The most important commencement speech you'll never hear
It is with a great sense of joy and pride that I stand before you, Class of 2005 of INSERT INSTITUTION NAME HERE. Today is the day, Commencement, a beginning. In this joyous moment, I’d love to tell you that your plans for success are well laid and that the future looks bright. I’d like to say today that your hard work over these past few years is about to pay off, you’ll land your dream job and have challenging yet satisfying work to do. That your integrity and inner beauty will shine through, that you will find the love of your life, and have as many perfect children as you desire. What I am compelled to share with you however is the terrible truth. The truth is that today marks the beginning of heartbreak, of failure, of lost jobs, missed opportunities, and broken relationships.
Why, with the sky full of bright sun must I point out the looming cloud at the edge of the horizon? Because, dear graduates, this harsh truth is also a life-saving inoculation. This vaccine may keep you alive when the disease we all contract, that ailment called the human condition, threatens to overcome. Fortunately, like every vaccine, the cure is found in the disease itself. The looming cloud will eventually reach us but, trust me, there will also be shelter in the storm.
If the statistics are right nearly half of you who marry will get divorced. Many of you will lose your jobs or will fail to find a job in your chosen field. Last year a million and a half people declared bankruptcy. The average student today graduates with over $16,000 in educational debt. Even if you are rich and thin and highly skilled and highly educated, you avoid smoking, you exercise and eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet disaster will still come knocking at your door.
I tell you these things on this day because it is a vital life skill to avoid the trap of believing that where you are is where you deserve to be. While it’s a good idea to work hard, it’s a bad idea to link your sense of self solely to what you do or even how you do. Sometimes, through no fault of our own, things go badly. Sometimes things go horribly wrong and it is entirely our fault. In either case, dealing with the fallout is an arduous task.
Consider Mike who married the girl his dreams. She was interesting, unique; her rejection of mainstream values matched Mike’s disdain for all things traditional. Within three years her alcoholic lifestyle and manipulative ways of relating left their marriage in a shambles and Mike an emotional wreck.
Consider Rosa who, after graduating from a prestigious university with a highly marketable degree, landed her dream job with a great salary and a 401k. Within weeks she had a sinking feeling that the security her parents dreamed of for her had landed her in cubicle world, a tiny cog in a great big machine, miserable and frustrated.
Consider Peter. He left his home and steady job to follow his dream with his best friend. After a few years of traveling and sharing adventures, at a point of crisis, Peter turned his back on his friend. The consequences for both of them were devastating.
There seems to be something in us that demands shame from those who have not fulfilled their goals. We seem to want those who’ve met with failure to slink to the shadows sniffling while they fumble for their Kleenex pocket-pack. I am here to tell you today, hang on to your Kleenex, the day of your personal train wreck will come, indeed it is fast approaching, and you’ll want to know where that Kleenex is. But know this also, that failure is the cold winter that drives us to find a way to harness fire?the fire of love and friendship that can hold and heal us, the flame of faith that can sustain us.
And here’s something that the grim statistics don’t tell us?they don’t tell us about the friends who, as the divorce unfolds, spend hours on the phone in life-restoring listening. They don’t reveal that the guy who lost his job because of his drug addiction had a buddy who helped him get clean and find a new job. They don’t measure the personal or spiritual growth that takes place when tragedy strikes or the insights gained from difficulties. They don’t record the startling revelation of unconditional love encountered in life’s darkest moments.
Mike? He sat in the ashes of his failed marriage for two more years and then, carrying with him the lessons of his disaster but leaving behind the great weight of it, he fell in love again. Though he’s far from perfect and will continue to struggle, he is also wiser in his choosing and notably more mature in his loving, his failure the crucial turning point in his journey.
Rosa? It only took her a year; a year that is from when she started talking about quitting her job and going freelance to when she actually did it. Four years if you also count the three she spent depressed and anxious knowing that this job was never going to bring her happiness. She did quit and now has a different set of worries like paying the bills on an inconsistent income and not having health insurance. But her schedule is her own and her freelance work is a much better fit with the person she is and wants to be.
Peter? He reconciled with his friend and went on to live the dream the two of them had shared? to spread their message of love and hope to all of humanity. He gathered their other friends and founded a little church. That church is now 1.4 billion strong. His friend, Jesus, knew that Peter would fall. He told him so. But in love and friendship he also encouraged him not only to keep going, but to be shelter for others.
So, Graduates, go forth into the world “dis-illusioned”. When you leave this ceremony today walk away from the idea that if you do the right things that only good will come to you. “Dis” illusion yourself and let go of the lies you’ve been told about success. Failure is a much truer mentor. Remember when life grinds away at you that you are not alone and keep in mind Jesus’ words to his friend Peter “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”