Privilege Blog

The Graduation Speech I Will Never Give, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:52am

Several people spoke at my son’s recent college graduation. Michael Lewis, of Moneyball. Steve Carell, of, well, Steve Carell. And of course, Shirley Tilghman, the president of Princeton.

My mind wandered, as I listened. I always wonder why people choose as they do, how they come to what they say. I made something up.

An Imaginary Graduation Speech

Good morning.

Most likely you’re not listening to a word I say. Probably all to the good. Other things are afoot.

Probably you’re noticing your chair’s lack of seat padding, or the temperature shifting as breezes rise, or those whiskers you missed when shaving. Or, you’re looking at the bracelets on the arm of the woman in front of you, the nape of your boyfriend’s neck, the program piece on the history of Commencement at Princeton. Possibly, just possibly, you’ve tilted your head back and are lost in the patterns of the star-shaped leaves on the tree over your head.

Today is your graduation, or your child’s, or your beloved’s or grandchild’s or student’s.

Let me tell you right now that nothing is ever going to change. All you are ever going to have is right here.

What do I mean? Are we doomed to sit on the lawn of Nassau Hall with mud between our toes, forever? Of course not sillies. This is deconstruction. Analysis for root cause. Exactly as you humanities, and science, and engineering students have done these last 4 years – seeing things in their most elemental units.

At base, there’s You. Yourself. Your feelings and sensations. And then, there’s the Not You.

Granted, there will be fewer gonfalons, later.

Does that mean this is the peak of your life? Does that mean it’s downhill from here? Does that mean there’s nothing left to learn?

Do you think anyone in their right mind would tell you that? Cruel and wrong.

In only one scenario is this the peak of your days. If you, starting now, focus on yourself exclusively. If you let the chair seat and the sweat on your upper lip and the things you said last night overcome your capacity to notice.

I’m not saying you’re not worthy of attention. You’re stuck with you. Might as well gain a little understanding so that you can get out of your own way. But you’ve already got you. So if you look inwards only, your data sets, your texts, your vision, will stay small always.

The precept is logical. The greatest source of learning at hand, now, tomorrow, 25 years from now, 34 years from now, is the Not You.

What is the Not You? Oh dear lord children it is vast. Wait, you may be thinking, we are not children. Sure you are. We are all children somewhere and somehow.

Life is short, the world a large and glorious phenomenon.

I read once that the human metabolism responds differently to vistas and the randomness of nature than to mechanics. We also know that people live longer and more vigorously when we find and root ourselves in community.

Those dark leaves over your head and the nape of that beloved neck are the point.

Pay attention.

Wait, where are my manners? Please pay attention.

Thank you very much.

37 Responses

  1. Oh how I’d love to hear you give a graduation speech!You are wise and interesting. I might look up at the trees, but only to concentrate my thoughts on what you are saying.

  2. Thank you very much Lisa. I wish you had held that speech then and there.
    Not a typical speech, but it surely would have raised attention.
    A special speech, something for us all to think about..

  3. May someone get smart and invite you to speak at convocation very soon. I LOVED this speech. And I learned from it.

  4. So wonderfully said – get our of your own way and look outward! Excellent advice. I hope you are given the opportunity to launch this speech one day. “Gonfalons” – exquisite!

  5. Thank you very much indeed! This is more like the graduation speech I need today, at 52, with ailing elders, decisions about later lifestyle and letting go of some ingrained old beliefs. And fiercely want not to retreat into the You (well, Me really, but not to get confusing) as I advance in years …

    Although excellently phrased I’m not even sure I would have understood what you meant back in my young days – although of course a concept can stick without being fully grasped only to be filled out by later experience.

    Looking back I’ve always considered myself extremely, frustratingly limited and sought out the Not You quite extremely and consequently met it in my twenties and thirties still with a big crash. I took a long time sorting things out. (Isn’t that supposed to be a Chinese curse: “May your life be interesting”?)

    Am not sure you can learn from the Not You, I rather think you learn from your own relation to it, the interplay or the perceived distance. Does that make any sense? Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. “Am not sure you can learn from the Not You, I rather think you learn from your own relation to it, the interplay or the perceived distance. Does that make any sense?”

      Yes Mademarian, you make complete sense to me. I agree with your position that the You is a fixed position through which must pass increasingly-evolved [or unevolved], increasingly-challenged [or unchallenged] Not You information, ie the You is a pass-through entity if you will — the finer/rougher the filter, so will follow the texture of the clarified/unclarified material.

      One cannot deconstruct the “I” away from deconstructed I-perceived material because the internal contradiction won’t allow it.

      Say goodnight Gracie….

    2. As usual, commented with great intelligence MM. Thank you. I agree, one learns from the interaction, not from the Things themselves.

  6. Can we tell anyone anything, really, about what it all means to us, that they will take as their own? No, but it’s important to witness our numinous moments.

  7. Years ago, I had occasion to deliver a commencement speech…and I used a poem and called it good. Because it’s a part of my job obligations, I tried to remember if I could recall ANYTHING from the commencement speeches I’ve heard year after year. Probably most memorable was one delivered by a Greek Orthodox priest who said something very similar to you!

  8. I think you’ve found your seventh calling! The Universities will be lining up after this one…and no one will be looking at anyone’s nape while listening to you, they will sit with rapt attention and hear what they’ve needed and wanted to hear all along, and then they will breath.
    xo J~

    (I appreciated the calming encouragement Lisa, thank you…it helped me in taking a breath as well.)

  9. BTW- You wouldn’t know it from my comment above, but I *do* know the difference between ‘breathe’ & ‘breath’…really, I do! :i

  10. Brilliant. Simply brilliant, and also a message much needed in many quarters. (PS: Now I know what a gonfalon is, I had nary a clue!)

    With amazement at your writing skills,

  11. I know one is not supposed to say it, but my advice to college graduates would be: pay attention to your finances. Independence is a lovely thing! Don’t be a slave to it, but sock enough away in the bank that you are not beholden to circumstances beyond your control… That and don’t smoke, watch yer figger, and tell your spouse that you love them at least once a day, and mean it! Reggie

  12. First congratulations to your son and much happiness to your family.

    Honestly, yours is the kind of speech that would have dragged me quickly out of my daydreaming state and made me take notice. What an excellent article! You write beautifully.

    I have zero memory of my graduation speech, but I received plenty of sage advice from my parents, some I adopted and some I scoffed because they were, well, old, and what did they know about poor, misunderstood me? It wasn’t so much an age thing as a parental thing. My grandparents all died when I was very young, so I never had the opportunity to talk to someone who loved my parents when I wasn’t feeling the love so much.

    The most useful bit of advice I wish someone had given me was to be happy now, because like you say, now is all we have. I spent far too many years agonizing over stupid things I did in the past or worrying about the future. All that unhappiness and stress was certainly not building a better future for myself, so it’s no wonder time passed me by instead of my living in it with joy and often left me wondering WTF.

    That said, like mademarian said, I am not sure I’d have taken the “be happy now” advice at 18-22, when I was overflowing with an excess of hubris. It would have struck me as new-age woo woo, and I was much too practical and analytical for that (or so I thought). The greatest gift (OK fantasy) would be to transport myself back in time and have a good, long chat with the 16 year-old me. I think she’d probably listen to THIS elder. :)

  13. Oh yes! Pay more attention to…..well, that’s really your choice, right?

    It took me a minute to remember that Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee spoke at my graduation. I don’t have a clue what they said, but I remember it wasn’t boring.

    My advice to grads and young people in general is, if were suffering from would *this* thing you are worrying about still seem SO important?

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