Good afternoon and CONGRATULATIONS! graduates, relieved teachers, bewildered administrators and exhausted parents. Thank you all for not inviting me.
What a year!
Because the average graduate’s attention span to an invited commencement speaker is measured in seconds, I consider this a great time to bestow upon you my unsolicited advice and random thoughts, which in the past have packed about the same influence as the sound of the proverbial tree falling in the empty forest. “I can hardly wait to translate the wisdom of our commencement speaker into my future!” said nobody ever.
You’ve probably been told at one time or another to resist peer pressure, usually by someone who was at the same time, succumbing to peer pressure. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with peer pressure. You just have to choose the right peers. You know who they are.
Now that the mask mandate has been relaxed and in many instances lifted completely, it’s going to be a lot harder to sneak into movies or rob convenience stores. If you didn’t take advantage when the time was ripe, that ship has sailed.
You didn’t lose a year because of the pandemic. When no one’s going anywhere, no one gets left behind. Sure, you may have missed out on some iconic memory-making events, and probably on certain information that was supposed to be included in your classwork.
That all sucks, but you know where to go for that information when you need it, and you learned things about the true value of friendship and personal connection that most people take years to learn. You may have also discovered that, as much as your parents love you, there’s a limit on how much time they want to spend around you. You already knew how much time you wanted to spend around them.
You aren’t going to win the lottery. You just aren’t.
I know you’ve heard, more times than you can count, “Everything happens for a reason.” More often than not, that reason is “Just because.”
Learn to play the long game.
In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the first and third positions atop the Olympic podium, bowed their heads and raised black, gloved fists high during the national anthem, protesting the treatment of Black human beings in what many (white people) called the world’s greatest democracy. Smith and Carlos were immediately expelled from the Olympic Village and demonized by much of the American press and their own university, San Jose State.
Today, a bigger-than-life-sized statue representing their courage stands prominently on the San Jose State campus. Think long and hard before passing judgment on another human being’s right to stand for justice. There really is a right and a wrong side of history.
If you don’t believe in gay marriage, don’t marry someone of your same sex.
If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t have one.
There is no such thing as American Exceptionalism. There are, however, exceptional Americans. If you want to be one, you gotta do more than fall back on the accident of your birthplace.
Guns put holes in things. What far too often flows out through those holes is human life.
- Addendum: You may have heard the blather that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. With the exception of first responders, that almost never happens. The fact is, most bad guys with guns kill a lot of innocent people, then they kill themselves. So it makes just as much sense to say the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a bad guy with a gun. To solve this quandary, remove the gun.
You were raised by prejudiced people who were raised by prejudiced people who were raised by… you get the idea. There’s a good chance – like, a hundred percent – that you, like me, came away with many of those prejudices. Learn the difference between having prejudices and acting on them.
Grief is your friend. It’s one of the most important tools we have as human beings. From the moment you were born, when you lost warm, dark, safe housing, you’ve been losing things: toys, time, opportunities, esteem, best friends, pets, parents; sometimes, your way. Grief seldom makes the sorrow of loss go away; but when invited in, even embraced, it makes room for what’s next.
Celebrate failure. There’s a big difference between hating a mistake and hating yourself for making it. Human beings are a trial-and-error species, yet we refuse to embrace that which teaches us, instead often calling our errors stupid blunders or even sins. When someone chastises you personally for making a mistake, tell them you were just making yourself smarter.
- Addendum: There’s no such thing as a perfectionist. That’s just a name for a person who wastes valuable energy being disgusted with him- or herself for not completing each task exactly as they imagined it. Perfectionism, such as it is, does not make you a better person; rather, it makes you a person who worries way too much about minutiae that doesn’t matter.
Read the rule book. Insist that all who care to play with you read it also. In this case, the game is Democracy and the rule book is the U.S. Constitution. You can buy one online, small enough to carry in your pocket, for about three bucks. Upon receipt, bring out your Sharpie and wherever you find the word “men,” cross it out and write “humans.” Let the game begin.
The one thing that might be as important as engaging in your creativity is fighting for your right to express it.
The truth will not necessarily set you free; that’s too easy. The quest for truth, however, will nearly always empower you. That empowerment should keep you a safe distance ahead of despair.
Contrary to popular pap, good does not always triumph over evil, nor does love always conquer hate. Evil and hate are unwaveringly simple; a hundred percent consistent. Good and love require constant focus, sacrifice and tenacity. Choose a side, and suit up. We’re counting on you.
Again, I thank you for your rapt inattention.
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