For many reasons, all of them excellent, I have never been asked to deliver a commencement address. I have been asked to keep quiet at a commencement address — often by the womenfolk — but never to speak. This was probably a wise decision. Columnists are too opinionated for such bland ceremonies. What you want is some windy titan of business who can spew a string of empty platitudes about the graduates being “our future” (Our future what? Taxpayers? Retirees? Prison population?) and how they should go forth and “make a difference.” In other words, something immediately forgettable and, preferably, brief.
Nevertheless, as we squirmed in a sweltering gymnasium Sunday evening listening to the droning of the archbishop, I had to wonder what I would say if, Heaven forbid, His Excellency keeled over from the heat and I was mistakenly called on to finish the commencement address.
I think I would gaze out over the largely white, middle-class audience that constitutes my son’s small high school graduating class and say that hopefully, by 18 years of age, their parents and teachers have given them all the values they will need to lead happy, successful lives. If not, then it is probably too late.
I would say that college-bound adults probably do not need a lot of lecturing anyway. The ones who could use a good talking to are those not in attendance, the underclass dropouts, the very ones to whom we are reluctant to offer advice or moral instruction because it is considered bad form to judge another’s lifestyle, no matter how self-destructive that lifestyle. But since these underclass kids are unavailable, you middle class grads will have to do.
I would urge those who will go away to university to return home after college. Do not be bewitched by the bright lights of the big cities. You may think Sprawlsville, USA is a utopian dreamland, but you would be in error. Suburbia is, in fact, populated by middle managers, accountants, and public relations men. Yes, small towns are often ridiculed as dull, dying, backward places peopled by retired farmers and Tim McGraw fans. But what do you expect when all the smart folks decamp for the cities? Recall the lessons learned by Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard.” Return to your roots and get involved in your communities and your churches. Join local civic groups, run for your school board, your park board, your library board. But let it end there. If some busybody insults you by asking you to run for state or federal office, tell him to get lost.
Do not hate the past. Remember that newer is not always better and that less is sometimes more. In today’s world old ways and things are to be discarded to make way for the latest model. This applies to people as well as things. But with the speed of innovation coupled with our unbridled consumerism this is a recipe for permanent dissatisfaction. Instead, learn to cherish the old.
TUNE OUT ALL the noise and nonsense that keeps us from living in the moment. You needn’t join a Trappist monastery to live a contemplative life. Look to the example of Thérèse of Lisieux who “accomplished the apparently impossible feat of being, every moment, in a state of sharply focused, intensely controlled alertness, and at the same time completely spontaneous in all that she did.” And remember of the words of Thomas Merton, who knew that “Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.”
Don’t give up on marriage. I know it sounds crazy in this day of drive-through divorce. I know many of you are still traumatized by your parents’ separations. The fact remains that marriage is the foundation of civilized life. No advanced civilization has ever existed without the two-parent family. The family, to paraphrase Russell Kirk, remains the institution most necessary to preserve. American society simply will not survive long without healthy marriages.
It is everyone’s duty to cultivate his garden, said Voltaire. In that spirit do something good for the Earth. God has made us its stewards. There comes a time when we need to stop fouling our nest.
Merton, Kirk, Voltaire, Dorothy Gale — none of these can match the wisdom of my fellow Belleville, Illinois native, Christian Rudolph “Buddy” Ebsen, Jr., whose Jed Clampett summed up the key to a successful and happy life in one succinct, pithy phrase: “If you’re too busy to go fishin’, you’re too busy.”