Now things get interesting...
Some years back, I passed along some advice to students who are taking their leave of educational institutions to move on into the broader world outside the campus borders. I have posted those remarks below. Some more recent thoughts are appended afterward.
Dear Graduating Senior:
Congratulations! You survived the grueling journey through a college education.
But don't lower your guard quite yet.
Now you will be subjected to the time-honored tradition of showering graduating students with embarrassingly dumb clichés and tidbits of ludicrously pompous rhetorical fairy dust.
Reach for the stars!
Go for your dreams!
It’s up to you to change the world!
You are the future!
You have doubtless heard at least a few of these utterances directed at you over the past week or so, and perhaps more are coming your way in the days to come.
They are usually delivered by apparently sincere and ceremoniously dressed people of mostly irreproachable good intentions. I don't doubt these people mean well. Many of them have likely not even thought much about the content (or lack thereof) of what they're saying. Such things are said because we humans are ritualistic creatures and we find repetition comforting.
It nonetheless must be said that such prattle is not in the slightest helpful for organizing your life.
“Reach for the stars”? Bad idea. Stars will burn you to a crisp if you approach too close.
“Go for your dreams”? Dreams are things that happen while you’re asleep, and when you’re awake they don’t exist. So, am I being told to go to sleep?
“Go change the world”? There's one little problem: The world is much bigger and stronger than you are and the number of people who in even the most generous of senses can be claimed to have changed it is infinitesimally small in comparison to the number of people who have existed. The odds therefore that you are one of those exceedingly rare people are near zero. What is the much more likely scenario if you go forth from graduation dripping with confidence and expectation that you can force the world to fit your plans? That you will meet crushing disappointment as you come face to face with the steely resistance of a reality ever so much grander than you that will with absolute, relentless certainty go right on doing whatever it is doing despite your manic efforts to change it.
And are you the future? Well, yes, but for a very little while only, until you become, much more quickly than you can possibly imagine, the past. This writer still remembers, with acute clarity and a sense that it only just passed, the time when people were telling him that he was the future…more than three decades ago, when none of you current futures yet existed. Those three decades have flown by at a velocity I did not imagine possible when I was your age.
In keeping with my desire to avoid contributing to empty banality and instead to try to make students aware of tools that might actually be of some practical use for living in the world, I have two brief thoughts to offer you as you leave the Lewisburg shores and set off en route to your next stop:
ON PERSPECTIVE. Get some, and quickly. Realize and remember, always, that you are a speck—less than a speck--in an unbelievably vast expanse of space and time.
Very nearly 100% of all the things that happen in the history of the universe will happen while you do not exist. Wrap your head thoroughly and carefully around that idea. It’s not just you by the way. The whole human species is a tiny thing in the great pageant that is the universe. All we know about reality tells us, whether we like it or not, that we are rather less central in the grand scheme than we would like to be.
If you live a long life, which for us amounts to about ¾ of a century or so, then you will exist for about 0.0000005% of the total time the universe has existed as of now. Close your eyes and let that sink in a little.
As odd as it may sound, this bracing realization should not make you feel small and insignificant, or at least it should not only make you feel small and insignificant. It should also focus your attention on the wonderful immensity and awesomeness of the whole thing of which you’re a part.
And it should make you deliriously happy that you had the unbelievable, undeserved luck to play even a tiny little part in that gorgeously grand spectacle. How many things that could possibly exist at the present moment do not? Infinitely more than those that do, like you and me.
Perhaps such a humbling understanding will even help you come up with a reasonable and realizable project for the pursuit of your own meager part in this biggest of all big adventures, instead of wasting your precious time and energy chasing rainbows (which, notwithstanding what some people might have told you, cannot be caught). Given that we have so little time to chase things, why not concentrate on chasing those things one actually has at least some chance of catching?
ON LAUGHTER. Laugh every day, and if you skip a day, make it up the next with an extra heavy dose. Laugh at as many things as you can, because almost everything, yes, every single thing, deserves such a response.
Laugh at yourself first and most heartily and most often. Never miss an opportunity (and they will be abundant) to be raucously entertained at your own failings and foolishness. Freely share your laughter at yourself with others; invite them to laugh at you too. Then, and only then, you can feel free to laugh at their foibles, because after all other people are, just like you, frequently ridiculous, and you earn the right to laugh at them once you've made it clear you don't take yourself all that seriously either.
But don't laugh because someone told you it's healthy for you. The truth is that there is no good science on this, as is by the way the case for a lot of the things we’re told by various ‘experts’ are good for our health. Laugh just because the whole unfathomable situation into which we find ourselves unceremoniously dropped is so hilariously, idiotically, tragically, deliciously funny.
And no, laughter does not make you frivolous or hard-hearted, no more than crying makes you weak or fearful. Laughing and crying are our highest response to the merciless, brutal, transcendent, magnificent purity of this world. Engage in them both with your whole heart, with everything you've got, for they are our best answers to the things we neither understand nor control. And as it turns out, those things make up most of what happens to us.
May you do well, and may things go well for you!
A few additional thoughts, of more recent vintage…
This will perhaps seem to contradict what I say above about perspective, but it does not. Remember that you are not your GPA, or your rank in your graduating class, or the job you have already landed or may someday land, or the income that will accrue from that job, or the social status that any of these things brings you. They are not you, and your value is not determined ultimately by those things.
Oh, by all means, try to do well. Succeed when you can, and try again when you fail. All of that. But just keep it in your heart that your value as a human being does not depend on those successes or failures. As I indicate above, the fact that you are here at all makes you something of a miracle. Your value thus resides not in what social ladders you do or do not climb, but somewhere else, in a place inviolable. As long as you remember that, you have a chance to keep a proper perspective on the things you do and do not achieve in your time here.
Now that you’re off into the world, you are perhaps wondering what you can reasonably expect from life. The answer is: Many things, but not perfection.
Your life will not go as planned. Plan on that. Prepare for contingencies. Disasters will happen, invariably, but they can be managed if properly understood. If you pretend you can avoid them, they will be worse than if you prepare for them, though they still may be quite bad even if you prepare. When things get really bad, recall the truth presented in the paragraph just before this one.
A fair number of people seem to think work, a career, is the meaning of life. They are wrong. Don’t misunderstand me. Learn a trade, and learn not to hate work if you can, but always understand that your work is the thing you do to make it possible to do other things that are more important than your career.
Like what? One of the things you desperately need is a spiritual life, some kind of tranquility with respect to your own finitude and the imperfection of the world. (Among other things, this makes it infinitely easier to recall the basis of your worth as a human being). Another is the behavioral skills required to surround yourself with a small group of people you love more than life itself and who love you more than life itself. They are your cocoon against the hardships of the world that will fall upon your head every day.
A spiritual life and a life mate and the children that are your only immortality in this world are goals humans should not need graduation speeches to understand as central to life. It turns out, though, that four years’ exposure to college professors has the clear tendency to make it harder to know such basic things. If you’re honest in reading this and reflect a bit, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Instead of the goals at the head of this paragraph, colleges today typically offer you a vision of ‘the examined life’ that is nothing more than a commitment to permanent social revolution. It does not prepare you for important things. Indeed, it can have the effect of immunizing you against many of the qualities you need to make a good life. You cannot achieve spiritual calm or establish deep and lasting relationships with family if everything you find in the world that makes you unhappy is a cause for revolution.
Look back to the dumb clichés with which I began. “It’s up to you to change the world!” is perhaps the dumbest of those dumb things. No, it’s not up to you. I hope you’re as relieved as you should be to hear that. The world is just fine, and it and we will get along just fine without you or any of us taking it upon ourselves to be the agents that finally force it to do exactly what we think we want it to do.
Look to the things you can reasonably do, which just happen also to be the things that hold out the promise of guiding you to a contented and good life. In doing this, you make the most meaningful contribution to moving the world ever so slightly in the right direction.
One final thought, the most important. Start learning to die.
I know, sounds awful.
But it’s the most important work you will ever do. “But we are young, our lives are just beginning!” you say. “Die? We cannot even imagine it!” I know.
But try to imagine it. It is the truest truth of your life. And learning it is a hard lesson to come by in this culture of worship of eternal youth and the vanity that accompanies it.
Learn to die. Start learning it right now, if you haven’t already. It is a hard lesson, requiring the entirety of the span we have here for most of us, and indeed most of us never do learn it, or learn it only incompletely, even in 70 or 80 or 90 years.
Orient your life to this horizon, and ponder, study, meditate, pray on the question of what comes when you hit that horizon. Learn to die because learning to live requires it.
OK. Now go enjoy the sandwiches and punch. And good luck to you! You’ll need it!