By: Chris Warren
Almost every commencement address has the same basic theme: You (graduates) are bright and energetic and will change the world. You have vast opportunities; all you need to do is go and get them. Work hard, get good grades, and success will be yours! The theme is trite and shopworn, but since most of us will hear it only once or twice and at a time when we are excited about completing a big life achievement, no one really knows or cares that it’s been recycled every year for generations.
In fairness to all the cliché artists who are recruited to deliver these hand-me-down nuggets of wisdom, for the last seven decades or so the advice was accurate. It really was true that hard work and serious study was an express ticket to the good life. If a solid job and home ownership is the “American dream,” then a good education is its mother.
It may be for the better that I haven’t been asked to give a graduation speech, because I do not think I could bring myself to stand in front of impressionable young people and feed them a heap o’crap about how hard work and dedication will see them through. The old perennial platitudes are broken. A weak economy and languishing morals means many opportunities that used to be there are gone. There are people with Master’s degrees working at Taco Bell. Where is the big payoff for all their sweat? The world for young people, in a word, sucks.
But this is the Thoughtful, Positive, Relevant blog, so for my hypothetical speech I am determined to come up with something that is affirming, uplifting, and truthful. I won’t be placed in a position where in order to be the best graduation speaker ever I’d also have to be the best liar. It’s very unkind to piss on the hopes and dreams of young people at such a meaningful moment in their life; it’s also wrong to tell a complete lie in deference to their big day. I think I’ve found a way around this untenable situation.
To the Class of 2014:
For your entire lives you have been taught that brains and sweat will take you far. That is still true, except now you will need more brains and more sweat than anyone who came before you to get what used to be considered a standard middle class existence. The average will need to become stronger, and the strong will need to become superlative. The weak are doomed, but not because of the new way the world works. The weak are and always have been doomed no matter what state the world is in. That may be the only thing that never changes.
The fact that you are here at this time and place proves you are not weak. The weak have already quit and left this group. So the question now is not “who among you are weak?” but, “how strong are you?”
Strong people know the difference between confidence and arrogance: The strong know what they are capable of and do not need constant praise. Weak people must always be the topic of conversation, making sure everyone knows they are the smartest person in the room (even if they aren’t). Strong people know they might be the smartest person in the room, but conduct themselves with a subtle touch of class that needs no big pronouncement and lets the room figure out on their own who is the smartest. Weak people brag about themselves; strong people quietly step aside and let others do the bragging for them.
Strong people are kind even to those who do not deserve it: This might be the hardest part of being a strong person. Being nice to those who are nice to us is easy, even pleasurable. It’s a much different matter when dealing with someone who would be in a lot of trouble if instant karma was real. Weak people think of themselves as judge and jury of all behavior and seek revenge for every little slight committed against them. Strong people choose their battles carefully and do unto others as they would have done unto them, accepting with grace that they will often be forced by their principles to give others a better deal than they received in return.
“And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game “
-Joni Mitchell, The Circle Game
Strong people are grateful for where they came from: No one was born knowing everything, and almost no one succeeds as a solo act. Every one of us was helped and guided by others. Weak people assure their own failure by thinking they can do everything themselves. Strong people succeed because they humbly accept help from those who love and care about them and are going to invest heart and soul into steering them away from failure. There is no greater feeling than having someone behind you and believing in you. Knowing they are loved is the greatest trait of strong people.
There is still much to be hopeful for among all the sadness in the world. New graduates are a clean slate, not yet jaded by the experiences of life. Every new graduation class is God’s way of telling humanity, “This is your do-over. Let these people run the place.” As long the Almighty keeps blessing us with fresh graduates every spring as reliably as blooming flowers, there will always be a possibility that things will get better. That brings me to my last point:
Strong people are grateful for where they are going. We should not overlook that gratitude is a two way street. If graduates are expected be thankful for the wisdom of those who helped them, we older folks also need to thank the young for the bright hope that they will do better than their elders. Weak people believe they will always be ageless and relevant. Strong people know the day will come when their moment in the sun and way of doing things will be over. It will be time for the circle to complete and let the future go to the next generation. We can only pray that our love for them mattered.
(photo credit: http://wholles.com)