Graduates, It’s Not About You

One morning not too long ago, I was doing my normal morning cruise through my favorite news websites when I came a story about a commencement speaker controversy at a Northeastern college.  There’s nothing remarkable about such controversies.  In fact, if a university doesn’t have a commencement speaker controversy, either the university chose one of the nine universally-popular people on the planet (Will Ferrell is one of them, I’ll leave it to you to figure out the other eight), or the students are just too (perpetually) hung over to care.  What caught my attention was the first line of the angry students’ Facebook page:  “Commencement was supposed to be about us.”

“About us.”  Really?

That single comment caused me to daydream… If I were ever asked to give a commencement speech, it would go something like this:

Congratulations on your important, though modest, achievement.  Your graduation is important because it is — for all too many people in this country — considered a necessary prerequisite for full participation in our nation’s economic and cultural life.  This belief is misguided for a number of reasons — we significantly over-value economic advancement, stress education over hard work, and often go deeply into student loan debt which will handcuff us for decades.  But it is widespread nonetheless.  So your graduation is important.

It’s also important for other, more virtuous reasons.  Many of you — though not all of you — worked hard during college, and I congratulate you for your hard work.  Many of you — though not all of you — made financial sacrifices to afford college, and I congratulate you for your thrift and far-sightedness.  A few of you — not many — achieved family dreams by being the first to graduate college, and I congratulate you for honoring the legacy of those who sacrificed and struggled before you.  Yes, your graduation is important.

But make no mistake.  This achievement is modest.  Millions of Americans get a degree.   Go ahead and pop those champagne corks, but not for your uniqueness or talent, but rather to commemorate a rite of passage, for your lifelong connection with your college community, and for the satisfaction of a task completed.

How should you think of yourselves on this day of important but modest achievement?  I’d propose you shouldn’t think much about yourself at all.  The richest life is not “about us” – it’s about others.  It’s about service — and not just the obvious service of volunteerism or charitable giving.  Some of the most unpleasant and self-righteous people I know give away quite a bit of money and ladle out more than their share of soup at the soup kitchen.  The best lives are lived by people who count others as better than themselves and place others’ needs above their own.  Every day.  Including this day.

Who are you here with?  A father who worked long hours to afford your tuition check?  Honor him on this day.  A mother who struggled alone to provide for you and teach you how to live as an adult?  Honor her on this day.  Start a habit of turning “your” days into days to show kindness and respect for others and choose, day by day, moment by moment, to bless others rather than drain their emotional and sometimes financial resources through your own selfish demands.

This is not a call for perfection but instead a request for a mindset — an attitude of proportionate humility that you carry with you every day of your life.

I’ll never forget my law school graduation.  It was one of the best days of my life.  Literally, a top five day.  I had worked quite hard (though not nearly as hard as I would work in my first “real job”), I was graduating from Harvard  (that’ll make a person puff up with pride), and I was eager to take on the world as an idealistic young lawyer.

My mother and father were there on a beautiful day, and so was my grandmother — a history teacher from rural Mississippi who began her career in a one-room schoolhouse.  She was widowed at a young age but picked up the pieces of her life, went to graduate school and then traveled much of the world in her quest to see and experience the places she’d long taught about. My earliest memories are of hours sitting by her side as she read from books about America’s past and present.  I love this country in no small part because she loved it so much.  I love learning because she loved learning.  And I love life because she loved life – and attacked it with courage and great joy.

But despite this deep bond between us, for the vast majority of my graduation day, I felt – and acted — as if I was the center of my little universe, moving from friend to friend, laughing, talking about the last three years, and generally behaving as if my family were much-beloved baggage.

After a whirlwind day filled with two commencement ceremonies (one university-wide, and one just for the law school), meals, and parties, we ended the day with on a boat cruise in Boston harbor.  I spent most of that cruise the same way I spent the day, hanging out with my friends.  But then, just as the night was about to end, I looked to the back of the boat and saw my grandmother, sitting alone and looking at the beautiful Boston skyline.  I was stricken by the sudden thought that I hadn’t spent time with her, and walked outside to sit beside her.

“Nana, are you doing ok?”

She was an amazing-looking woman, towering over others at almost 6 feet tall, a white head-full of hair, and enormous black glasses.  She looked at me, gave a big smile, and drawled, “David, just shoot me now, while I’m happy.”

She was happy because her grandson was graduating from Harvard.  She was happy because we were celebrating in the historic city where our nation was born.  She was happy because it was a beautiful night.  She was happy because she was seeing the fruits of her love and labor in my own education.

And I was happy because she was happy.

Nana lived for a few more years, and we spoke often of that day in Boston — Nana’s day.  One of the best days.

So, this commencement is not really “about you.”  In fact, no single day of your life will be solely “about you.”  Not even your birthday.  In 1998 my grandmother died, and a few months later, my daughter was born.  We named her Camille Ruth in honor of Nana, Ruth French, and hoped she’d have a little of Nana’s spunk and zest for life.  So far, so good.  For her ninth birthday, she showed she had Nana’s appreciation for history by asking to visit Benjamin Franklin’s print shop in Philadelphia.

In other words, your life has been made possible (and inspired) by a host of people.  So, graduates, take this occasion to honor, encourage, and bless them on this, their day.

And then prepare to do that every day, for the rest of your life.

Writer’s note:  This post originally appeared in May 2010 on SixSeeds.tv (before we joined the Patheos family), and was one of SixSeeds’ most-read posts.  I slightly updated for this graduation season.

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  • Michael A. Crognale

    Bravo Sir,
    A well written and profoundly accurate article. When I finally graduated from college, my class (I was much older then my classmates) selected some doper who droned on for about 20 minutes saying nothing coherent. I wish that you could have been there.

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  • Sagrav

    Um, graduations really are about the graduates and their achievements. Otherwise we wouldn’t have graduation ceremonies; we’d just hand graduates their diplomas and tell them to bugger off. When a commencement speaker focuses on subjects unrelated to the graduates and their achievements (or at least the general field of academia), then the speaker really has failed to do his or her job.

    Also, insisting on calling graduates’ achievements “modest” sounds awfully condescending. A lot of these students have been busting their humps for years to gain that “modest” diploma of theirs. Many of them had to work terrible part time jobs just to pay their way. There is no good reason to squash what little hope and self esteem that they have left before dumping them onto the harsh and often hopeless job market.

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  • A Lewis

    Great article. As long as we live our lives looking outward with a view toward loving and helping other people, all of our earthly pursuits like education will have real value. Graduation day is a short stop to reminisce about the past but look ahead with anticipation toward how we can better our world. My husband just gave a High school graduation speech although he never actually graduated from high school in the traditional sense. Yet he was chosen by the senior’s parents that saw something in him. We, as a human race, are so self centered. Life is about loving people …..

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