It is graduation season. A time for celebrations and speeches. What would you say to a graduating class? It is extremely unlikely anyone, anywhere will ever ask me to deliver a graduation address. That hasn’t stopped me from thinking about what I would tell a graduation class, if I were given the opportunity. So here goes!
Thank you for inviting me to speak today, you certainly made an unconventional choice. I have never given a graduation address before, however I have as a graduate attended more than my fair share of graduations. High school, my undergrad degree, my veterinary degree and finally my seminary degree. I’m not even counting the graduations of siblings, spouses, and children. That’s a lot a graduation speeches to listen to. The funny thing is, I remember very little about those graduation ceremonies and nothing about the speeches. In fact, by the time I graduated from seminary, I didn’t even go to commencement. In part because I was 700 miles away and in part because the thrill was gone as far as graduating. So in spite of the very real possibility that you won’t remember anything I say, I do have a couple of things to say.
Graduating from high school is an important milestone. No doubt about that. By now you have heard that more times than you can count. On the other hand, I just told you I recall next to nothing about my high school graduation. So perhaps that means, this isn’t such a big deal. Which is it? Big deal, or not a big deal?
Here’s the answer, its both. You may have noticed we live in a world that loves hierarchy and order. We want things to be clear and unambiguous. Winner/loser. Good/bad. Important/ trivial. Memorable/forgettable.
You may also have noticed the real world doesn’t work that way. It’s a lot more complicated. What seems important, may not be so important. What seems trivial may not really be trivial at all.
Life is just like that. Sometimes good decisions have unintended bad results. Sometimes disappointments ultimately lead to better things. On the other hand, not always. Sometimes good decisions are good decisions and disappointments are just disappointing. That is how life works. Most of us won’t have a sense of what was important and what wasn’t until we are much much older.
So high school graduation is both important and not so important. It is important in the sense that it does mark an important achievement in your lives. It is a celebration of what is actually a slow process, the transition from childhood to adulthood. You have learned a lot both academically and socially, and I hope ethically.
But I’ll let you in on a secret, outside of your family and friends, no one else really cares all that much. And in about 6 -8 weeks, this won’t be such a big deal.You probably won’t have too many conversations about graduation or about high school. You will have some, but real life with its demands and distractions will take precedence. Graduation is important, but in the big scheme of things,not so much.
It is and it isn’t important.
On the other hand, I’m not saying don’t celebrate. You should celebrate.Celebrate all you can. Celebrate high school graduation. Celebrate college graduation. Celebrate finishing an apprenticeship. Celebrate your job. Celebrate weddings. Celebrate children. Celebrate the markers of your life and of your friends’ lives. Celebrate all of it.
Just keep it in perspective. The same thing goes for difficulties and disappointments and yes, tragedies. These too are part of being human. We get hurt, our hearts break, dreams fail, we cry and we grieve. Feel that pain, you pain and the pain of others, but keep it in perspective also.
That was the first thing, things are important and they aren’t important- all at the same time. Life is complicated that way.
Here is the second thing. You have probably hear lots of talk about how it is now your turn to go out into the world and change it. You’re so smart. You’re so talented. You’re so special. Go and begin making your mark on the world. Well, what does that mean? Maybe someone here will be president, but more likely not. Maybe someone in this class will discover an energy source that changes the way we all use energy. Maybe one of you will find the treatment that cures cancers. Maybe. It is possible.
More of you won’t do those “great” things. Many graduating classes before you received the same charge. Look at the lives of your parents and grandparents. Most of us didn’t change the world in spectacular ways. Many of us went to college. We got a job, got married, had children and so on. Or may we didn’t go to college, didn’t get married and didn’t have children. Most of us and most of you will do kinda dull, regular things. We will show up on time. Pay our bills, Be kind to animals and children. Help a neighbor. We won’t (mostly) lie, or steal, or cheat.
And that is more important than you think it is. Those small acts do change the world- in a million small ways.What changes the world is not one sweeping accomplishment, one fabulous breakthrough. What changes the world is thousands, actually millions of people doing the dull, normal, regular things well and with integrity. Doing the next thing that needs to be done well and with integrity makes a difference. Truth be told, those big, exciting, paradigm changing breakthroughs came about after someone or more likely several someones paid attention to doing lots and lots of small things well and with persistence.
If you think back over your life so far, I bet you can recall a coach or scout leader or teacher or neighbor who made a difference in your life. I bet you can remember when you felt badly and someone said or did something kind to you. I bet you can remember some unexpected nice thing someone said to you. Or something someone did. A flower. A note. Well, more likely a text. A pat on the back. A hug. A smile. Those sorts of things matter. They are what makes the world better.
This, normal people doing normal things, is one of the ways God cares for us- through our caring for each other. Each of us, by trying to make our little part of the world better, nicer, kinder, more just, safer, helps make the whole world better. One of us can’t do it. All of us, doing a bit, can. It is one of life’s oddities, small actions can have large results.
My charge to you is discover your abilities and interests. Find the thing that makes you come alive. As Frederick Buechner wrote,
“Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
Is it accounting? Sales? Nursing? Child care? Gardening? Politics? Baking? You may not know, right now, what your vocation is. It may or may not be a job. You may not figure it out until you’re 50. But it’s there, you have a vocation and whatever it is, the world needs you to do it well, with care and with integrity. Pay attention to your life. Pay attention to the gifts and abilities and interests God has given you.
If you don’t remember anything else that I’ve said ( and you probably won’t) and if you don’t do anything else that I’ve said: do and remember this.
Love. Love God. Love yourself. Love those around you. Love the world. Whatever you do, do it with love.
3 thoughts on “Dear Graduates, Honored Guests”
Somebody should invite you to give that speech, Nancy. It’s terrific!