By Judith Gayle | Political Waves
I'm a sucker for commencement speeches. I suppose that's because I have a life-long love affair with words, with ideas; with the light bulbs of inspiration that click in our brains and run their bright light through our hearts to produce enthusiasm and hopefulness. My prime directive seems to be an innate instinct, like a heat-seeking missile, targeting the profound; I used to think that was big, earth-shaking stuff -- now I know it's any moment that puts time on freeze-frame for just a nanosecond and makes me aware of how blissfully, awesomely alive I am.
As with Mama Gump's box of chocolates, we never know who will give a great speech as opposed to just a good one; the same way only time will tell if the seeds of inspiration planted will grow and bloom or fall on unprepared ground. At any graduation, there is a complex set of variables that cloud the mind's ability to take in the moment: exhaustion, euphoria, anxiety, yadda. Graduations -- indeed, the conclusion of any hard-earned goal and release into new energy and possibility -- are emotional affairs that provide us pageantry that runs the gamut from the boring adult/authority wah-wah oration
in a Peanuts
voiceover, to the big fun of Dr. Patch Adams' (who's still clowning around,
by the way) retreating bare bum.
So tell me -- if you were going to stand up in front of a faceless crowd of eager souls, raring to stampede out the gate and conquer the world, what would you say? You have twenty minutes or so to impart the secret of life to your audience. What sage advice would you offer a group of people who are poised at a threshold, years of preparation behind, all thinking, That's done. What now?
Would you go for the stirring patriotism speech or the amusing introspection speech? Would you tickle the funny bone, go for third-chakra survival/success activation or aim higher toward the heart and intuition centers that spark service and commonality? This year, we've seen a worthy sampling of all the above.
a Louisiana native, recently addressed Tulane University in her breezy but intimate manner and revealed some details of her own painful search for identity. "And really, when I look back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was so important for me to lose everything, because I found what the most important thing is -- to be true to yourself, and ultimately that's what's got me to this place… No matter what, I know what I am," said talented, gay and wonderfully charming Ellen. "Be true to yourself and everything will be fine … You've already survived a hurricane, what more can happen to you. And as I said before, some of the most devastating things that happen to you will teach you the most."
Michelle Obama chose to offer her first commencement speech
at the University of California's humble little Merced branch; its very existence a product of community activism. I lived many years in the mountains and valleys of California's gold country -- indeed, Merced itself -- and I can confirm their modest small-town dynamic. In her address, she spoke to their spirit of determination and urged them to remember how many had efforted to bring them to that moment, their obligation to pay it forward for those who follow. She quoted activist Marian Wright Edelman, who said, "Service is the rent we pay for living … it is the true measure, the only measure of our success."
While President Obama succeeded in pulling a rabbit out of a very contentious hat at Notre Dame
by putting pro-life and pro-choice folks on the same page, Vice President Joe Biden, standing in for deceased Tim Russert, told the graduating class
at Wake Forest that, "This really is your moment, history is yours to bend ... imagine a country brought together by powerful ideas, not torn apart by petty ideologies," Joe proposed, "imagine a country that leads by the power of our example and not by the example of our power."
It was Biden who spoke to the powerful energies that push us forward this year, urging the graduates to, "... steel [your spines and embrace the promise of change." And in traditional commencement form, he passed off the baton to those who were seeking a fulfilling future. "You are the possible," Joe declared, referencing Wake Forest professor Maya Angelou's poem, A Brave and Startling Truth.
"This is not hyperbole. You are the possible. We are the possible. And we have at once finally come to it. So seize it. Seize it. Because if you do not, it will slip from our grasp and determine the world you live in while you sit idly by."
There are favorite sound bites from the past in any discussion of commencement oratory. Sir Winston Churchill, speaking to the Harrow School he attended and nearly washed out of in his youth, had only three words to say, although he repeated them three times before stepping down: "Never give up." Other Titans of speechmaking, Jack Kennedy
and George Marshall,
impacted a generation with their words; repeated until this day.
College drop-out Steve Jobs, co-creator of Apple, quoted from The Whole Earth Catalog
at the end of his Stanford speech:
"Stay hungry. Stay foolish." In researching this piece, I found a few lesser-known names that provided quotes that dazzled. Earl Bakken's address to the University of Hawaii in 2004 included: "Never give in to pessimism. Don’t know that you can't fly, and you will soar like an eagle. Don't end up regretting what you did not do because you were too lazy or too frightened to soar. Be a bumblebee! And soar to the heavens. You can do it."
Suzan-Lori Parks, addressing Mount Holyoke in 2001, said: "...believe that the sort of life you wish to live is, at this very moment, just waiting for you to summon it up. And when you wish for it, you begin moving toward it, and it, in turn, begins moving toward you."
And I very much like what Anna Quindlen told the graduates of Villanova University back in 2000, in an intuitive and prophetic assessment of our Stepford conditioning: "It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the color of the azaleas, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kid's eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live."
Discovering identity is a standard topic for graduation fare; Jobs, DeGeneres, and others before them, offered up the details of their lives in order to invite those listening to plot their course with awareness of what was ahead. Back in 1980, Alan Alda
was as brilliant as his Hawkeye character when he addressed little Connecticut College: "Be brave enough to live life creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. It is not the previously known. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can't get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you're doing, but what you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover will be yourself."
If I were to synopsize the wise words of those who'd already pushed out into the world, to those who were stepping up to the plate, it would be a list of short sentences:
Go for it.
Don't give up.
A hurdle that these kinds of speakers must leap is the notion of the young that their elders don't have much to offer them but cautions and warnings, the screeching sound of e-brakes pulled on their enthusiasm and dreams. As is the human condition, advice from those who wish to save us pain is often futile; humor goes a long way in delivering that message. Stephen Colbert managed that kind of message to Knox College graduates
in 2006 with such grace they may not have noticed:
"Now will saying 'yes' get you in trouble at times? Will saying 'yes' lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don't be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying 'yes' begins things. Saying 'yes' is how things grow. Saying 'yes' leads to knowledge. 'Yes' is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say 'yes.'"
As you may know, saying 'yes' to life is one of my favorite topics; easier said than done, of course. In Colbert's analysis, it's the territory of the young -- but it isn't exclusive territory, certainly. In fact, it's the WD40 of life, seems to me, allowing us to slip along smoothly and not get stuck in self-defeating ruts and grooves. You can allow yourself to be old at 20 if you let go of curiosity, desire and courage; or young at 72 as is, for instance, Baltimore's Shirley Smith
who received her degree at Towson University this month. Age, you see, is nothing much; willingness is everything!
That is the kind of energy all of us are capable of bringing to this extraordinary time in history; Eric has spoken to the powerful interdimensional qualities of this moment, and we have seen a remarkable explosion of change and challenge in the first years of this new century. We are only beginning to discover all of the wonder this new age will bring us.
The root word for graduate has to do with progression; we've collected centuries of experience to come to this turning point. We are literally graduates of the passing era, and on the threshold of the next. Eight or 98, we've bridged the past to this amazing new present, edgy and chaotic and potent with possibility. Well done, brothers and sisters; take a moment to appreciate all you've brought forth. And here's your graduation address; me to you:
-- seize the day! You've never been as powerful, you've never been so bright and beautiful! Grab this day in your teeth and shake it for every laugh it holds, every loving interaction, every opportunity to connect. Wag your tail behind you, eager to taste the moment, and wring every bit of good out of it so that you can share it and impact the entire morphic field of existence.
If you're at odds with yourself, get on with sorting that out -- the skin you're in is the only one you're getting, this time around. If you don't like yourself, start doing things that will make you likable ... not to others, but to yourself. You're the only show in town -- and paradoxically, just one bright spark in the totality of the spotlight. We who love you need you to shine brighter, so start loving yourself right now.
Realize that the big, profound concepts you wait for are within you every moment. The whole Universe is watching this Grand Experiment on planet Terra, marveling at how quickly we're shifting and how ambitious our intention. Everywhere we look, the old is losing its grip -- the new is coming into form from the rich, deep well of our age-old longing and desire. That moment of refreshment, of restoration, is now.
We're there! Now what? Anything -- anything at all
that comes from the great, collective, open, laughing, loving heart of awakening humanity! You are an active cell in the great conspiracy to remake the entire world. What are you waiting for? Be a bumblebee and soar to the heavens. Bend history and pay your rent on life.
You are the possible! Leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. The graduating class envisioning this new century has earned its diploma and its wings; the undergrads -- indeed, the whole of the Universe -- are watching to see what we're going to do with it. For as long as you have the strength to, say 'yes.' The unfolding future awaits those who don’t know that they can’t fly, and so, will soar like eagles.