This was the commencement address given to the Youth Initiative High School class of 2016, written and delivered by teacher Matt Voz with his usual gift for striking the perfect balance between sardonic humor and deep wisdom. Enjoy!
Greetings. It is a great and one of the many honors I feel blessed with to speak to you today in celebration of this special occasion in the lives of these young people whom we all love and hold so dearly in our hearts. Though we are saying goodbye to them we also happen to be saying goodbye to many of their parents as they graduate their youngest child. So I’d like to recognize these parents as they have given so much to our school and to me personally. Faith and Seth Anacker, Joen Delande, Carol Hemingway, Loma Huh, Brian Woody, Monica Nagler, Karen Reckinger and Ed Schultz, Curt Gravatt, Jennifer Marks, Marcia Cameron, John and Sheila Sherwin whose energy and generosity has been an inspiration to me, and Bill and Susan Townsley. Susan, I think I speak for many of us in this school and community when I say that I would probably be living in an alley or an asylum if it wasn’t for your gentle guidance. Thank you to all of you for all that you have given and all that you have taught us. May you go forth in peace and, hey, don’t be a stranger. For the rest of you senior parents with little birdies still in the nest, may the flight of this fledgling sweeten the music of the squawks of those nestlings that remain.
So I was watching this movie a couple of months ago, perhaps you’ve seen it, it’s called the Life of Pi, I think it’s also a book but reading is so mid-90’s, so I just ordered the DVD from Netflix a practice which, strangely, is also apparently outdated. Anyway it’s about this guy who gets shipwrecked and then it turns into this elaborate metaphor about life. Spoiler alert: he loses everything, everybody else dies, but he carries on, he survives and learns that the key to life is learning to let go.
Because the production quality of this film was so high I was immediately convinced that this denouement was extremely profound. This will be a big winner for the graduation speech, I thought, after all, our local culture seems to fully embrace this world view. Many have moved from hectic urban lives to get simpler. That plaque in your grandmother’s bathroom tells us to accept the things we cannot change. Don’t sweat the small stuff they say. You’ve got to strip it all away to find out who you really are. Easy does it. Go with the flow. And why not, it fits in with all this other stuff, too. Buddhism, a spiritual practice with over 1500 years of history, takes as it foundation that desire leads to suffering and that to be truly happy one must practice non-attachment. Even Charles Bukowski, the legendary debaucher and poet laureate of skid row, and someone I frequently consult in moments of self-doubt or ethical dilemma, famously answered the question “What is your philosophy of life?” With two words: “Don’t try.” And, when you break up with a girl in high school your aunt or someone tells you that “if you love something, you should let it go.” You guys, it’s clearly the wisdom of the people. So I’ve come up here to tell you that it isn’t about all the noise, you can’t love others unless you love yourself, take care of yourself first, it’s about what’s inside.
I’m also here to tell you that as nice as all that sounds, you can’t have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat. Like any good simplification (and any good Pink Floyd song), it contains just enough truth to draw in even those who think of themselves as leading an examined life. It is certainly true that wisdom and peace can be found in the detachment from those things that we cannot control but anyone who tells you that you should start “letting go” right now may as well be selling you a ride on a unicorn.
Since this is a commencement speech it seems polite to devise a pithy definition of success for you that you can then take into your adult lives and measure yourself against for the next 60 or 70 years. So, I’ll give that a try, now. Well, I’m surely not going to tell you that it’s money unless I feel prepared to admit to everyone here that I am a complete loser. I’m not going to tell you that it’s rock hard abs for the same reason. And I’m not going to tell you that it is an unshakeable monastic placidity because I just implied that I wouldn’t 60 seconds ago and I have a lot more faith in your attention span than that. In fact, I’m not even going to pretend that the definition of success is some immutable absolute. My definition of success has certainly changed throughout my life. At 13, success was getting a girl, any girl, to hold my hand. At 23, success was being able to quote Gramsci and finding just the right coffee drink to order that was both extremely hip yet not pretentious, I settled on a Double Americano, by the way. At 33, success was tied up in work and family. Nowadays success is not letting anyone know about my secret plan to conquer the world through a growing network of patronage and imprison my enemies in a Siberian gulag. Oops! But seriously, the point is that your definition of success can and probably should change throughout your life, and that it may not always be that dignified in retrospect.
But any definition of success that you carry into the world after today should have nothing to do with “letting go” or “accepting the things you can’t control”. This is the step that is all too often conveniently overlooked. But this is the step that you cannot skip. Because there is no expressway to the peacefulness of perspective. Jonah could not understand the whale until he spent three days stewing in its gastric juices. Heracles couldn’t slay that old Nemean Lion until he locked himself in a cave with it. Some folks might tell you that everyone is born with the wisdom they need and that it’s just a matter of discovering it inside yourself. But I suggest it would be more accurate to liken wisdom to a dark figure with a trench coat and brass knuckles lurking in an alley who ambushes you, beats you within an inch of your life, and then leaves a really profound note in your pocket for you to read when you regain consciousness. You might think that you don’t have to get jumped in to the wisdom gang like the rest of us, but going to an avant-garde school in a progressive enclave of southwest Wisconsin has not given you the short track on enlightenment. If you want to feel the tranquility of wisdom, peace, and perspective, you’re going to have to give up your lunch money.
Because you were not given this unique education, this deep community of support, this life of material comfort so that you can spend your days nodding your head self-righteously while watching a TED talk or brushing up on your Bob Marley guitar covers. This is a graduating class of so many diverse talents: Songwriters and scientists, craftsmen and entrepreneurs, and I am entirely certain that each one of you is filled with love and kindness. But love and kindness won’t get you anywhere unless you splatter your sweat and tears all over everything like a crazy priest with a deranged aspergillum. It is our duty to make a positive difference with the innumerable gifts that we have been given and not waste them on ourselves, because like I’ve always told you, we’re not that special.
Today there is a corrosive and hateful element alive in our political discourse, there are violent acts perpetrated in the streets by those whose duty it is to protect us from violence, whole cities are at risk of being swallowed by the sea, women are forced to fear the darkness, 47 million people in America live in poverty, over 300,000 people in this country (equivalent to every man, woman, and child in St. Louis, MO) were killed by guns since the time these graduates were 2nd graders.
Now is certainly not the time for letting go and accepting the things we cannot control. You can’t make the world (or yourself) better by closing your eyes and taking a deep breath. No, “letting go” is something that you should only do when whatever you were clutching with every ounce of your mortal fortitude finally slips out of your mangled and bloody fingers. That’s when you’ve earned the privilege to let go and begin the work of acceptance – and not a minute sooner. So if you want to know what success is I will tell you. Success is falling (and I mean falling) to sleep every night in complete physical and psychic exhaustion from serving someone or something that you love and then having the privilege of getting up in the morning and doing it all over again. That is my hope for you, that is my appeal to you now. If you are going to let something go, let go of yourselves. If you love something, for God’s sake don’t let it go, press it, instead, to your body with such existential fervor that it either kills you or becomes, eternally, a part of your soul.
Now is the time to put your hand on the plow and hold on until every one of your human brothers is free from violence and sickness, until every one of your human sisters sing with you in joy.