Originally, this long overdue message was intended to be given as a charge to my classmates at graduation, before I realized that it was far too long and that a slightly different message was more appropriate for that occasion. Now, I present it here to you in unabridged glory (and as is to be expected, it is now about three times longer than when I first started writing it).
If you are also a recent graduate, I especially dedicate this message to you — though frankly, these ideas are applicable to just about anyone. As always, I apologize for the excessive length, and also for the fact that it reads more like a speech (that should have been given during the graduation season) than a blog post. Enjoy!
The Problem with Our Graduation Clichés
PART I: THE COMPROMISE
“As we go forth…” “Looking forward, let us also look back…” “Life/success/education is not a destination, but a journey…”
More than any other time of year, graduation seems to be a special season for clichés; a time for them to grow hard and ripe that we may gather, bring in a full harvest, and bounteously distribute the spoils to all our friends, our families, and especially our graduates.
Every year, in commencement speech after commencement speech, we as graduating seniors are spoon-fed an endless plethora of quotes and platitudes (most of which have been canned for decades) from the podium. We’re congratulated for “all the hard work we’ve put in to get to this point” and for having “made it!” We’re asked “hasn’t time just flown by,” because “why it seems like just yesterday…” but “look at where we are now.” We’re told that “this is the time of our lives” and that we’ll “look back on these days as among the best of our lives” (giving us much to look forward to), but we’re also reminded that “it’s not the end, it’s only the beginning,” that “this is the first day of the rest of your life,” because after all, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and “as one door closes, another opens”; “We’ve only just begun!”
If you’ve attended multiple graduation ceremonies already or will be in the coming weeks and that was painful to you, I apologize. Isn’t it interesting though, how much we resort to these same sayings and proverbs year after copycat year? It’s certainly something I didn’t fully realize until I had to write a graduation speech of my own. Why we play this game of perpetual recycling is something worth discussing later, but first, it leaves those of us who must write graduation speeches with an interesting dilemma: Do we buy into the it’s-not-graduation-without-graduation-clichés trend, follow the unnamed tradition and freely sow our speech with platitude? Or, do we mercilessly purge our work of these writing impurities, as Strunk, White, and Zinsser might have us do, and be as absolutely original as possible in everything we say?
Obviously, that’s a false either-or situation. At any rate, I’ve already saturated my opening with cliché galore, and I doubt my originality would take me quite so far as to never quote another one. But to blindly and thoughtlessly litter a speech with overworn, overrated, and overused phrases and sayings would result in a monster not worthy of daylight.
So I struck a compromise: I would incorporate as many graduation clichés into my speech as possible, but only as an opportunity to explain what I dislike about each one of them. I’ve already used quite a few as examples, but rest assured that there remains a well plenty deep enough for our supply.
PART II: THE CLICHÉS
Cliché: We are, “the brave, the bold, the beautiful,” each with “incredible talents” and “a capacity to greatness.”
For the most part, perfectly good sayings that have simply been parroted far too often, so much so that they’ve lost their color. Now they sound pretty trite.
This past year (and in years previously), I have walked among my fellow seniors in all sorts of situations; and yes, I have seen bravery, boldness, and especially beauty, in ways I never expected to. “Incredible” really doesn’t go far enough to describe the breathtaking, God-given abilities and time-honed skills I’ve caught glimpses of over the years.
As for “capacity to greatness,” to my ears that ignores two things: 1) Though still imperfect and growing, we can and perhaps already have achieved greatness, and 2) The root of that present greatness and the greatness to come.
We are not great because of what we have made ourselves to be; we are great only because of who we are as God’s new creations in Christ. In fact, it is only by His grace that we can learn from the essence of Bravery, Boldness, and Beauty, what those things really are. It is only by His mercy that we can learn to apply those incredible talents He has given us to proper use. It is only by His will that we have our “capacity to greatness” in the first place. And it is only by His power that our “capacity” can be, is, and shall be made a reality.
Our greatness is both a finished reality sealed by Christ’s work on the cross, and a coming reality that will be completed in full when we are with Him in glory. It is the righteousness we can live now by faith (Gal 3:11/Hab 2:4), and the coming righteousness for which we eagerly wait, also by faith (Gal 5:5). And our faith is properly placed not in ourselves and our wonderful talents, our bravery-boldness-beauty, and our awesome capacities, but in our Maker alone; the One who gave us these things.
Cliché: “As you go out into the world,” strive to “make a difference,” to “make the world a better place,” to “turn the world upside-down.”
Whenever politicians state that they will bring about change if elected into office, I know what they mean; but I can’t help wishing that they would be more specific. Because simply put, not all change is good (more corruption, for example, is a change that we could all do without). The same goes for the “difference ” we make in this world. Of course we’re all going to have some effect, however small; there’s no guarantee, however, that it will be a positive one.
Making the world “a better place” isn’t much of an improvement because the meaning of “better” is rarely defined. What do you mean by “better”? Contributing to world peace? World happiness? World equality? (Which would inevitably make some people very unhappy, and probably require disturbing the peace of many others.)
To my fellow, graduating seniors: As you go out into the world, please don’t try to turn it upside-down; it’s lost enough. Our job as believers, as ambassadors for Christ, isn’t to just shake up the world more by flipping it upside down, but to turn it right side up again. By pointing it, in all of its darkness and unbelief, to our God.
That is the way to change the world for the better. That is what will make not just any old difference, however positive; it will make an eternal one.
Cliché: “Follow your dreams. Pursue your passions. Be true to yourself. Trust your instincts.”
Use the force, Luke. Let your intuition guide you. Or as the song by 98 Degrees says, “True to your heart, you must be true to your heart.”
Have you ever noticed how self-centered that sounds? Your dreams, your passion, your instincts, your heart. Where is the focus of these sayings? On the creature or the Creator?
But don’t get me wrong. These things — dreams, passions, heart’s desires, intuition and so on — are not evils in and of themselves. God gave them to us for a reason, and He made us individuals for a purpose. I just referenced how uniquely gifted I’ve seen my fellow seniors to be. Well, they are no less unique in their personalities, interests, abilities, flaws, what makes them laugh, how they relate to others, how they respond to certain situations, and what their passions and dreams are.
God hand-crafted each one of us to be weird; to be different from the other faces in a crowd of millions and billions of others. Heaven knows we each have gifts and dreams and strengths and weaknesses that are very similar to someone we might know (especially relatives…), or someone a friend of a friend knows, and to possibly thousands others across the planet. He didn’t make us that unique; otherwise, we might never have anything in common (and we might never experience, as Dr. Seuss called it, that “mutual weirdness” we call love). And yet, God did make us unique; certainly by the way He formed us but also by the way He placed each of us in our own spot in history and the world; so much so, that I can state with no hesitation whatsoever, that you are different, you are set apart from every other person who has ever walked on this earth… or ever will.
Perhaps I’m dipping a bit into the cliché well myself, but your dreams, passions, gifts, and so on are part of what makes you unique. They are a part of the purpose for which you were created. So by all means, follow your dreams, pursue your passions; but only as a means of following, pursuing, and glorifying the One who put them in you. Be true to yourself; but don’t be true to the old self that was crucified with Christ, that used to lie dead in transgression. Be true to the self that was raised with Him in new life, dedicated to His Kingdom and His righteousness.
And be careful about following those instincts willy-nilly. God gave us an intuition, but He never said it would tell us no lies. I like how the movie Fireproof put it: “Don’t follow your heart, because your heart can be deceived. You have to lead your heart.” Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, so be careful what you make your treasure. Don’t ever make the mistake of making your imperfect, broken self the treasure, instead of Christ. In fact, perhaps the easiest way to make this clear is to take yourself out of the picture entirely and put the proper owner in His place:
Follow His dreams. Pursue His passions. Be true to your Lord, and trust in Him with all of your heart, leaning on His understanding over your own instincts and wisdom. Acknowledge and glorify Him in all you do, and He will take care of the rest.
Focus not on your dreams, passions, wisdom, and so on, but His. After all, if you’re walking in Him, they should be pretty similar anyway.
Cliché: “You are the future. The future is in your hands.” (So is the national debt…)
The problem I see with this one is the same as with the whole “capacity to greatness” thing. It makes it sound as if us young fry will one day mature, join the ranks and then, we can go out and “make our mark upon the world” (another well-worn cliché).
Are we the future only? Are we not also a part of the present? Can we not begin to live lives worthy of remembrance and honor right now? As is often quoted from Paul (or in this case, grossly paraphrased by me), don’t let anyone despise you because you haven’t hit your growth spurt yet. Because you’re still in school. Because you still can’t legally drive a car, own a home or buy alcohol (why that’s a standard of adulthood in our society I’ll never know… but that’s a whole other issue).
Instead, you set the example. You show people who think they’re mature and wise just because they’ve lived longer (which is to be hoped, but certainly not assumed) what it means to live a life of integrity, in how and what you speak, in how you go about your daily life, in the way that you love your Lord and your neighbor, in what you put your faith in and how that faith lives through your deeds, and in the way you keep yourself undefiled by this world, pure in the sight of God. I guarantee, no matter the age of whoever happens to be watching, that will get people’s attention in today’s culture and society. That will lead people to the questions that can eventually lead them to the Lord. That will do something real for the present; and by extension, for the future.
Cliché: “Today is a bright day, full of hope and promise…”
Or how about this one? I actually saw this at the graduation ceremony of a friend I attended last year. The girl giving the charge is talking, almost finishes her sentence, pulls out a pair of shades, puts them on and declares, “Our future is oh so bright!”
As I’ve already made pretty clear, I do have hopes for the members of my graduating class, and they are high ones. Yes, we certainly have potential, both for the present and the future, and there’s nothing wrong with being excited and optimistic about what is to come. But calling the future a bright one so confidently seems a bit presumptuous to me. Because as we’re reminded in the book of James, none of us knows what’s coming. None of us knows what the next year, the next day, the next hour will bring. We don’t know, and frankly, there isn’t much we could do about it even if we did. Captains of our souls though we may be, we are far from the masters of our fate. We can adjust our sails all we want, but we can’t control the seas, we can’t redirect the wind; we can’t keep the storms from coming. And let’s face the truth for what it is: many a better captain than you and I has been sunk before by the tempest. I hate to put a raincloud over the celebration and festivities that always surrounds the graduation season, but let’s be honest: this very moment, we may be headed towards the darkest days of our lives.
Thank the Lord we do not sail alone. We might be poor, lost, inexperienced, battered captains, but we have a light to sail by even in the darkest of nights, the fiercest of gales; and if we but learn to sail by that Light, we will come to harbor. Our Master has the power to command the winds and waves — “Peace, be still” — and they obey. And when, for reasons beyond our knowing, He allows the tempest to rage on, He has promised to be our refuge and our guiding light still if we but turn to Him. Sometimes He calms the storm, and other times, He calms His child. He is good, and it is He who shepherds us. He is all we need.
Our hope is not founded in how bright the future may look for us, but in our King and the promises He has made. So whether the days ahead are as lit as the brightness of God’s own countenance, or as dark as the Valley of the Shadow, my charge to and my prayer for each of you is that you would not forget the promises of God. That you would remember His faithfulness and run to Him, regardless of where you are walking; through mountaintops of abundance, through valleys of suffering, even through plateaus of mediocrity.
We say all the time in our graduation speeches, that our parents, teachers, class, cat, whatever, has been such an inspiration to us and that we couldn’t have done it without them; yet another cliché. But without God, we have nothing. By His grace alone do we wake each morning, take each breath, walk each step.
Let our focus then be not on ourselves, but in Him alone.
PART III: THE QUESTION, THE REASON, THE DANGER, & THE CALL
I could go on, but the general point has been made. Clichéd sayings concerning graduation abound. Some are groan-worthy or worn out with use at best, others are misleading or simply untrue at the worst.
So the question remains: Why do we do this? Why do we continue to quote and recite these sayings, regardless of how awful some of them have become, to our graduates year after year? And perhaps more importantly, is it really that much of a bad thing? Should we avoid these overused proverbs and platitudes at all costs? Or is there value in these sayings that can be redeemed?
To answer the question in part:
Several weeks ago, as my class prepared to hand down the senior class journal and Bible to our successors, the Class of 2013, we read through many of the bits of advice given by seniors in years past, and wrote encouragements, notes, and bits of advice ourselves. And do you know what the most overused, oft-repeated, clichéd word used there was?
Everyone had to acknowledge that what they had to say – don’t procrastinate, start early on your thesis, respect your teachers, cherish the memories you have here, and so on – had been said countless times before. And yet, we still shared these worn-out, well-repeated pieces of advice, being as original or personal as possible, and yet still knowing that there was nothing new under the sun in what we had to say.
Being cliché is not necessarily an indicator of poor substance (you may have noticed that I’ve already admitted to being somewhat cliché several times now). Is it cliché to thank teachers and parents at graduation ceremonies? Yes, every school in the country does that. Does that mean we shouldn’t, just to be original? (Please don’t bother answering that question. It’s rhetorical.)
One of the phrases I abhor the most during graduation season refers to “the next phase in your life” or “a new season for you,” or (worse yet) any cutesy reference to “a new chapter in your life” (and about turning the page, writing the next part of your story, etc.). The reason that I didn’t include it in my list was because, besides the fact that I think it’s terribly overused, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. It’s true. Going from high school to college is leaving something old and entering something new. I may hate hearing those phrases, but believe me, I’ve used them plenty of times myself because I can’t escape it. Call them what you will, they’re still true. Or, as the cliché goes, “that’s why they become cliches.”
In every worldview and (almost) every belief, a grain of truth may be seen. And sometimes, these overrepeated sayings capture that bit of truth so perfectly or so naturally that we simply don’t have the desire or ability to come up with another way to say it.
And yet… there is a very real danger in using these slogans and truisms, simply because we are human. In fact, I see two dangers we face, each of which can be amply illustrated by a quote from author Anais Nin:
1) “What we are familiar with we cease to see. ”
When we resort to phrases that are not newly conceived, but merely recycled from yesterday’s originality, our familiarity grows, and so does our contempt and our apathy. We cease to see these truths for what they are because we have allowed a trite saying to rob it of its meaning and power. Several of the sayings I dealt with had no fault but this.
2) “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
We are fallen. And when, as fallen creatures, we see the world through our imperfect, soiled eyes, we give ourselves the impression that life really is all about us. And too often, our idols appear through our proverbs, and soon they all start pointing inward instead of up. We go from being God-centered to being self-centered. Remember: your dreams, your passion, your heart, your future.
The temptation is always before us to conform to the well-beaten trail, to ride along in the current the way a corpse or a creature too weak to swim would. Ultimately, to the world this means buying into the idea that the self is all that really matters; and to those who wish to think differently, the world cries in a vehement roar, or whispers in a soothing reassurance, “Conform.”
Yet that is not what we were made for. As esteemed author and poet Dr. Seuss once so aptly stated, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” When you were called to stand out, to live counter-culturally and swim against the pull of the river, lest you be dashed on the rocks like the rest. The words of Paul on this matter may have become cliché themselves within Christian circles, but they are worth repeating; regardless of how dull a heart may become to their potency, their truth will never die: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
We know what the will of God is. That we not fall into the self-seeking, self-centered, self-destructive pattern of this world. That we stand firmly in and for the faith, whether we stand in a crowd or on our own. That we use the gifts He has blessed us with, applying them and using our imaginations to help make known the truth, goodness, and beauty of our Maker to a world that has grown too familiar with hearing about it and seeing it daily. That we let go of the fact that we don’t know what the future holds and rest in Him who holds the future. That we take up our cross daily, dying to everything in us that is darkness and striving to live as children of the day. That we walk as our Savior Christ did, following His teaching and living by His example, and making ripples in eternity by being His ambassadors.
To my dearest classmates (and by this, I mean anyone who has graduated alongside me): I will be praying for each of you in the days to come, and I sincerely wish you all the best. No… no that’s not right either. Rather, I hope and pray that you will never forget that you already have the best.
You have Christ.
Now go share Him with the world.