The usefulness of regular commencements
What will it take for someone to invite me to give a commencement speech? Commencement speeches are the best. I make a valiant effort to impart life’s wisdom on the public in this column each week. Surely after years of my toiling, there is a school out there that can use my kind of inspiration.
I fear that by the time I get that elusive invite, I will have run out of useful things to say.
This week’s column is being written on location in Oregon. I am here for my niece’s college graduation. She obviously doesn’t need a special occasion to get advice from her Midwestern uncle, but the rest of these young people clearly do. I am sitting in the stands with all of the other people who are full of advice but like me, they have also not been invited to give any.
My advice to this year’s graduates and everyone else in attendance is simple: make a commitment to graduate more often.
What do virtually all people do at these events full of pomp and circumstance? We celebrate and reflect on the accomplishment of completing whatever the educational program was. But we also start planning for the next accomplishment.
The typical commencement speaker will pile on grandiose expectations on the unsuspecting youth in the crowd with “change the world” mantras that would scare the hell out of anyone. Especially if taken literally. Not me though. I am an innovator. I am new age. Somehow I am also still not invited to speak.
What I would tell these people is that the commencement experience is something we should do far more regularly. It shouldn’t happen just every four years, or merely once or twice in a lifetime. We should periodically review what we have been doing, celebrate the achievements, acknowledge the failures, and plan for the next chapter in our lives.
That sounds like crazy talk, right?
The purpose for living, in some form or another, is simply to be useful. Usefulness transcends all faiths, and routinely finds its way into every commencement speech I have ever heard or read. And yes, I have read plenty of them. Because like I said earlier, these speeches are the best speeches.
All of us should be in search of ways for our presence to be useful, whether we are getting a diploma right now or not. It matters, but only a little, exactly how we are useful to others, as long as we are trying to be.
This can sound simple on one hand, and a daunting task on the other. What makes it odd for me is that it actually is both.
For young people graduating from school this month, many will be focusing on a new career or the next educational opportunity that might lead to the career. For parents paying for this education, like I am, we often focus on that as much or even more. It’s easy to fall into that trap. It doesn’t even seem like a trap or a con because it is so engrained in our societal flow.
Careers and learning experiences are only valuable if they are useful, specifically how they are useful to others. And jobs and schools only represent a fraction of the opportunities to be important in someone else’s life. It is important to find some of the many other ways to do this also. There are the big ways like philanthropic projects and volunteerism. There are also small ways like little kind gestures and basic heartfelt concern. All of them add up.
In her famous poem, Guilty, Marguerite Wilkinson discusses the sins of omission as examples of “unattempted loveliness.” Young people and old people alike need regular reminding that it is difficult to be useful when not even making an attempt. This engagement throughout our lifetimes could be more easily accomplished if we prioritized it. Regular commencement-like events in our lives could help.
My niece is going to be a nurse after graduation. There are few professions that are more useful, if any. She will have that advantage, but she will still need to focus on life’s meaning just the like the rest of us to avoid getting lost. And that is what a life is without that sense of purpose: lost.
Not everyone will get a chance to go to a graduation this month. Don’t let that keep any of you from engaging in the exercise of reviewing, reflecting and planning for yourself on your own.
I hope the university president’s speech doesn’t render my topic useless today. If it does, luckily I will get another crack next week.