The Commencement Address
Some people have asked to read the commencement address I delivered this morning to the 2013 graduates of Butler University. So here it is. My own commencement speaker, who shall remain nameless, began with a lame joke about how these speeches only come in two varieties: Short and bad. This raised my expectations, and then he went onto speak for 26 minutes, so I’m just going to tell you now: 12 minutes flat, 11:45 if you don’t laugh. Congratulations to all of you here today, and I do mean all of you—parents, families, friends, professors, coaches. Every single person in Hinkle today has given something to make this moment possible for the class of 2013—well, except for me. I really just showed up and put on the robe. But special congratulations to you graduates. Before we get to the Life Advice You’ll Soon Forget portion of the program, I want to engage in a time-honored tradition of American commencement addresses: Stealing from other commencement addresses, in this case one by the children’s television host Fred Rogers. Think, if you will, of some of the people who helped get you to today, people who’ve loved you and without whose care and generosity you might not have found yourself here, graduating from Butler, or watching someone you love graduate, or seeing your students graduate. Think for one minute of those who have loved you up into this day. I’ll keep the time. (1 minute of silence)
Those people are so proud of you today.
We will return to those people soon, but first I have to deliver terrible news, which is that you are all going to die. This is another time-honored tradition of American celebration, the Raining on the Parade. I remember when I got married, the priest devoted most of his homily to telling me how challenging and laborious marriage would be, and I kept thinking, “Well, sure, but can’t we talk about that, like, TOMORROW?” But no, it simply cannot wait. You are going to die. Also everything you ever make and think and experience will be washed away by the sands of time, and the Sun will blow up and no one will remember Cleopatra ruling Egypt or Crick and Watson untangling the structure of DNA or Ptolemy fathoming the stars or even that improbably wonderful Gonzaga game. So that’s unfortunate.
But I would argue that it’s good to be aware of temporariness when you are thinking about what you want to do with your life. The whole idea of this commencement speech is that I’m supposed to offer you some thoughts on how you might live a good life out there in the so-called Real World, which by the way I assure you is no more or less real than the one in which you have so far found yourselves. But I can’t give any advice about how to live a good life unless and until we establish what constitutes a good life. Of course, that’s much of what you’ve been up to for the past four years, and I’m not going to swoop in here at the end with any interesting revelations. I would just note that the default assumption is that the point of human life is to be as successful as possible, to acquire lots of fame or glory or money as defined by quantifiable metrics: number of twitter followers, or facebook friends, or dollars in one’s 401k. This is the hero’s journey, right? The hero starts out with no money and ends up with a lot of it, or starts out an ugly duckling and becomes a beautiful swan, or starts out an awwkard girl and becomes a vampire mother, or grows up an orphan living under the staircase and then becomes the wizard who saves the world. We are taught that the hero’s journey is the journey from weakness to strength. But I am here today to tell you that those stories are wrong. The real hero’s journey is the journey from strength to weakness. And here is the good news nested inside the bad: Many of you, most of you, are about to make that journey. You will go from being the best-informed, most engaged students at one of the finest universities around to being the person who brings...
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