The first thing I'd like to do here today-a day upon which I am so grateful for this wonderful and profound honor-on this day the first thing I'd like to do is to ask a question. The question is short, to the point and, for me, incredibly meaningful. The question is this: What took you people so long?
In the spring semester of 1983, my last as an UMSL student, I began writing a column for the school newspaper, The Current. It was a humor column, I should tell you, and sometimes it was even funny. I wrote about many topics, from the bewildering assortment of student groups on campus to the absence of any UMSL students in the pages of Playboy magazine's college sex surveys. [Yes, it is truly a wonder that they let me graduate.] But in one of my columns I put forward an idea that I thought had serious merit. It occurred to me that graduations and Commencements are a little wrong-headed in their conception.
Graduates like you typically hear from world leaders and intellectuals, from valedictorians and class presidents. They hear, in other words, from the ranks of the exceptional and the extraordinary. But most of the people in caps and gowns-with apologies to you all-are decidedly NOT extraordinary. They are noticeably NOT exceptional. Although each graduate is in some ways one among many, they are mostly, well, many ones. And that's okay. In fact, it's even to be celebrated. Which is why I suggested-in my Current column of February 3rd, 1983 and in a meeting with the chancellor at the time-that I be allowed to speak at graduation BECAUSE I was exceptionally, extraordinarily, remarkably un-distinguished. My argument, in other words, was this: I had no business speaking at Commencement, which is why I should speak at Commencement.
Genius, I know. And it only took 25 years for someone to buy what I was selling. And so I ask, What took you people so long?
Actually, there's no need to answer this question, because I know the answer. And I suppose the answer is the substance of my message to the graduates today. I'm supposed to have a message, you know. That's what Commencement speakers are supposed to bring in exchange for the nice robe and lunch with important people. And my message today is a simple one.
My message is this: It doesn't matter how long it took to achieve this particular goal of mine. It doesn't matter how long it takes to achieve almost any particular goal. What matters is the experience of trying. Not to experience trying. But the experience of trying. I'll try to explain the difference.
In Ulysses, Tennyson wrote "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." It's impressive, and inspiring, but I'm not sure it's the best advice. It's Little League advice, pretty much. It's a literary version of what you tell kids. "All I care about, Bobby, is that you try." But that's not all I care about. I care that you try. But I care as much that you experience the trying. Deeply, intensely, consciously.
This is a concept that I stole from yoga. But it's worth the stain of being called a thief. Because it's really a very important lesson. One that old people have been trying to teach young people for a very long time, one that is especially hard for young people to hear, because they're usually thinking, "Shut up, old person, and give me money." Or, "Go away, old person, you smell kinda weird."
But the reason some old people keep trying to get the message across is because the longer you stay on the planet the more you realize Confucius had it right all along.
Road is all, end is nothing.
The journey is the thing, the destination is almost meaningless.
Because, of course, we all end up in the same place anyway.
We're in a bit of a jam in this country-economically, militarily-not because people were consciously trying to screw things up for the next generation-for you-but because they weren't paying as much attention to what they were doing as they were on where they were going. They didn't listen to their old people.
Road is all, end is nothing.
It's a hard lesson to absorb because we live in a world of destinations. We live in a world in which we are told that things will happen to us and then we will be happy.
You will graduate high school-or college-and then you will be happy.
You will get a car-and then you will be happy.
You will get married-and then you will be happy. You will get a great job, and buy a cool house, and have perfect kids and go on a great vacation and find the Lord for the first time or the 15th time-and then, oh yes, then, you will be happy.
Except not so much. And not because those things are not great and important and worth striving for. They are. They are splendid and they are admirable and they are impressive. But they are all burdened with the gravity of consequences. They are all dense, they are of great mass, and as a result of this they have powerful orbital pulls. They attract complications like Ted Drewes attracts Cardinals fans.
College brings student loans, graduations raise expectations, cars equal gas bills, love leads to fights, marriage includes disappointment, jobs bring lousy bosses, kids equal exhaustion, houses bring termites … you get the point. These are all, of course, bearable burdens, but they explain in part why so many people achieve so many of their goals and yet find themselves empty or unsatisfied or desirous of something, anything, to fill them up. In short, they are focusing on destination rather than journey.
Road is all, end is nothing.
But what does this mean, exactly, in practical terms? Let me try to help there. The world was lessened a little bit this year by the suicide of the writer David Foster Wallace, one of the great voices of this or any generation. Wallace wrote with unbridled enthusiasm and obsessive attention to detail, so it shouldn't surprise you that I am invoking his thoughts at this moment. But I'm not going to refer to any of his books or articles. Rather, I would commend you to Google David Foster Wallace's 2005 Commencement speech at Kenyon College.
It's a good speech, for a whole bunch of reasons, but I bring it up here because Wallace spoke for a bit about the nature of thinking and state of mind. He told Kenyon's graduates that almost every feeling we have in our lives is a choice. Even our feelings about events that seem out of control-we can decide how we want to feel about them. My father can die and I can be sad, or I can choose to focus on the memories of him that will make me smile as I move through the rest of my life. The woman in front of me at the supermarket can be rude to the cashier, and I can be dismissive and judgmental-or I can choose to imagine that she just came from the hospital, where her husband is undergoing chemotherapy, where she is unfailingly supportive and patient, and for just a second here at the grocery store she lost it and snapped at the cashier. Maybe it's true, maybe it's not. But I can choose to believe it, and my world will be a better place for it.
I bring this up because in order to live your life like that you need to possess a very specific skill. A talent even.
It's called mindfulness. And if you can achieve this state of grace, for even small parts of your day, the rest of your life is almost guaranteed to be as amazing as you are now hoping it to be. But it's hard. It's tough. It's a challenge. Mindfulness is the psychological and intellectual execution of "Road is all, end is nothing."
Mindfulness requires to you to notice what is really happening inside your head, in a way that's deeper and more probing and more forgiving than we are ever really taught. Mindfulness means you pay attention. To the feelings behind your feelings. To the private reactions that prompt the public reactions. To the consequences of what you feel and how you act as a result, not just today but a month from now, a year from now, 10 years from now.
Mindfulness is about slowing down. About noticing the moments in your life that don't cost you anything, the moments that sneak up on you, that aren't planned. These observations are the things that fill you up, that leave you satisfied at the end of the day.
And I'm not just talking about a beautiful flower or an Albert Pujols homer or the laughter of a young child. I'm not writing Hallmark cards here. I'm telling you that satisfaction in life comes from noticing not just the small good things (to paraphrase Raymond Carver) but also-maybe more so-the small bad things, the annoying little things, the frustrating little things, the hurtful and tragic and confusing little things. Noticing them, not reacting to them.
Because in the act of slowing down, in the act of saying "That guy cut me off"-and then stopping; or " I was a hurt that she forgot to call"-and then pausing; or "I wish he wouldn't be rude"-and then considering … in those small pauses of reflection you will begin to know yourself, and in the knowing of yourself-without judgment, without speed-you will be satisfied.
You will need less from other people-and appreciate what you get more.
You will need fewer things-and enjoy what you have more.
You will find space in your day-to notice the things in your life that are in front of you already, waiting to give you joy.
You will find that most of the joy in life is in the journey, in the process, not the destination. You will find that waiting 25 years to speak at Commencement turns out not be very long wait at all. And worth every second.