by Adam Kirtley
Stuart Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life
Baccalaureate speech, May 23, 2009
“One word … plastics.” This famous piece of advice offered in the classic 1967 film The Graduate, was given to Ben Braddock, a recent college graduate played by Dustin Hoffman. Mr. McGuire, the well-meaning mentor, is a friend of the family, not Ben’s weird uncle, but he may as well have been. He fits the weird uncle mold. The “weird uncle,” as I have conceived of him, isn’t necessarily a person to whom you are related. He’s that guy. He’s often around at family gatherings. He never quite knew how to deal with you when you were a kid. He’d tell you jokes that you never really got. He always asked you how many girlfriends or boyfriends you had. He wanted desperately for you to think he was cool, and while you had general affection for him, he was nowhere near cool. Maybe you’re a little uncomfortable because your weird uncle is sitting next to you right now. Maybe you are a weird uncle yourself.
The defining characteristic of the weird uncle, however, has to be the free and abundant provision of advice. It’s advice you rarely asked for or needed and as in the scene in The Graduate, it was often delivered in a conspiratorial fashion, as if this precious pearl of wisdom, if fully understood and executed, could have beautiful ramifications on your life. Your weird uncle is the one who likely pulled you aside four years ago at a high school graduation open house, looked you straight in the eye, and said the words, “Enjoy every moment of college because it’s the best time of your life.”
I should be ashamed of myself. What a horrible theory to bring before a room filled with individuals who are completing their college careers! Enjoy every moment of college because it’s the best time of your life. How depressing? To take the advice seriously would leave you grappling with the reality that the good days are indeed behind you. It’s all down hill from here.
I, for one, think that the advice is bogus, and I take issue with any weird uncle who offers it. Life, I would argue, can be rich and wonderful and you face opportunities that, while perhaps terrifying now, will likely bring you periods of profound satisfaction and joy in the years to come. It is not all downhill from here.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Your college days are uniquely wonderful in lots of ways, and I hope you did enjoy them. To walk across Ankeny Field at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in the spring is a pretty awesome experience. The sense of freedom, accomplishment, anticipation, and unbridled joy is palpable. But, to measure your days against those you consider your “best” is a recipe for frustration and futility. It forces our gaze backwards and asks the wrong question. I urge you to not live your life pining for the good times, or waiting for the better times. Rather, let us claim the richness of life here and now.
This is, at its core, a spiritual practice. The most obvious example perhaps comes from the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. This “being in the moment” philosophy involves turning off the “chatter” of our thoughts. “Oh, to find myself back in the care-free days of Whitman,” or “if only the boss would recognize my value to this company and pay me what I’m worth,” are examples of the kinds of thoughts that limit our ability to be in the moment. Buddha is credited as saying, “Do not dwell on the past. Do not dream of the future. Concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Or, my favorite rendering, “When you wash this dishes, wash the dishes.” This seemingly sarcastic Zen advice can be an eye-opening experience when applied not simply to dishes but to other facets of life as well. Try it the next time you wash dishes, when your mind is everywhere but on the dishes — and the feel of hot water on your hands and the smell of soap in your nostrils. When you say “I love you” say “I love you.” When you graduate from Whitman, graduate from Whitman. Be present to the sound of the band playing tomorrow. Look at the proud expressions on your family’s faces. Hear exactly how loudly or quietly your family yells when that diploma touches your hand. Be in the moment.
Of course it’s an attractive idea to be mindful when graduating from college, or when you’re catching a Frisbee on Ankeny, or when you are, in Keats’ words:
… yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon [your] fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest
(Remember that from Core?)
Yes, we can get on board with the idea of being present to those wonderful moments. But this spiritual discipline calls us to claim the richness of all of life’s moments — good, bad, and the rest.
Sharon Kaufman-Osborne, adviser to Hillel-Shalom, pointed out to me this year that the part of the Exodus story (again one of your Core texts) that immediately precedes God’s final plague on the Egyptians is called “Bo” which means “come.” When she told me this, I assumed it referred to the invitation to come to the “promised land.” The land promised to Abraham and his ancestors that was to be flowing with milk and honey. Picture Ankeny Field on a spring Friday. This is the kind of place where we can happily be in the moment.
There is, however, another place to which we are called by this Exodus story. Bo is actually taken from the reading’s opening verse in which God commands Moses to “Come to Pharaoh” to warn him of the upcoming plagues. In this sense, the Jewish people are called to experience the essence of that which oppresses them. This is the one we don’t like to hear. We’d much rather come to the “promised land,” thank you very much. But a mindful existence calls us to the Pharaoh himself; to the very source of pain in our lives, and in the lives of others. We are not to skirt the suffering or even the mundane.
So my weird uncle only got it half right. “Enjoy every moment.” Well yes, at least claim every moment; try to be present to every moment. “Because college is the best time of your life.” Well, there’s where he goes astray. What’s the best? What’s not the best? These are the wrong questions. The human reality presents us with a spectrum of experience and the answer to life’s contentment is to set our minds, as much as possible, on the moment presented to us. So I hope you did enjoy every moment of college, or at least most of them. And here’s to claiming the many wonderful/and not so wonderful moments ahead. Congratulations class of 2009 and Godspeed.