Commencement

Don Marsh, Journalist, Author and Current Host of 90.7 FM KWMU's St. Louis on the Air

 

Chancellor George
Provost Dr. Cope
Dean Sebastian of the College of Nursing
Dean Hylton of the College of Fine Arts
And Dean Schmitz of the College of Education…Or should I say the College of Overdoing it with my introduction!
Thanks for the generous introduction.
Members of the faculty, Mr. Bakken…parents and most especially the graduates.  Thank you for the nice welcome.

I am sorely tempted to quote liberally from the greatest commencement address never given.  That’s the graduation speech attributed to Kurt Vonnegut at MIT in 1997.  It’s made its way around the Internet for years, though Vonnegut did not make the address.  It was actually written by a journalist as a joke.  In it, the advice was simple and wholesome.  The admonition was to “wear sunscreen.”  It’s how the speech began and how it ended.
If I had more time, I would read liberally from it, but they have only given me two hours!

I don’t know what it is about commencement addresses and college life that causes people to make things up. I recently interviewed humorist David Sedaris.  In his new book. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, he wrote a fantasy of having gone to Princeton five thousand years before the birth of Christ.  His father was proud to the point of way overdoing it.  He bragged incessantly…wore Princeton sweaters and Princeton colors. 

Sedaris’s method of getting his father to stop the bragging was to tell him that he was, “majoring in patricide.”  Some of you may have been tempted to do the same.

The best advice I ever got was from my father… who said with some regularity that “if something is worth doing…it’s worth doing right.”  It’s good advice…and as you embark on the next chapter of your lives…it’s my only advice to you about your future.  I will presume that you are more interested in getting on with your day and with celebrating… rather than with a recitation of clichéd advice from a stranger.  But, you are not off the hook.   What I want to talk to you about is not your future…but about your past…as you look back on it 50 years from now. 

The only graduation of my own that I ever attended   was high school.  I remember little about it except that the commencement speaker was a locally prominent funeral director.  I have absolutely no recollection of what he said. But I feel now…as I did then.  Why in the world would anyone select a funeral director for sending young people on life’s journey?  It’s kind of like saying there’s a beginning and an end…forget about the middle.     

So, I approach you today not as someone with carefully crafted advice about that middle…“life’s journey, ”   But rather as someone who stands at what some poetically, yet cruelly, like to call “twilight.”  That supposedly gives one status to advise those who are younger. Don’t believe it.  All it does is make one wonder what causes everything to hurt…causes one to turn to the obituary page first every morning…and causes one to forget things.             

One of the reasons I wrote Flash Frames, which dean Schmitz was kind enough to mention,  was that I wanted to get some memories down on paper before I forgot them.  And, I found it was a heck of a lot more comforting to reflect on the distant past than on a limited future. 

I would not presume to advise on what lies ahead for you, or how you should steer and tack your way through the voyage of the coming decades.

Fact is,  much as they might try, no commencement speakers can present themselves as little more than cheerleaders.  All that is certain is that you will face obstacles and challenges that we can not even contemplate today, just as all the generations that came before did…as will those who follow you. 

There was no one suggesting there was a Vietnam in our future in my college graduation year of 1960.  Many of my class, who were told they were in command of their future, died in the jungles of countries they had never heard of.  Their futures were, in fact,  were not in their hands…but subject to chance…a good or bad draft lottery number.  

No one was talking about the hate that would be taking the lives of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and wrench the heart of an emerging idealism, changing local, national and world dynamics.

No one was there to suggest that the Cold War that had threatened us all of our young lives would end abruptly as we reached our late forties…only to be replaced a dozen years later by a shadowy enemy and something erroneously called “Jihad.“ 

No…We can’t foresee what lies ahead or how unforeseen events may change our lives forever  for better or worse.   We can only guide our future by adopting the notions that “if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right” …do unto others as you would have them do unto you…and wear sunscreen. 

So, my advice for you today is not to look ahead, but to realize that one day, you will have to look back.  For, let me tell you with all the assurance of someone who’s been around long enough to reach  “twilight”… that the satisfaction with which the past is to be viewed…is something to prepare for now.  

I do know that your future will involve joy and sadness….excitement and boredom…frustration and fulfillment… disappointment and hopefully…success.   but…what is success?  How is it measured?  I’m sure you have your own definition.  Let me assure you the definition will change. 

It can be transitory and can only really  be truly measured at the end of the day.  Sometimes, you will find,  what seems a success at one moment, is not always the next.  Some goals that had once seemed so attractive sometimes prove in retrospect not to have been.  There is truth to the saying… “be careful what you wish for…you might get it.”  Instant gratification is only truly gratifying if it is gratification that endures.  

On the other hand, If your goals are something you truly want…you can’t and mustn’t let anything in the world stand in your way.   For, when that day comes to look back and reflect, the sting of regret trumps everything.

There is a wide diversity of age in the audience today…some  ARE younger baccalaureats…some  are receiving masters and doctorate degrees.  some of today’s older graduates, I suspect, have already experienced this important lesson…have resisted standing still…have spread their wings to take on new challenges…have followed both their hearts and dreams when, perhaps,  there was pressure to do otherwise.  

For some it will have been out of economic necessity or intellectual curiosity.   Some may be changing direction and embarking on a new challenge…because some inner impulse has told them to reach for riper fruit higher on the tree.  Perhaps they were listening to their hearts and being true to themselves when their non-conformity was  being challenged by others.  

When I was a graduate,  a young man or woman could expect to change jobs six times in a chosen career.  today’s graduates can expect to change careers six times.   Today, some of those careers may be in an endeavor that is little more than the figment of someone’s imagination.  Perhaps that of someone in this building.  Perhaps of yours.  

I can tell you that the time between where you are today and where you will be in half a century will go by with a speed most of you no doubt wish could be applied to this speech.

I remember in the sixties in a first job when I had to fill out all the forms.  One of them listed my “effective retirement date” as July, 2005.  I laughed out loud the date was so far beyond my comprehension.  But now, looking back at that cocky kid for whom time meant nothing, that moment does not seem like it happened more than 40 years ago.  40 days…40 months perhaps, but not 40 years.  If I could go back, at the very least , I would not laugh

But you can’t go back.  When it is too late…it is just that…. too late.  So, as you move along….consider the choices you are making from the perspective of what they will look like and feel like at…well…I hate to say it…twilight.  

Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!“ 

I would suggest that during those inevitable time ahead when you come to one of those forks, you consider more than the imminent reward…the instant gratification…the pride…even if it does include the potential for prestige…the prospect of power.  Consider also how personally fulfilling it will be.  And, it is what you really want and need to do?  You have to listen to your heart at least as much as you do to your mind….or to those who suggest that you conform to what you are “expected” to do…or what they believe is best for you. They may know your skills but only you know your heart. 

I would wager with some confidence that there are people on this platform and in this audience who, by most  standards, would be considered successful, who at times, at the apogee of their success, have regretted not having taken other, more personally fulfilling paths.  Who, when they came to that fork in the road, were trapped into not taking a chance on themselves.  If you don’t want that to happen to you, you must be true to yourself and think of how you will feel about it at “twilight.”  There’s that word again. 
           
I have heard so many stories recently from people of my generation, including members of my own family, who are lamenting some of their earlier choices.  Most of the examples include what, by every measure, are traditionally considered success stories.   At one time or another, they confess, they did not take that alternative path when it presented itself, yielding instead to societal pressures and to the expectation of others who persuaded them that the course they were on, because of professional security, personal gain or because of those expectations, more important.  Now, to them, none of that seems as important as the opportunities they feel they missed.  

They feel an empty space in an otherwise successful life.  you and I may say, “well if they were successful, what does it matter?  they provided well for their families.”  We’d be right.  But to them…it matters and it matters greatly.  These are not happy days for them.  There is now no going back.  They  wish they had taken a moment to listen to their heart.  For it is your heart that will tell you when that moment has arrived.   

One of my favorite songs is actually a poem…a poem written by French entertainer Charles Aznavour.  It’s called…Yesterday…When I Was Young….It goes, in part,  like this….

I ran so fast that time and youth at last ran out,
I never stopped to think what life was all about.
The friends I made all seemed somehow to drift away
And only I am left on stage to end the play.
There are so many songs in me that won't be sung,
I feel the bitter taste of tears upon my tongue,
The time has come for me to pay
For Yesterday When I was Young.
            What about you?
            Will you run so fast that time and youth run out?
            Will all your songs be sung?
            Will you take time to be true to yourself and listen to your heart?

So, my bottom line to you includes the hope that you will face the future with confidence and commitment…and with a sense of self-awareness and self-loyalty, so that in time many years from now, you will look back with satisfaction and be content that the choices you made did not leave you with the “bitter taste of tears.”  

But I cannot leave you without reminding you  that If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.  and, of course…. remember to wear sunscreen.  

Good luck to your all.  Congratulations and God speed.