It’s graduation time again and all over the country the chosen are working on their college graduation speeches. I’ve never had the opportunity to deliver one of those, but I have often wondered what I would say if I was given the opportunity. To begin with, it’s all been said, right? How many times can the same old platitudes be reworked and given a new veneer? It will be the best of times; it will be the worst of times. Yada yada.
But over the past few months I have experienced a few things that got me thinking all over again about what I would say to young people just getting out in the world.
When you are younger your brain is going lickety split most of the time. It races away for hours and then stalls and dies for a time before racing on again. The problem is that it doesn’t have any real direction. Oh, sure, it has forces acting on it that point it in certain directions for a time… food…sex… gotta study for that test next Friday. But overall, it operates more or less on the principle that if you shoot a rocket randomly into outer space it will eventually find its way to Mars. Not very likely.
That’s where goals come in. Graduation speeches are always full of talk about goals. If you want to get to Mars you have to spend a few minutes figuring out the proper trajectory to get you there before you fire your rocket into outer space. But that’s no fun. It’s way more fun to just light the fuse and watch her go. Ergo, getting to Mars just isn’t much fun. Bad goal. Which means the real goal was to have fun, so why didn’t you say so in the first place and spare us all this trouble?
Some people want to have fun. Some people want to go to Mars. Doesn’t really matter. Goals aren’t really all that important. Yes, it’s always easier to get somewhere if you know where it is you want to go, but that’s the thing about young people: they don’t know what they want to do when they grow up. It’s not a new phenomenon. I’m not dumping on the current younger generation. Young people, as a group have never known what they want to do. That’s why we have high school guidance counselors and aptitude tests. My recollection is that I would have made a great hairdresser to Louis XIV.
So we give our young people some general direction to go off in and send them to college where they discover that 1) Louis is no longer and 2) they hate hair products. So most of them are right back where they were before they sat through their high school graduation speech. Only now they also have negative opinions of aptitude tests and high school guidance counselors. Not to mention feelings of being lost, overwhelmed, and confused.
Fortunately, most will sort it out on their own by their junior year, pick a major for good or ill, and move on. Others will just throw up their hands and go to another frat kegger.
Eventually most of them will make it to that modern substitute for a rite of passage, the college graduation ceremony. And they’ll get to listen to someone stand there and try to both amuse them for a half hour or so while at the same time offering up advice that this person hopes will be quoted on Facebook at some point before they are turned loose on Real Life. Real Life is a term mentioned frequently in graduation speeches to distinguish it from what the students have known up to that point, something that might be called supervised life.
Supervised life is, well, supervised. There’s almost always a lifeguard at the pool, a cop on the corner, a teacher at the head of the class. Society puts those people there to insure some measure of safety. Society feels obligated to make sure that its children can’t get in too far over their heads. It doesn’t do a very good job of that, but it does try. Real Life on the other hand is not only unsupervised, it’s totally bereft of any sense of obligation to anyone. Real Life is just another hit and run driver.
It works like this: Joe (or Jane) college grad ventures out into the real world with the precious diploma tucked tightly under one arm and discovers that (surprise!) there isn’t much call for history majors with a focus on the Mongolian invasion of Europe. Distressing, yes, but there were hints even in college that this might be the case, so Joe/Jane gets a job at the local REI selling camping gear until the right job shows up. Unfortunately, Joe/Jane can’t get enough hours to both pay the rent and eat at the same time, so he/she gets a second job picking raspberries. At least there’s something to eat.
Then the grace period for repaying student loans expires and it’s time for food stamps.
During all of this there is still a measure of supervision and support. There’s mom and dad and maybe a grandparent or two. Friends. There’s the church if you lean that way. But that doesn’t last all that long. One day the grandparents die. They do that. Then a parent. One day they are there, an anchor in a turbulent life, and the next they are not. It’s not like it’s unexpected. It had to happen sooner or later. But it’s a blow. A link to the security of the past is gone.
You finally get a decent job (even though it has nothing to do with Ghangis Khan) and things are looking up when all of a sudden, POW!, Real Life broadsides you again and your boss gets fired and replaced by some jerk who has no clue and you are now doing his job as well as yours. Your wisdom teeth have to come out and your dental insurance is a joke.
The hospital calls at 2 AM and says the remaining parent was just admitted to the emergency room with a heart attack. You spend the next five weeks doing everything you can to get mom or dad back to a normal life and the jerk of a boss fires you because you aren’t doing his job for him. And then the dog dies.
Real Life doesn’t care. Real Life T-bones you in the intersection and then drives away.
Eventually, the remaining parent dies, and you are alone. There’s no lifeguard at the pool; there’s no teacher at the front of the class. There’s just you.
Real Life doesn’t feel sorry for you. It will not comfort you. It just hits and moves on. It is one miniature crisis after another interspersed with major crises and short periods of so-called normalcy.
And we do a terrible job in our schools teaching our students to handle crises. Recent educational philosophy objects even to allowing them to experience little failures. They’ll have to get that somewhere else.
So, what would I say to those bright, graduating faces out there in the bright June sunlight?
Remember that ultimately you will end up alone if you allow it. It really doesn’t matter what job you have, how much money you have, or how important you are. You’ll have lots of jobs. Money comes and goes. Fame is fleeting for most. Real Life doesn’t give a damn. It will rear-end you repeatedly and drive away. It doesn’t care. People care. Your parents care. Enjoy them while you can. Ease their pain if you can. Create memories while you can. You will need them later. Your friends care. Cultivate them. They will be there when your parents are gone. They may be there when it’s your turn to go.
Expect that your life will be filled with crises and disappointment along with joy and contentment. Learn to embrace the joy and experience the crises and disappointment for what they are, just another part of life. If you dwell on them, you will drive the people who care about you away and you will be alone before your time. It is the hardest lesson you will ever learn, far harder than getting the little piece of paper that you will receive today. Work at it every day.
If you are lucky enough to experience love, wrap yourself in it. When you are in love, you are never alone.
At the end, you will be alone. No one can cross over with you. Expect to face that at some point. But there’s no reason to rush into that experience.
It’s trite, but it’s true.
Your Humble Servant,
The Willowbrook Curmudgeon