This past weekend I went to my first real American-style commencement ever. It was pompous and very American, as expected, although they never played Pomp and Circumstance. I sang the Lebanese national anthem, Khallina Nimshi, and the AUB Alma Mater with the choir. Commencement was also very Lebanese and/or Middle Eastern. Along with the 1800+ graduating students, five of the six honorary doctorates accepted their degrees and held speeches. The President held a speech, as did a student representative. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “Arab Spring” mentioned quite so many times in such a short period of time. I understand that a speech at a commencement at a time and place like this can only go one way, but really; we heard pretty much the exact same speech given by seven different people with very little variation, and it got a little… tiresome. It’s as if someone had given them all a sheet of paper with the following key terms to be used in their speech:
- Young graduates
- Arab Spring
- Human rights and dignity
- Voice of the people
- Middle East
- Fingerprints and Future in any possible combination
In all fairness though, the speakers had no choice: this is the speech you have to give at commencement 2011. There’s a lot of potential among those graduating students, and the Arab Spring has opened up roads and possibilities in the Middle East that we are just starting to get a glance of. For the first time in our history, these young people can walk out into a world where human rights and dignity are real components, and the voice of the people rings out loud and clear: this is our time. The young graduates of the class of 2011 have an obligation, a responsibility to make the best of it, and to leave their fingerprints in a changing world for future generations to come. The speakers all expressed this, only much more eloquent than I do here.
One of the best commencement speeches I’ve ever heard was one given by Garrison Keillor on a Prairie Home Companion. I found this somewhere on the web:
A graduation speech by Garrison Keillor
It's an honor to be with so many smart people and their parents, and congratulations to you on your good work. I had a child in this school years ago and I remember how she went to her room after supper and stayed there for hours doing homework, until I regretted sending her to such a good school, since it meant that I saw so little of her. I enjoyed my daughter's company, she is a bright and funny person. She is irreverent and I enjoy that. I discovered too late that giving her a good education was not in my best interest. Now she lives in London and we exchange e-mail but I miss her. I know people whose children did not get a good education and the children still are living at home into their early thirties and are a comfort and a help to their parents. That's an option I wish I had considered.
It's a cruel moment, graduation.
The relationship between children and parents is an animal relationship, unlike normal social relationships: you start out with absolute intimacy and you move toward becoming strangers and if necessary toward a state of hostility, and it's painful, but that's the way nature wants it. Nature is single-minded, it's cruel, it's only interested in the survival of the species, and nature wants to get you out of our clutches and out on your own so you can be independent, think for yourself, know who you are, and be able to raise your own children and continue the species. But it's painful for us parents to let go of you.
Being a parent is a messy business. You stumble into it by accident and you're ill prepared and you read books that aren't very helpful and you're filled with anxiety every day of your life. The life of a parent is a life of constant silent prayer. And then suddenly its over, and when we lose you, we have no further usefulness in nature's scheme of things. Nature isn't interested in our golden years --- we had you, and that's our contribution to the survival of the species --- and now nature would be glad if we got out of the way. Our longevity serves no natural purpose. We go on and on, but as far as nature is concerned, we're only taking up space. You were our main work, and now that it's done, we may as well take the long walk out across the frozen tundra. It's in our interest to cripple you in some way that will make you need us.
Today I need to speak either for the parents or for the children, I can't speak for both. And since the children invited me, I'll speak for them.
Nature wants you to get free, because it's important for survival that you have your own experience and that you learn from it. Experiences that are arranged and provided by us aren't as good. It's an age of information, and most of the information you will get is either untrue, irrelevant, or trivial. You need to have your own experience in order to be able to weigh what you hear. So you need to have the experience of being out of touch with us --- going someplace and not telling us where so that if we needed to reach you, we couldn't --- a good experience. You need to have secrets. You need to go off with your own friends and make fun of us. This is important. Any person your age who cannot do a good imitation of your father when he is angry or your mother when she gives you fashion advice --- if you can't satirize your parents by now, it's time to learn.
Nature does not want you to absorb too many of our mistakes. Your parents are part of the generation of boomers that frankly is not a shining example of idealism and purpose. Its mistakes are out there for the world to see: its greed, its narcissism, its utter absorption with itself and its own emotional life and its pitiful attempts to find its identity and express itself, this generation of aging children for whom the TV sitcom was a defining experience. These people have nothing to teach you. Ditch them. They fed you, encouraged you to walk and talk and to read and maybe they have shown you a few things to admire and emulate, and they have amused you. And nature doesn't want you to learn any more from them. You can be close to them and kind to them and love them, but you don't need to agree with them or even take them that seriously if you don't want to.
I imagine life will take you off to strange places, and lucky you, but I do think you were lucky to be from the Midwest. This is a culture that teaches you good basic things. To be competent and useful. Not to be an arrogant blowhard who's all gas and no flame. To be helpful. Don't pass by people in trouble and pretend you don't see them. To be mannerly. To be cheerful. To avoid self-pity. Winter is not a personal experience; everyone else is as cold as you are; so don't complain about it too much.
But the Midwest can't teach you everything, and it is not good about teaching you to be an individual. This culture that you grew up in prizes mediocrity and conformity. It is not happy about people who think independently and say so.
You need to get free of your parents, and become their equals, and if they are good and kind and understanding and loving parents who can't do enough for you, you need desperately to get free of them. Good parents can be the hardest to get rid of.
You have to be independent if you want to be somebody and have a real life. You've pleased your teachers and your parents, and now you have to do something harder, which is to please yourself and to do things that you in your heart know to be right and that you're proud of.
You have to be independent because it's your own opinion of yourself that matters now. Scores don't matter that much. Prizes don't matter. You're all above average, but so what? This is not a nation of great intellects. According to one survey, about half of the American people cannot tell you how long it takes the earth to make one revolution around the sun. Most Americans can't speak English very well. They, like, go, like, "Huh?" y'know, and you go, like, "You know," and they, like, go, "Oh." So if you can write a term paper, you're way above the average, but don't be too proud of it.
Be better than you need to be. If you're coasting along on your personal charm and your sweet smile, learn how to be honest. Learn to look people in the eye and tell them what you think. This will come in handy someday. If you're fearful, master your fear so that you don't have to think about it. Afraid of the water: jump in. Afraid of people, what they might think of you: go talk to them. Afraid of making mistakes, afraid of looking foolish: learn a foreign language and speak it with people for whom it ain't foreign. It's an education in itself.
To be your own person, you need good friends. Friends are the treasure of your life. They may turn out to be your real family. So learn to be a friend. You'll lose a lot of them in the course of things, but try to hang onto the people you've shared your secrets with and who've known you at your worst moments and who you never need to feel embarrassed in front of. Don't be careless with these people. Make friends. Extend yourself to people you care about. And be kind to your enemies: they might become the best friends you'll ever have. Friendship can cross every boundary: I truly believe that. No matter what lines you draw, dividing people into male and female, northern and southern, liberal and conservative, right or left wing, homosexual or heterosexual, Christian or agnostic, rich or poor, friendship can cross all of those lines. Don't be so glib or so smartass or so passive or so cruel or just so busy that you go along and don't make those intense sweet connections with people, and find that intimacy that we all need, to be known by another person. Don't forget to be a friend.
And when you have friends, then you have someone to tell your story to, and that is how you finally and absolutely get free of us. This is the ultimate power you have over us. It's your account that's going to last longer.
It's easy to have an opinion, it's hard to tell a story: to be able to look at things and describe them accurately; to describe action, chronologically, in a way that conveys the reality of experience to another person. You were there during your childhood. You saw us and the clumsy things we did and the terrible dumb things we said--- you saw what happened ---- and now it's your story to tell and we can't tell you what to say. But if you can tell that story truthfully and with humor and with a little forgiveness, then you're on your own.