[“Speech For The Graduating Class” belongs to the Imagined Occasions 2010 series.]
Of my own graduation day many many years ago I remember little. Nothing of the speech, nor of the ceremony. I recall feeling vaguely ridiculous in cap and gown, and I must also have been inconvenienced by heat and by what would have seemed at the time an endless queue of persons, each like me eager to get on with it already. But even in producing this very rough outline I speculate about a day that is mostly, for me, irretrievable. Did I mention it was many years ago? Well, it was.
Notice that the ironies of this observation come at both my expense and yours. And it may be that the only qualitative difference between you and me, between youth and age, innocence and experience — I hesitate to say beast and beauty, it’s a modesty thing — is that I possess an ear finely attuned to the strains of irony. I don’t mind if that sounds like a boast, and I suppose that it is. Time will mostly take from you, but as it’s busy doing this you may as well through your own effort grab something for yourself in return.
Here’s a more plain way of saying it. It’s never too soon to face two unavoidable and unpleasant facts: the first is that your prime is going to pass quickly, whether you now believe this or not, and the second is that you have much disappointment in your future. You have arrived at the first condition, the past-prime, when you see the years ahead not as an exotic land of wild promise but as a more-of-the-same domesticated pasture. (Note. Is it mere coincidence that your waistline has suffered the consequences of too much red meat? I think not!) The second condition is plain enough. The only variable will concern the measure of the disappointment, whether it is generic or extraordinary. Looking at the question from a statistical viewpoint, I infer most of you will have conventional, or average, disappointment — not enough paid, not enough laid, that sort of thing. A few of you will be exceptional, which is a tautology, exception being only for the few. You will reach greater heights, and fall accordingly. Serves you right.
That earlier bit about grabbing something for yourself as time takes from you goes like this. The energy you would have wasted trying to evade, sweeten, or defer unpleasant facts can be much better applied to the active cultivation of an ironic outlook. That’s something that can never be taken away, excepting a blow to the head or dementia, and perhaps not even then, or at least up to a point and in some cases. This is only my professional medical opinion, however. Another useful endeavour is to discover your one or two non-negotiables, the things you will under no condition surrender. You have less of these non-negotiables than you now think, and so in years to come you will find yourself making what the younger you would have considered dangerous compromises and even deals with the devil. I myself believe you should never let your principles get in the way of a good idea, not to mention a good time, and in any case you young people usually have too many principles for your own good. It will take you some time, but paring down your list to what really — really — matters is a good exercise. Think of it as creating a life compass, which needless to say points to your true north. You need only one arrow, and indeed any more than that risks your being set off in the wrong direction. That is my view as an engineering expert. Of course you’ll find that this happens anyway, and when it does be sure to remember that I did warn you, in my expert capacity as a navigator, or career cartographer. Also, this is another instance in which an ironic outlook, and the willingness to laugh at oneself and one’s misfortunes, will provide good value. I say this only because I am an economist by trade, hence I know.
If any of what I have said sounds to you depressing, be mindful of the fact that a person who can laugh at misfortunes great and small is going to laugh, and laugh quite a bit. I know this to be fact because I myself have the good fortune of always being around for misfortune, and other than in the physical and emotional senses of the term, I find I am never in the least depressed. On the other side of the ledger, I could enter jolly claims that your generation is going to change the world, that you will do great things, that your life is all ahead of you, unscripted. The last so-called observation is an empty shell of rhetoric, true but obvious. The second is a maybe, the odds being against you, unless by great one means the many graciously applauded but nonetheless common things a few of which any person who isn’t a total imbecile can do — examples: making a baby, getting an office job, finishing the crossword puzzle without consulting the solution, or baking “a great lasagna.” That’s great, dear! Hurrah, and so forth. I would hardly feel I’d earned my pay, however, if I came here merely to compliment you on your cooking and ability to breed, both of which I don’t doubt are very solid. No, the only certain thing is that your generation will change the world, but that’s only because my generation will do you the enormous favour of getting out of your way, also known as biting the dust.
Concerning changing the world, you do have a choice to make, and your decision will have an effect on the character of life on this planet. Yes, it will be a small difference, but if you just hold on until I reach the end of what I have to say you’ll see a small difference can be of consequence. You can choose to be a decent person. One individual committed to a great cause may or may not improve the quality of living in this world, but one person actively committed to simple decency certainly will. It follows from what I have said that you can also choose to be a massive shit, in which case I ask only that you choose not to move in next door nor to join a religion that will have you in my living-room recommending your deity and the promise of eternal life, among other massive shits like you. If in years to come you recall only one of my points, and given my own admission even this may be asking too much, then the preceding request wouldn’t be a bad one to have at the ready.
Thank-you for putting up with me, not that you had a choice in the matter.