address is going to be very short, AND, secondly, at the end I will tell you the secret of life.
So here we go. I am not going to talk about how the future is yours, or that you must believe in the power of your dreams, and I am not going to lie and say you can do anything if you try hard enough. Hopefully you have figured out that last one is not true. You can do many things if you try, you can probably do more than you think because you are stronger than you believe. But you cannot do anything you dream up. The only person who can do anything is Tom Cruise who is 61 years old and riding a motorcycle off a cliff in this summer’s Mission Impossible movie. You are not Tom Cruise – which is a good thing for all of us.
So I am not going to talk about those things. Instead, I am going to share a few things I wish I had known at 18, or 22, or honestly even at 40. Maybe a few of them will be helpful to a few of you, and then we can all move on to what you came here for.
First: wear sunscreen. Yes, every day. Yes, even if you sit inside an office under fluorescent lights all day. You are exposed to more sunlight than you think and it will cause wrinkles and skin cancer and you will thank me in ten years. Sunscreen is cheaper than Botox.
Speaking of those office lights: I assume you completed this degree because you want to get a job, and it’s very important for you to think about the kind of work environment and work day you want to have before you jump into a career path. For some of you that means you should have thought about this five years ago, but here we are so let’s do it now. Do you want to sit in an office? Do you want to do more active work where you’re not behind a desk? Do you want to be outside? Do you want to drive? Do you want to walk? I figured out way too late that it kills my soul to sit inside looking at a screen all day. Learn from my mistake and think about what kind of daily routine will allow you to thrive. Getting this right is more important than making a lot of money. As Annie Dillard says, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Don’t spend yours inside looking at Excel sheets unless that really fires up your soul. If that really fires up your soul, there is no shame in therapy.
While we’re at it with Annie Dillard quotes: read her. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is an excellent start.
While we’re at it: read.
Photo credit Bookshop.org
Try Thomas Lynch, especially his memoir about life as an undertaker. In it, he observes that “the poor cousin of fear is anger.” Our fear, when it is not dealt with, when it is not acknowledged, will present as anger. This is because being scared makes us feel powerless, but anger gives us the illusion that we are taking action. It feels better to ball our hands into fists than it does to wring our hands and worry.
Fear of ambiguity makes us cling to black and white answers, because gray is scary. Fear of losing political or cultural or financial influence makes us demean other people’s humanity, because losing power is scary. Fear closes our minds to the possibility that the world is bigger and more complicated than we thought but also potentially more beautiful and wonderful, literally full of wonder, than we dreamed.
Grief that is not dealt with also often pops out as anger. So consider what you are scared of and what you are sad about, and consider how you can face that rather than walking around mad all the time. Not only will this make you a more peaceful and joyful person, it will also make you a more humble one. Humility is one of the most lovely character traits a person can have. For those of you who are interested in Jesus, humility a big part of his way, too, despite what you might have observed from some of the people claiming to follow him.
If you are a woman, you will have to learn how to balance this humility with assertiveness. Everyone has to do this, actually, but it’s more difficult for women. We are culturally pressured to be agreeable and nice. But those are not the same as humble. You can be strong and confident without being proud. You can disagree and still be kind, which is much more the point than being “nice.” You have a voice and a perspective we need. Humility is simply keeping in mind that everyone else does, too.
Remember there are rarely just one or two answers to a question, at least to the interesting questions.
Remember that the person who talks the loudest isn’t always the person who’s right.
Remember that the unseen is realer than the seen, and that what counts often can’t be counted.
Remember to invest in friendships and to invest in a Roth IRA.
And finally, remember to have scissors in every room of your house.
Stick scissors in your car. Keep scissors in your office. There are many real enemies out there and scissors will not help you with racism or misogyny or nationalism or greed, at least not in ways that are legal. But being able to open things without swearing and throwing them across the room will conserve your strength for fighting those bigger battles, so buy lots of scissors. This is the secret of life.
And with that, I will close by saying a sincere congratulations to all of you. Enjoy this moment and be fully present for it. Let’s get to the diplomas!