A Commencement Address I Was Not Asked to Give
Congratulations. To reach this point, you have spent the majority of your life jumping through someone else's hoops, dancing when they say dance, and reaching goals they set. And, of course, not dying. So congratulations; you're roughly as qualified to face your life as a circus seal--honk the horn, clap your hands, get a fish.
That's probably overly harsh, in presentation if not in fact. Getting that precious piece of paper into your hands has, for many of you, been work and it is an accomplishment. You've learned a few skills in spite of the system and a handful of truly good people along the way have taught you the occasional real lesson. I do appreciate what you've done but at the same time it falls to me to warn you that nothing you've faced so far, and certainly nothing you've learned in school, has prepared you for what's coming. While everyone else is giving you speeches about dreams and goals and changing the world...well, why should I be any different? Let's talk about dreams and goals. And how you've been lied to.
You've been taught to dream wrong. We live in the era of the thing, of the end product and not the process, of the montage in place of diligence. You've been taught to dream of what you will get and what you will be. You've been told to dream of being doctors and lawyers and captains of industry. You've been told to dream of big houses and nice cars and faster tech. In short, you've been taught to dream of things.
Is the measure of a man to be the things he owns and the titles he holds? Is a man no more than material possessions and success a measure of external acclaim? Is the man who works with his hands, the man whose fingernails are dirty and who lives by the sweat of his brow, a failure? Is the woman who makes a home and raises healthy, wise children an example of a wasted life? If a man builds an empire and loses it to illness or fate, do you honestly believe that he is less than the man who built nothing because at least the man who did not build or risk has a big screen television? If you believe this then I must say to you that, in this life, you are damned. Stay hidden in academia and live beneath your parents' wings because you will never survive outside the largess of others and you will never know fulfillment or joy. These dreams are not enough, cannot be enough, and to settle for them is to condemn yourself to life of confusion and sickness of the soul.
You must dream bigger. You, the builders of the future, must dream, not of what, but of why. You must dream of meaning. Do not dream of being a doctor; dream of learning the skills of a doctor so that you can give healing to the sick and comfort to the suffering. Do not dream of being an astronaut because it is a thing you want, dream of it because it will let you lead mankind to the stars and a better future. Do not dream of being something because it is a thing you want, dream of it because of what it will allow you to give and to make. Always, always know why you desire a thing and what you dream of doing with it. Only in reasons, only in the whys, do the things have meaning. The day you desire a thing--a job, a title, or an object--and you don't know why you want it and what process, what cause, it will further, that is the day you have failed, no matter how big the thing. Alexander looked upon the world he had conquered and wept because there was nothing left. A man can do great things with an empire. He can do great things for an empire. An empire for its own sake is despair.
If the measure of a dream is in its meaning and if the value of a thing is its purpose, then everything is of value. This is more important than it sounds. In this day of things, you've been taught to dream of big things, that bigger is better and less is failure. But the freedom of meaning comes with the freedom from boxes and an appreciation of true value. Is it a noble dream to want to cure cancer? Maybe. If your reasons are right. If your methods are right. If you act out of love rather than selfishness. Is it a noble dream to want to dig ditches? The answer is the same. Obviously, our society would disagree but I put it to you that a man who cured cancer for no greater reason than money and power, for the things he would get, is in his heart less of a man than the man who labors day in and day out to dig good ditches because he wants the water to flow as it should so that his neighbors fields will not be flooded and the roads will not wash away. The man who cures, cures for himself but the man who digs, digs for everyone. The latter is a better man. No glamour, no riches, no TV interviews and tickertape parades but his dream is bigger, his purpose nobler, his value--his real value--much, much greater.
Crazy? Surely, you say, a cure for any disease, for whatever reason, if worth more than some track in the dirt. How can I even compare the suffering of millions to some mud?
And I answer, worth more to whom? To society, to industry, to the government? Where does you heart lay? Where do you owe your service? To the masses, to the greatest good for the greatest number? To your family, your neighbor, your self? To your God, your cause, your art or your vision? Who do you serve?
Every man will give a different answer and that is as it should be. Because you don't answer to me or anyone else; you answer to yourself, to your own purposes and your own meaning. I did not say the actions--the things--were equal or that one was better than the other. I said one man was better than the other. You are not measured by what you are; you are measured by who you are. To act in service and love is better than to act merely for personal gain.
These things, these motives, the world cannot see. It can't even understand. That's why being free is hard. It is a lonely life and no one else can justify it for you. I'm not telling you this so you can be popular and rich; other people have stuffed your head full of that already. I'm telling you how to look at the face in the mirror as you grow older and be able to meet the eyes staring back. I'm talking about dignity and self-respect, of a life without regrets. I'm talking about how not to feel the soul-crushing emptiness of despair on your deathbed when you realize that all the toys and fans in the world don't amount to a handful of ash.
And what good is a cure for cancer if the roads have washed out and it can't reach the people who need it? You are too small to know what truly matters and what doesn't, to see which of your actions change the world and which merely spin you wheels. And what if the ditch digger slaves his entire life to put his child through medical school and it is that child who finds even greater cures for even worse diseases? Well, more the fool are we for trying to be the judge and jury. If we do everything we do for a reason and the reasons are good, then our greatest failing is not being omniscient and that is out of our hands.
I'm not saying to lower your aim and settle for anything less that what you truly feel you should do. I'm saying that all true dreams--that noble goals based on meaning--are so big and so important that even the smallest of these are worth pursuing and are greater any dreams of mere things.
A final point before I'm thrown out. You have been told to dream great and big dreams. Has anyone told you what to do when you fail? For that matter, has anyone told you that you will fail?
You will. Of the few things in life that is certain, failure is one of them. That's because failure isn't an ending; it's part of the process. You don't win on your first try, there is no silver bullet, and even people who get struck by lightning and win the lottery don't know what to do with it. You start, you fall, to get back up and you try again. And again and again. It's called learning. Failing is as much a natural part of progress and pursing your dreams as breathing. The only time you really fail is when you quit. And sometimes not even then.
Listen. Despite what you've been led to believe, you don't cross the stage, get a degree, walk outside, and have someone hire you for your dream job at maximum salary and plenty of perks. Most of life is taking what you can get, making the most of it, and building up to that great goal that you may or may not ever reach. There will be setbacks and failures and unexpected detours. Maybe you'll change your mind and dream a new dream. None of it matters. What matters is you. Who you are. Why you are.
Because in every step, you will find the why. In everything you do, there is a reason, there is a meaning. You don't have to flip burgers at minimum wage because you have to because you're a loser in life. You can choose to provide food, service, and a pleasant work environment to the people around you instead. Where other people see a janitor mopping the floor, there might really be a man learning the business from the ground up while providing a needed service and meeting people he would otherwise not get to meet. Or maybe he is "just" the janitor, taking care of the cleaning and the trash so that the guy he works with has the time to find a cure for the wasting disease. Or maybe he's working this job to make the seed capital to start the next great business. You don't know; you can't know. What you can do is choose to find the meaning in everything you do, every step of the way, and in doing so make every moment of your life significant.
There is a word for this, an old, rarely used word. Teleology, the study of meaning. There's an even older word. Wisdom.
In our pursuit of science and knowledge, in the desire to know how and what, we have forgotten why we sought these things to start with. We have forgotten why. We have abandoned why. Because to ask why, to ask what we are to do with knowledge and what is its purpose, is to oblige ourselves to use that knowledge. No longer can we be passive, no longer removed observes, to acknowledge meaning is to act. Meaning and purpose mandate a response. The very act of wondering drafts us into a war that we can never escape. A war for meaning, for significance, for duty and honor and sacrifice, for all the antiquated, romantic, demeaned concepts that today's society sneers at. Cynicism and condescension are masks for fear and apathy. The truly noble, those who truly dream of causes worthy of pursuing, have grown up. They have left the playground for the battlefield. This day I exhort you, leave behind your peers, leave behind the opinions of others and the approval of your society. This day declare the only acclaim you seek is your own and that of your God. This day put aside childhood and stand as adults. Dream as adults. Strive as adults. Measure yourselves as adults.
Welcome to freedom. Terrifying isn't it?