Many of you probably sat through a graduation ceremony recently. There’s a chance that the commencement address was deeply profound and you walked away with new insight on how to live your life.
There’s also a chance that you heard a bunch of strung-together clichés that sounded great but didn’t mean much of anything.
I was in choir during high school, which meant I showed up at three graduation ceremonies to sing the sappy graduation song. My junior year, here’s a snippet from the chosen anthem:
Each day I live, I want to be,
A day to give the best of me.
I’m only one, but not alone.
My finest day is yet unknown.
I’ve lived to be the very best.
I want it all, no time for less.
I want one moment in time,
When I’m more than I thought I could be.
When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away,
And the answers are all up to me.
To the surprise of all of you, I’m sure, I was a bit of a cynical sixteen-year-old. So I re-wrote the song with my own lyrics, including:
Each day I live I want to be,
A day to prove my apathy.
The only mark I’ll leave at all,
Is writing on a bathroom stall.
I sit in class, don’t learn a thing,
I like my job at Burger King.
Give me one moment in time,
When I’m just what they said I would be.
When all of my dreams are in video games,
And my values are found on T.V.
There was a reverse key change and everything. It was great.
Okay, so the execution wasn’t terribly gracious, but I remember the feeling of frustration I had when faced with motivational quotes and choruses. They seemed so…empty. Even then, I knew I didn’t want the answers to be all up to me. I had seen some very miserable people who lived to be the very best. And I was pretty sure that even if I got it all, it wouldn’t make me happy. There was always something missing.
That same year, I watched The Dead Poets Society for the first time, and I thought the same thing about Robin William’s dramatic Carpe Diem speech. Especially with the ending, I was left staring at the screen wondering, “Seriously? Seize the day? That’s what we’re supposed to take out of this? Seize it for what purpose? Don’t you see where that can end, if you make your own personal happiness the entire goal?”
A lot of motivational speeches in graduations or in fiction are so very close to being right…but they’re just slightly off. Or unbalanced. Or not really grounded in anything. So, to any recent graduates out there, or those who suffered through a saccharine speech or two, here is my commentary of a few typical sentiments:
- Don’t follow your dreams. They are not going to spiral gently ahead of you, lighting your path with a golden glow for you to reach out and touch. Sometimes, you have to drag your dreams kicking and screaming with you. Sometimes you have to work for them, and set goals and follow budgets and do the unglamorous tasks to get there. Sometimes your dreams change, and sometimes you have to choose between two of your dreams, and all of it is hard and it is still worth it.
- It’s not just the journey, it’s also the destination. And the whole point of the journey is the destination anyway, so why do we even pretend it’s a good idea to wander around aimlessly without a sense of purpose? You don’t need to have everything figured out. It’s a process. But I honestly don’t understand how people have a sense of perspective without God. Seize the day, sure…but seize it to the glory of God, or else you’ll find yourself wondering why you don’t feel happy when everyone told you that you were supposed to.
- You don’t need to change the world. The number of people who have actually done that is super small, and not much about our planet is actually capable of being changed in one lifetime. Don’t be afraid to make your goal a little smaller. Love the people around you, do the tasks in front of you with everything you have, pray for opportunities to do what God wants you to do…which may not, in fact, change the entire course of history. That doesn’t mean your life won’t matter.
- Your success is not 98 ¾ % guaranteed. Despite what Dr. Seuss says, you will fail. You will fail, you will want things you can’t have, you will hurt people (accidentally and intentionally), and you will be hurt (accidentally and intentionally). We are broken people in a broken world…but that’s a really good thing and not depressing at all (really, I promise). Because it’s meant to remind us that only God is good, and that one day we’ll be with him in a place where we won’t have to be tired or lonely or ashamed, where we won’t have to fear failure anymore.
- Be yourself…except when your self is arrogant or selfish or fearful or melodramatic or whiny or rude, which is pretty much all the time. Then don’t be yourself. Be like Christ—or, more accurately, pray that God would help you live out who you are in Christ.
I don’t mean to universally make fun of all graduation speech wisdom. There is a lot of truth in reminders to take risks, resist conformity, live boldly, and whatever else they usually tell you to do. But make sure it’s not either empty—held in place with nothing but fancy propaganda and self-esteem chatter—or exhausting—entirely depending on you and your checklists. It has to mean something.