The commencement speech I would deliver
Having recently attended the college graduation of our middle child, I could not stop thinking what I might have said if given the opportunity to offer the commencement address. Here are five thoughts.
1) Continue to learn and teach
At the moment you were born—whether conscience of it or not—all of you have always been both students and teachers. As children you were the consummate student, constantly learning from others, patterning and comparing yourselves to those around you.
At the same time, you have always been teachers. Beginning as babies, you taught your parents and family about the preciousness of life and the awe-inspiring responsibility of raising a child simply by your being. Whether you know it or not, you’ve taught them about themselves, as they observed you and worked with you. In addition, starting early on in your lives, you taught and influenced your friends the result of your reactions, your likes and dislikes.
As you leave the cocoon that is the college environment, all of you students, formally become teachers. You have learned well and no doubt will continue to learn, now go out and share; share in such a way that brings pride to the true spirit of learning. That is learning not merely for learning’s sake, but learning to help make the world better. Learning to give to others, not to gloat over your degree or your school’s namesake.
2) Develop and maintain a humble soul.
All of you feel a great sense of accomplishment; you’ve worked hard. But it’s expected that you work hard and make sacrifices in college. College is not summer camp, contrary to some; it is not a Club Med. If anything, being in college should be seen as a supreme gift. All of you metaphorically stand on the shoulders of the generations that have come before you and have built this school and this great nation of ours. College is not an entitlement, is not a right. If anything, college is a supreme privilege.
By now you should know; some students wishing to attend a particular school have been turned down for reasons that are unclear. The truth is, students get into some schools without expecting to, others are both surprised and hurt by not getting into the school’s they assumed they would. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason as to why that is.
A humble soul knows and a prudent mind understands that some things in life come about due to luck or randomness. Even if you worked hard through grade school and did well on college entrance exams and finally got accepted to the school of your choice, you’re lucky to have had other things given to you allowing you to succeed in that way.
So, keep a humble perspective not only for what you’ve accomplished, but also just as important, what you have been given.
3) Include God/Godliness in your life.
Embrace a religious; God based worldview, not an undisciplined spirituality that blows with the wind—subject to caprice and fad. College is a secular institution—it is not a seminary where you’d expect to grapple with such ideas. But with a notion of God, you will live a more balanced and enriched life. You will handle failures better and you will understand and appreciate success more.
Most importantly understand: Without God, ultimate morality cannot exist. An objective standard of morality is dependent on their being a God who, in theory at least, set a moral standard that is independent of culture, race, ethnicity and geography. That is not to say a life filled with God will guarantee morality, unfortunately—it will not.
Furthermore, God is not a crutch, or an inane caricature. God is a concept, if not a reality, that is serious and necessary, important and challenging. Whether you accept the notion of God, don’t dumb down the role God can play by applying silly superstitions and simplistic logic and thought. With all the questions you posed while in college, ponder this: The most important question one can possibly ask is whether God exists?
4) Don’t be fearful
Go out and take some risks. There is an obsession with health and above all, safety. Don’t be afraid. So many things as of late have become a source of fear, the environment, food, and the economy. Enough! Go live. Some parent’s think it is their duty to raise children. That’s only partially correct. The duty of responsible parents is to raise adults. You are arguably at a point in your life where you are the most resilient you’ll ever be. Take some chances. Learn to fail and you’ll learn to succeed. A successful person has failed many more times than one deemed a failure. If not now, when?
5) Enjoy the journey
Life goes so fast. Notice I said life goes so fast, not time. Time is a human convention. We’ve invented and formatted time to help us function and literally “navigate” through life. But there is no such thing as time per-se. A waste of time is more emphatically, a waste of life. Don’t think of life only in terms of goals to be accomplished, appointments met. In your haste to get a job, choose a spouse, pay off a debt (including student loans), take a breath and reorient yourself so as to savor the journey as much as, if not more than the goal.
One last thought. Sadly, for many of you, college will be the high point of your life—I truly hope that it is not. I hope it was a positive experience, one that you can look back on fondly. But like the Bible’s description of Seraphs (mystical creatures) wielding fiery batons at the entrance of the Garden of Eden preventing man and woman from ever returning after they were expelled, you too can never return. But that’s not a bad thing. It is the story’s allegorical way of saying: grow up and stand on your own, leave your comfort zone—become an adult.
And so it is with all of you—it’s now time to move on. Move on and grow. Contrary to popular opinion, college was real. Every experience we witness is real and life is not an illusion, or a test run. But college is only a few years in a lifetime of accumulated experiences, ongoing challenges and adventures. Now go out and continue to learn and to teach and in the process, above all, go out and make your life a masterpiece.
Michael Gotlieb is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica, CA