Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of family, friends, teachers, administrators, school board members, and people who sneaked in past security—gathered here to celebrate, to applaud, to mark this rite of passage.
If you knew my history of graduation speech debacles, you might not have invited me up here. A decade ago, as valedictorian of Elma High School’s class of ’96, I gave a pithy address on the merits of failure, later to learn that the speakers didn’t work right, so only the front two rows could hear me, while the rest sat in polite silence.
Four years ago, at Evergreen’s commencement, my speech was well received, so much so that as I sat watching undergraduates take their diplomas, a young woman approached me and said, “I liked your speech, let’s talk sometime over coffee.” She then handed me her phone number and walked away. I lost the number and never saw her again.
Two attempts, two inglorious failures, two out of many more in twenty-seven eventful years. Yet here I stand. Indulge me in a moment of Scottish poetry and learn why.
Robert Burns, in his well-known poem, “To a Mouse On Turning Up Her Nest With the Plough,” adopts the voice of a farmer disconsolate for having destroyed a rodent’s tiny home, and this just before the onset of winter. The farmer-poet concludes with a lesson:
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,What Burns is saying: the joy promised to us—the joy we promise ourselves—often arrives battered and bruised, if it arrives at all. As Al Swearengen of HBO’s Deadwood puts it, “Pain and damage don’t end the world, or despair, or… beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store.” Thus, in at least one way, it’s better to be a mouse, with no memory of regrets and disappointments, and, consequently, nothing to fear.
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men
Gang aft agley,
An'lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e'e
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!
Today, some may tell you, “Fondly remember this—you will look back and say it was the best time of your life.” They are liars. The best time of my life is today. Tomorrow will be the best time, too, and the day after that, if I choose it to be. Memory is a prison, regret a poison, nostalgia a toxin. The present only is the essence of freedom: the power to escape the manacles of memory, to make and remake each day, to build and rebuild, to do and undo, to forge ahead despite the sting of disappointment and the paralysis of regret.
What I am not saying is to live each day as if it were your last. Such advice is hollow and self-defeating, for we must plan and work and carry on in the absence of apocalypse. No, ultimately, the easiest way—and trust me, you’ll want to know the easiest way—the easiest way is to live so that regret is impossible: to live well. To be kind and loyal and patient and good. To examine your beliefs in the harsh light of critical thought. To learn from others only that which will better you. To love, and to be loved.
I do not promise that the easiest way will be easy—and, as any stockbroker will tell you, past performance is not indicative of future success. But I promise you that when you fail, what you lack in achievement you will gain in humility, and you will try again.
Some of you have earned your seat in this auditorium by struggling to overcome regret and disappointment. You already know what I mean, and I salute your dedication. I have much to learn from you. To the rest, I hope your path of ease continues far into the future. You enjoy my jealousy.
To all of you, the class of 2006, you are now loosed from the bonds of memory and of public education. Go forth and thrive in the world of your making.