Commencement Speech: “You Are Not Special”

I know the graduation fervor has died down since earlier last month, but this might be the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard.

There’s a reason that David McCullough’s address to Wellesley High School has racked up more than 1.5 million views  since being posted on YouTube a month ago.  Finally we have a speaker who is willing to be a straight shooter for a change—witty but honest—someone who will say what everyone has always wanted to hear at graduations.  It amounts to something to the effect of: “Guess what kid, it’s been a good run having you here at school, but when it comes down to it, you’re not really all that special.  There are thousands of graduates in this country in the same shoes as you. And they think they’re pretty awesome too. So what are you going to do about it?” Forget the “reach for the stars, you can do anything” crap. “If everyone is special, no one is,” says McCullough, “If everyone gets a trophy, trophies are meaningless.”

I think it goes to show that our society, despite all the superficiality and political correctness that we put up to shield ourselves from reality, still longs for authenticity. No one wants to live under a delusion or lie, and McCullough, though hopeful, doesn’t shy away from reality in his speech. “Statistics tell us that half of you will get divorced.”  When you think about it, that’s an awful reality. It means that hundreds of kids sitting right in front of him will one day experience horrible regret, conflict, and heartache. Yet that is the world too, is it not? It’s full of opportunity, but it’s also full of pitfalls, failures, and disappointment.

Better still, McCullough hits on several critical points that I did not fully grasp until well into my college education.  Namely, he tells the graduates: “I also hope you’ve recognized how little you know—how little you know now.” If you’re no more than a tiny, finite, speck in a world of millions of people and a universe of unfathomable length and breadth, how much can you really expect of have figured out? Not much, of course, so how do you deal with it? McCullough gives them the one simple remedy: “Read. Read all the time. Read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life.”

If you watch the speech, take some time to think about it. Think about the principles; then find ways to act. Meditate on what it means to truly live. Agonize over what it means to truly live. Question the purpose of your life. Pray, doubt, cry. Inspiration quotes and speeches are a dime a dozen. Seriously, for the most part it’s true. But the things that change lives—and it may not be one specific moment, phrase, or speech, but dozens of books, a deep friendship, extended meditation and prayer, faith expressed in concrete action–the things that let you look back through life and say, “I’m not who I was back then.” Those are truly priceless.

McCullough echoes New York Times’ columnist David Brooks’ reminder to graduates that it’s not about you. Sure, you may have potential, but you are not the end. You must not make yourself the end. The fulfilled life only happens when you think on things more important than yourself.

I like the irreverent twist on the famous Latin phrase near the end: “carpe the heck out of the diem.” It takes a certain energy, an initiative—a violence, if you will—to truly live. McCullough says “The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap.” Although I would nuance this by noting that sometimes the greatest joys in life are things that happen to us—things that just seem to fall into our laps–the basic point is correct. Genuine living demands that we choose. It requires a distinct act of the will whereby we actively do things for the sake of Something greater. It is in our nature to let the universe revolve around ourselves, but it is a temptation we must resist. As Brooks said: “The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

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A Meditation on Graduation

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

–T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

I’m not sure why those lines kept echoing in the back of my mind during the last several weeks of my senior year of college. Maybe I expected too much of the last year. College is a unit, a certain era of life, right? You’d think that it should have some sort of climax at the end. But such is not necessarily the case. I ended my time in school disconnected from some longtime friends, disillusioned with other friendships, working part time on a Congressman’s reelection campaign, and weary of the semester. It wasn’t party time. No festivities. Not even much joy necessarily. I took a day off to walk across a stage, and the next morning I was working. Back to the grind. Or perhaps starting the grind, which will continue the rest of my life.

That’s what I’m starting to realize. Life isn’t going to let up for me anymore. My entire paradigm of existence—the ebb and flow of semesters and breaks—has been shattered and forever lost in the past. For as long as I can remember, my life has been divided up into school during the fall and spring, and breaks during summer and over Christmas. That has a comfortable rhythm to it. I really like that life. I have no problem doing the whole studying, late night food runs, ultimate Frisbee, and living-with-my-parents-during-breaks thing. But no more. Like in the poem, the world has ended for me. Not with a glorious celebration or an emotional high, but a little breath of thankfulness, a slight pause, and just like that, it’s over. Continue reading →

Ten Resolutions for Mental Health and for Staying Alive to God in Nature

I’m not one for making big new year’s resolutions. However, as I’ve grown and matured, especially through college, I’ve found that there is much value in resolve–in committing to things and living them out. There is a joy that comes with discipline, and a pleasure that comes with enjoying life–even the little things–just because it is.

What follows is a list of 10 resolutions for mental health and for staying alive to God in nature. I stole them from pastor John Piper, who learned them from Clyde Kilby, an English professor at Wheaton College. They’re worth keeping in mind and putting into practice.

1. At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.

2. Instead of the accustomed idea of a mindless and endless evolutionary change to which we can neither add nor subtract, I shall suppose the universe guided by an Intelligence which, as Aristotle said of Greek drama, requires a beginning, a middle and an end. I think this will save me from the cynicism expressed by Bertrand Russell before his death, when he said: “There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”

3. I shall not fall into the falsehood that this day, or any day, is merely another ambiguous and plodding twenty-four hours, but rather a unique event, filled, if I so wish, with worthy potentialities. I shall not be fool enough to suppose that trouble and pain are wholly evil parentheses in my existence but just as likely ladders to be climbed toward moral and spiritual manhood.

4. I shall not turn my life into a thin straight line which prefers abstractions to reality. I shall know what I am doing when I abstract, which of course I shall often have to do.

5. I shall not demean my own uniqueness by envy of others. I shall stop boring into myself to discover what psychological or social categories I might belong to. Mostly I shall simply forget about myself and do my work.

6. I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.

7. I shall sometimes look back at the freshness of vision I had in childhood and try, at least for a little while, to be, in the words of Lewis Carroll, the “child of the pure unclouded brow, and dreaming eyes of wonder.”

8. I shall follow Darwin’s advice and turn frequently to imaginative things such as good literature and good music, preferably, as Lewis suggests, an old book and timeless music.

9. I shall not allow the devilish onrush of this century to usurp all my energies but will instead, as Charles Williams suggested, “fulfill the moment as the moment.” I shall try to live well just now because the only time that exists is now.

10. Even if I turn out to be wrong, I shall bet my life on the assumption that this world is not idiotic, neither run by an absentee landlord, but that today, this very day, some stroke is being added to the cosmic canvas that in due course I shall understand with joy as a stroke made by the architect who calls himself Alpha and Omega.

Summer Musings

First off, my apologies for the drought in posts. That’s a sin in blogging I hope to rarely commit. I’ve been busy the past week helping out with the student leadership retreat and Week of Welcome at The Master’s College, and though I had some free time, I confess I made the hotel’s spa a higher priority than my blog.

Being back at school for senior year makes one think, though. It has a different feel to it than other years. This is it–the last time for anything and everything in college, the closing of a four year chapter that has challenged and changed me more than I ever expected.

A sobering wisdom comes with time and experiences. I tasted one flavor of the “real world” at the Washington Journalism Center last fall and sampled another at my internship at ABC23 this summer. I also followed the news more closely than I have any other summer. All of these turned my eyes toward the future, and I soon found that when you start asking big questions–like what happens after all the exams, cafeteria lunches, and trips to the beach–life gets kind of scary.

Most of these questions go something like this: What does a well-lived life look like? How do you live with no regrets? What sort of habits, patterns of thinking, and self-discipline should I be forming right now?

I talked about these questions with a friend once over dinner last spring. One thing he said stood out: “Life isn’t worth living just for memories.”

It didn’t take me long to realize how chilling that statement is. Memories are great, but imagine them elevated to the ultimate position in your heart. You’d be forever trapped in nostalgia–warm, fuzzy, sentimental longings that can never be fulfilled. Waiting for some future thing with eager expectations is tough, but looking back on it after it has come and gone like a flash in the pan has got to be tougher. Continue reading →

Thinking and Feeling

Finished reading John Piper’s Think this morning. I won’t take the time to do a review, but I couldn’t resist highlighting a couple things from the appendix.

The first captures the heart I want to do as a thinker. It’s part of the academic statement for Bethlehem College and Seminary. No, it’s not all that profound, but I appreciate this clear, thorough definition of thinking:

We aim to enable and to motivate the student to observe his subject matter accurately and thoroughly, to understand clearly what he has observed, to evaluate fairly what he has understood by deciding what is true and valuable, to feel intensely according to the value of what he has evaluated, to apply wisely and helpfully in life what he understands and feels, and to express in speech and writing and deeds what he has seen, understood, felt, and applied in such a way that its accuracy, clarity, truth, value, and helpfulness can be known and enjoyed by others.

The second deals with the “feel” and “apply” parts, and, well, it just makes you think. It is a quote by Charles Misner, a scientific specialist in general relativity:

I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business. . . . It’s very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as basically a very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined, and they were just not talking about the real thing. My guess is that he simply felt that religions he’d run across did not have proper respect . . . for the author of the universe.

Book Review: The Question of God

I just finished reading The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. As the title suggests, the book represents Dr. Armand Nicholi Jr.’s attempt to set up a “debate” between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis on the most important issues humanity faces. He asks questions like “Does God exist?” “What is the nature of love?” “What is the meaning of life?” and “What should we think of sex?” Then, Dr. Nicholi lets the thinkers speak for themselves–Freud then Lewis, in turn–offering his own occasional insights along the way.

If anyone is qualified for a project like this, Dr. Nicholi would seem to be the guy. He is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital, and he has taught courses on Lewis and Freud for decades.

If you are unfamiliar with C.S. Lewis, Sigmund Freud, or both, I commend this book to you. Dr. Nicholi brings together years of study into both of these great minds, delving into everything we know about both their beliefs and their personal lives.

I read Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” last summer and just finished “Surprised by Joy” a few weeks ago, so I can at least confirm that Dr. Nicholi does a fine job of representing Lewis’ beliefs about each of the subjects in his book.

I can only trust that he does the same for Freud. He certainly gives readers no glaring reason to doubt his portrayal of Freud’s beliefs. He draws from Freud’s books, personal letters, and even interactions with his children and grandchildren to paint a picture of both the brilliance and tragedy of Freud’s life. Furthermore, he realizes that Freud’s beliefs were often in flux throughout his life, so we often get a brief chronological progression of Freud’s beliefs on a topic. Readers therefore come to know Freud personally, as a human with desires, hopes, fears, flaws and struggles. Continue reading →

For Those Who Still Really Really Want to Read the New York Times on the Cheap

Business Insider tells us how we can still read the New York Times online for free. Apparently if you find the headline you want you can copy it into an search engine, click the first hit, and read the whole thing for free.

Better yet, the article puts my conscience at ease about the “loophole” by noting that many publications are aware of it but don’t have problems with it. They know most of their readers are too lazy to use the copy-search method anyways. You can read the Wall Street Journal without a subscription, for instance, using the same method.

The Times did say that it would place a five-articles-per-day limit on referrals from Google (and only Google, so far), but who’s going to read more than five stories online in a day anyways?