At Salem State University the other night, activist Tarana Burke looked out at some 550 graduate students, their friends and relatives, and suggested they put serious thought into what they want out of life.
“We live in a time where the expectation to achieve greatness is prioritized over the need to lead whole, joyful, deeply meaningful lives,” said Burke, who is credited not only with coining the phrase (and hashtag) “Me Too” but with raising our collective awareness of sexual violence. “I want to talk to you about what you should expect for yourself.”
Safe to say most people within earshot had been mulling such things already. Maybe Burke helped to guide their thinking, encouraging them to be themselves and “hold tight” to their individuality.
’Tis the season for such deep thoughts and encouragement.
As high schools, colleges and universities everywhere turn out their berobed, tasseled graduates, they leave it to Burke and others to kindle the fires of inspiration. Their words resonate deeply for those in the throes of important life transitions — from the classroom to the real world, dependence to independence, youth into adulthood — or, at least, that’s the idea of a commencement address.
The rest of us can find value in their messages, too.
The commencement speech is a form all its own, with wide variation in tone and delivery. Some are humorous, others serious. Some are aspirational and ponderous, others more meant to entertain.
Several years ago National Public Radio celebrated this style of oratory with an app that collected “The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever.” Drawing heavily upon the website graduationwisdom.com, the NPR app (at http://apps.npr.org/commencement) aggregated quotes from more than 350 addresses, and in many cases linked to the full text.
Sifting through the many chestnuts, some common themes emerge, such as the exhortation to stick with it, overcome obstacles and persevere.
Said the Dalai Lama to the graduates of Tulane University in New Orleans in 2013: “Despite difficulties, always keep optimism. ‘I can overcome these difficulties.’ That mental attitude itself will bring inner-strength and self-confidence.”
Failure, itself, is a topic for many commencement speakers, addressing what they must sense is a collective anxiety over jobs to be found, debt to be repaid, or just the need to prove oneself. Bad things happen to the best of us.
Janet Yellen, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, told graduates of New York University in 2014: “There is an unfortunate myth that success is mainly determined by something called ability.”
Some years earlier, “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling told graduates of Harvard, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well have not lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.”
Other speakers tackle the big issues of our times, as did noted biologist E. O. Wilson in 2011, telling graduates of the University of North Carolina that “humanity urgently has to decide what we are, what we wish to become, and where we are going.”
Then there are speeches that tilt toward the gimmicky, as from Kermit the Frog, “telling” graduates of Southampton College some 23 years ago: “On behalf of frogs, fish, pigs, bears and all of the other species who are lower than you on the food chain, thank you for dedicating your lives to saving our world and our home.”
Graduates everywhere are admonished to work hard, play hard, spread kindness and be upstanding citizens of their communities, country and the world. In these last grand lessons, they are told to withstand defeat, learn from it and move past it, to embrace their destiny, to dream big and follow their dreams.
Then there’s a whole other category of wisdom from lives lived large, not necessarily imparting instruction so much as offering reflection.
Such as this morsel from Madeline Albright, former U.N. Ambassador and secretary of state, who told Wellesley College graduates in 2007: “We might have the right intentions, but instead of acting, we decide to wait. … We keep waiting until we run out of ’untils.’ Then it is too late.”
It’s impossible to improve upon that in the department of encouraging words to the graduates of the Merrimack Valley and North Shore, except maybe to say, Godspeed and good luck.