I spent the morning Saturday reading quotes from commencement addresses. I’ve been sort of a graduation-speech junkie for years – decades, really – and face it, modern technology makes it very easy to sit and relax, a cup of tea conveniently near, and read a lot of “makes sense to me” wisdom-filled, experience-tested anecdotes.
I thought I’d share a few of my favorites, since (ahem) I’ve now used up most of my allotted Saturday-morning column-writing time, and I’ve got life to get on with this afternoon.
U.S. Navy Adm. William McRaven got a lot of press for his great speech at the 2014 University of Texas commencement. You may remember his classic advice to all to make our beds every morning. Advice you can’t argue with, and though it was one of my mom’s standard operating procedures and pearls of wisdom, I never heeded it very well, until I came across a copy of McRaven’s speech. Now I am – OK, not completely faithful – but much more consistent with the practice.
“If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right,” McRaven said. “And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made – that you made – and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”
George Saunders, speaking at Syracuse University’s commencement in 2013, said, “Err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.”
He said other things, too, worth our attention and effort, but in all the turmoil and reports of the cruel and senseless acts flooding our news feeds, these two sentences are valuable pieces of instruction. How many of our issues and misunderstandings today stem from those involved with only being trivial over things that feed our hate and selfishness and not a greater good?
I have a board, the paint, the brushes and the plan for making a sign to hang above my bed that will say, “Blessed is the life that enjoys the journey.” It’s a testament to my life’s philosophy, which was affirmed when I found this quote from Joyce DiDonato, who spoke at Juilliard School’s commencement in 2014.
“One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, right here, right now, in this single, solitary, monumental moment in your life – is to decide, without apology, to commit to the journey, and not to the outcome.”
Again, my mama’s wisdom. We really can’t know where we’re going, until we get there. What a waste it would be if we ignored all the opportunities for happiness along the way.
On the heels of that, I’ll add this from Doug Marlette’s 2005 address to the graduating class at Durham Academy.
“Have some compassion for yourself as well as for others. There’s no such thing as perfection, and life is not a race.”
Which works well with what Bradley Whitford told the 2004 graduating class at the University of Wisconsin. “You have a choice. You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life.”
A couple of my quote choices have to do with time. In 1980 Alan Alda told Connecticut College graduates, “As I get older, the only thing that speeds up is time. But as much as it’s true that time is a thief, time also leaves something in exchange. With time comes experience ...”
And what Jerry Zucker, speaking to University of Wisconsin’s graduating class goes along very well with that.
“It’s great to plan for your future,” Zucker said. “Just don’t live there, because really nothing ever happens in the future. Whatever happens happens now, so live your life where the action is — now.”
I didn’t have to pick favorites. All of these in one way, or for one reason, or another are favorites. But I did pick this, from J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard in 2008, as my almost perfect ending, and with it I shall send us forth to do well, with kindness and compassion, goodness and cheer.
“I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom: ‘As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.’”
Editor’s note: Candace Cooksey Fulton, formerly of Brownwood, is a freelance writer now living in San Angelo. She writes weekly columns for the Brownwood Bulletin and the San Angelo Standard-Times, each unique to the particular paper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.