Saturday, May 26, 2012

Yesterday Was About You. Tomorrow Is About Us.

Over the past month there have been any number of high school and college graduations projecting scores of young men and women out into the "real world".  For reason I can't quite explain, I often find myself obsessed with Commencement Speeches around this time of year.  There's Will Ferrell's hilarious impersonation of a commencement speech at Harvard.  Conan O'Brien's 2000 commencement speech at Harvard, which has been placed in the shadow of the "greatest commencement speech ever" that he gave last year at Dartmouth.  Personally, I will always have an attachment to the speech Chief Justice John Roberts gave at my own graduation from law school, despite my recent struggles with his term on the Court.

And I told you about my favorite commencement speech on Wednesday, which, nevertheless, is somehow fatally diminished by the suicide of its author.

In today's Sun, the Op/Ed section includes David Simon's commencement speech to Georgetown University.  I'm not sure if it needs to be included in the pantheon of great send-offs, but, as with all commencement speeches, it carries with it a smart person's heart-felt pleas to a future generation.

Behind all the politics, Simon laments the detachment of our citizenry from the problems we all acknowledge to be true:

So for God's sake, fight. And get angry if you need to get angry. A little anger is a good thing if it isn't on your own behalf, if it's for others deserving of your anger, your empathy. And if you see the wrong around you getting bigger and uglier, then speak up, and call that wrong by its true name. Learn to refuse, to dissent. And in demanding something more from yourself and from your society, you may be surprised to find that you are not entirely alone. That other voices are saying the same things, that others want the same things.

When reading these speeches, it is often important to put yourself in the heads of the graduating class.  They're tired from a late night with friends; a little groggy for reasons related to the same.  They're excited about moving forward, while terrified of abandoning comfortable familiarity to the past.  After two decades of benchmarks and finish lines, they are facing up to the vast imposing ambiguity of "what's to come".  While I miss college (and even law school), I don't miss the threatening canyon  just out of reach, reminding me that I didn't have to answer for myself just yet, but the time would come and the answers would matter.

These thoughts are all internal, but you can't blame the graduating class for concentrating on introspection.  They've lived a life where their service hours are individually counted, their accomplishments measured by transcripts and awards, and their sole purpose in life being self-improvement (i.e., education).  I have no doubt that many of your children are selfless and outward thinking.  They are the exception.  Not by fault, but rather by the inherent requirements of being a 21 year old graduating from college.

But I would offer this one little piece of advice for those stepping out into the world -- it is only scary if you keep the intra-scope on.  If you turn your view outward, get angry "for others deserving of your anger", focus on those things around you in need of change, the terrors of uncertainty regarding your own path in life (and the ever-present question of whether it is the "right one") go away.  If you keep looking inside yourself for what you need to do to improve yourself or make a better station in life, you will always be scared.  You will stay up late at night wondering if there is some map you can follow.  You'll hate yourself for the smallest mistakes and be a bore for everyone who enters your life.

But if you invest yourself in your community, the banality and irrelevancy of those questions will become clear.  You are part of something much bigger than you.  Your selflessness will solidify your character and place in life.  When you stop caring so much about "who you are", you will find the answer in action.