The following post is inspired in part by the wise words of my dear friend Jocey Paul, who delivered a speech full of wonder and truth on Saturday at the Eastern University commencement. Her speech is well worth a read and will appear as my next post under the same title, part two.
Last spring, I attended my cousin’s high school graduation in Connecticut. The ceremony was held outside on a sunny day in May, and all the details were in order. The flowery garlands wound about the pillars that held up the enormous outdoor tent. The right jokes were peppered throughout the students’ speeches, the choir sang a sentimental song, and the parents wiped away tears of thankfulness that their children had reached such a milestone as this. And then, the commencement speaker stepped forward.
He didn’t tell the students to be true to themselves, or to spend their college years finding authenticity. Instead, he told them to be true. He told them that what matters more than finding yourself is becoming a person that other people can trust, a person of character, a person worthy of others’ respect not because you are authentic, but because you are good. Be a person who is good, he told them. It was a remarkable and a surprising thing to hear.
Later that year, in the summer, I found myself in a conversation about dating with two students a few years younger than me. They asked me what kind of person I would want to date, and undoubtedly, what they expected to hear was that I was looking for someone who was sensitive, smart, tall, or musical. Instead of enumerating the qualities of my dream guy, I simply told them that I suppose I am looking for someone good. They asked me what I meant by this – did I mean someone who didn’t break rules? Someone who was nice? What about chemistry?
It struck me as so very strange – the very word “good” seemed to be a meaningless descriptor; it was an incomprehensible concept to them. Nowadays, it seems archaic to speak of striving for goodness. We no longer speak in such clearly-delineated terms these days as good and evil, or even good and bad. Striving for goodness is a romantic notion that we’ve done away with; it’s the kind of thing you might hear talk of in pre-modern philosophy, but certainly not anymore. We do not wish our graduates to become people of character; instead, we wish them to discover themselves. We do not encourage them to practice the art of active love, that “harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” Instead, we tell them to pursue their passions.
David Brooks recently wrote an excellent opinion editorial for The New York Times on this topic, and in the confessional piece, he displays a surprising amount of honesty and candor:
About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.
When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.
I can relate. I wonder if, on some level, all of us can. I wonder if the things that matter are not those things that are measurable in any sort of quantifiable way. I wonder why we speak of such things not at graduations, but at funerals. I wonder if death makes us take an honest look at ourselves and at what is important in the scheme of things. I think of the things I have heard at funerals – “She lived a beautiful life for others,” “He was a man who was both kind and good,” “She recognized the blessings of ordinary life,” “He loved his kids so much.”
The funny thing is, these are the exact sorts of things we should be saying to our graduates. Live a beautiful life for others. Be kind and good. Recognize the blessings of ordinary life. Love your kids. Love others. Love the earth, and be good to it. Listen well. Laugh. Be grateful. Why do we wait until the end of a person’s life to start talking about such important interior work, the kind of work that matters far more than pursuing your passions or finding yourself?
The strangest part of it all is this: in doing the day-to-day work, we do pursue our passions, and we do find ourselves. But we find that we are not at all what we thought we were, and we are inexcusably lacking. We find that Father Zosima and Dostoevsky were right all along, that “what seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself.” We find that, to borrow from Josef Pieper, we are not yet what we already are.
We find the true meaning of passion – suffering dignified, redeemed, and made beautiful by love. We find that it is in this choice to toil daily that we learn what love means, that we come to know what love is.
Or at least, if we don’t, we come to glimpse the road, as Frederick Buechner says, and to know that it is the only one worth traveling.