Commencement 2016

A very good morning to everyone gathered here on this auspicious day, but especially to this distinguished and idiosyncratic group of graduating seniors, a group of soon-to-be golden diploma-wielding novice geniuses, a group who has honored me well above my merit pay-grade with this opportunity to speak today. Thank you. Though I am a great fan of perennial wisdom and mighty archetypal Platonic truths with a capital “T,” my aim this morning is, by necessity, more modest, yet not so modest that I’m resigning myself to achieving merely very local, time specific truths with a lower case “t,” or what the laymen call opinions. No, my way will not be “the” way or “a” way, not seek “the” truth or “a” truth, but some genuine article in between. That’s my intention, anyway, to steer this commencement address ship between mighty archetypes and middling opinions. I may check in with you graduates periodically during this address to see how I’m doing.

Okay, let’s begin. I’ll start with dreams, the fifth most popular theme for commencement addresses according to one website I looked at earlier this week. I’m sure each one of you has dreams, even big important dreams! Indeed, for you up here on the stage, this is a time of life for dreams. My dear graduates, I hope your dreams don’t come true. Already you can see I’m steering the ship well: very nearly my first statement was not really archetype on the one hand or opinion on the other, it was more just right down the middle of tone-deaf, tactless, and a wee bit snarky. But please remember, that’s just the content. My intent, my intention, is something else entirely. When I say I hope your dreams don’t come true, my intention is to compliment you, because I think in most cases our dreams sell ourselves short, and when I say “ourselves” here, I’m talking about what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls our aboriginal selves. What do I mean by this, by our dreams selling ourselves short? Here’s an example: at this very moment, I’m dreaming that this commencement address is being video recorded and will go viral as soon as it’s uploaded onto Youtube. By next year it will have been viewed by so many people, and will have inspired so many people, that I will be invited to give the commencement address at both Harvard and Yale on the same day, and I’ll have to make a difficult choice. And then, of course, they’ll be a TED Talk in Silicon Valley, etc., etc. You get the picture. What we do in these sorts of dreams is project ourselves unchanged into the future with just more prestige and bling, more ego-stroking; these are dreams that just fulfill our egotism; they are a sort of ego-defense mechanism in the language of Sigmund Freud; they pander not to our Self-Reliance, but to our Selfie-reliance, our ego’s narcissism. And these are most of our dreams: the prestigious school, the partnership in the law firm, the cool job in the film industry, even the humanities position at a Waldorf school.

Also embedded in such dreams is the unspoken judgment that where I am now is not good enough. If I were really smart, important, great, successful, you fill in the adjective, I would be teaching at Harvard or Yale, not Waldorf; I’d be a doctor or engineer, not a carpenter or greeter at Walmart. Behind our dreams is a whole worldview the rightness of which we rarely question. But to my mind, if you’re convinced you’re right and hard-wired into that rightness’s very DNA is the exclusion of anyone, the dismissal of anyone, the marginalization and devaluing of anyone, it, the rightness, to my mind, is not right. Of course we can substitute many things for “anyone” in this equation. And what’s interesting, my dear graduates, is that just as our worldview marginalizes, subtly and not so subtly, whole populations, our dreams marginalize and even ignore or are blind to those parts of ourselves capable of growth and accessing new realms of experience. Just as our dreams take one particular part of the self and develop it, leaving the rest of the human being mostly untouched, our worldview privileges certain classes of people and professions at the expense of others.

Time for a check-in. My dear graduates – that’s my warm check-in voice – you might have been thinking just now that these things I’m saying, these ramblings one might call them, are merely the opinions of some middle-aged man who’s bitter because he didn’t fulfill any of his dreams or he let his dreams die because he’s weak, fearful, lazy, stupid, undiscerning, or whatever. If that’s what you’re thinking, you got me. But you got only a part of me, the selfie-reliant part. The part reliant on the aboriginal self, the true self, that true self with not the capital “t” or lower case “t” but with the genuine article “t,” remains un-got though not unmoved. It remains un-got because the true self doesn’t try to get. A similar logic applies to the following statement by the philosopher Georg Kühlewind: “she who does not wish to conquer is unconquerable.” The true self doesn’t get or conquer or control or judge or need to be right, or accumulate “likes.” Nor does it obsessively chew gum, eat chocolate, watch TV, or desire Oompa Loompas or pet squirrels; the true self understands and loves; it’s able to transform and is open to other possibilities; it can see, in hindsight, the wisdom of a dream not having come true because it understands that it’s fulfillment and the dream’s fulfillment were not the same thing, that the dream would have kept it from experiencing the growth it needed. In this picture I’m painting of our selves and the world, the selfie-reliant self is a small figure whereas the true self is the ground, all that sacrifices itself to let the figure stand out. When the figure falls because the dream dies or remains unfulfilled, the ground is there, by the very laws of our being, to catch it. And we can catch each other by the very same laws. It’s when we too often identify with the small figure and not the ground, that we sell ourselves, and the world, short.

Most everyone here is likely aware that superheroes and superpowers are everywhere in popular culture – they’re an essential part of the zeitgeist, yet in my experience, few of these superheroes have the superpowers of the true self, the ground in the picture I just painted. As kids we dream of having superpowers, of doing battle on the side of, say, Team Captain America or Team Iron Man. I’m no expert in contemporary superheroes or superpowers, but they and their powers seem mostly projections of the selfie-reliant self. Where is the superhero whose superpower is vulnerability, humility, compassion, and understanding? How about a first-person shooter game that involves hugging instead of shooting. I can see the tagline now: “whoever lives by the hug will someday die in a circle of hugs.” I can also see a long line of people in “free hugs” t-shirts outside GameStop in Citrus Heights waiting for Hugstorm 4, or Hug Apocalypse 6, or whatever the game would be called. A middle-aged guy can dream, but of course, we hope his dream doesn’t come true because that would be selling himself short!

In all seriousness, my dear graduates, it’s time to wake up from the dream! The tragedy in Orlando, an actual first-person shooter event, is the latest wake-up call. And to wake up, our world doesn’t need more soldiers, police officers, doctors, or prosecutors, or therapists, or even Waldorf teachers, it needs more individual human beings, no matter the vocation, who are awake, available, interested, humble, growing as best they can, human beings who can admit they’re wrong, apologize, change their minds, hold their tongue, listen, act responsibly, and realize, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in [their] philosophy.” We must learn to see beyond what’s dreamt of. We must face reality, the given, the world.

This is no easy task, because, as the Irish writer and philosopher, Iris Murdoch says, “our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied veil which partially conceals the world.” Which is no wonder, because the world is not all soft-focus puppies and unicorns. In fact, it’s more like a fecal implant, which disgusts the selfie-reliant self because it wants the dream without all the crap, so to speak. Our aboriginal self, our true self, however, realizes that a healthy dose of the microflora of reality is exactly what is needed. I’m now about to do something that has never before been done in the history of Waldorf education, and I may lose my Waldorf teacher certification because of it, and I’m only half-joking; I’m going to equate these graduates’ experience of Waldorf education with a fecal implant. Both are revolutionary, outside-of-the-box, sometimes misunderstood or even snickered at interventions that bring good health. Now that the damage is done, I sincerely apologize to all of you here and Rudolf Steiner!

Interestingly enough, however, I think Steiner would have laughed at the aptness and ridiculousness of the comparison. And it is with him and one of his meditative exercises, that I would like to end my address. This exercise is one of my favorites, and I think practicing it is an effective way to get beyond the dream of selfie-reliant self to an experience of the true self, an experience that is so much needed today. The exercise also establishes an appropriate graduation mood, which is more than necessary after my previous remarks. I have made a few changes and editions to tailor it to you, my dear graduates. I’ll present it as something of a guided imagination. Here it is:

“From various points of view and with various aims, we can cast a backward glance over our lives. We can ask ourselves: how has this life of mine unfolded since childhood? But we can do this also in a special way. Instead of bringing before our gaze what we ourselves have enjoyed and experienced, we can turn our attention to the persons who have figured in our lives as parents, brothers and sisters, friends, teachers, and so on, even people who have influenced us through books, institutions, and the like. And we can summon before our soul the inner nature of each of these persons in place of our own. After a time we shall find ourselves reflecting how little we really owe to ourselves, and how much to all that has flowed into us from others. If we honestly build up this kind of self-scrutiny into an inner picture, we shall arrive at quite a new relationship to the outer world. From such a backward survey we retain certain feelings and impressions. And these are like fertile seeds planted in us – seeds for the growth of a true knowledge of the human being. Whoever undertakes again and again this inward contemplation, so that she recognizes the contribution which other persons, perhaps long dead or far distant, have made to her own life, then when she meets another human being, and establishes a personal relationship with her, an imagination of the other person’s true being will rise before her.”

My dearest graduates, we, your teachers, have done our very best over the years to see your true being in this way. We so appreciate the contributions you’ve made to our lives. We love you and send you forth with all our best wishes!

 

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