Having recently attended the college graduation of our middle child, I could not stop thinking what I might have said if given the opportunity to offer the commencement address. Here are five thoughts:
1)Continue to learn and teach.
At the moment you were born — whether conscious of it or not — all of you have always been both students and teachers. As children you were the consummate students, constantly learning from others, patterning and comparing yourselves to those around you.
At the same time, you have always been teachers. Beginning as babies, you taught your parents and family about the preciousness of life and the awe-inspiring responsibility of raising a child simply by your being. You’ve taught them about themselves, as they observed you and worked with you.
As you leave the cocoon that is the college environment, all of you students, figuratively, if not formally, become teachers. Teach so as to share and give inspiration to others, not to gloat over your degree, or your school’s namesake.
2)Develop and maintain a humble soul.
All of you feel a great sense of accomplishment; you’ve worked hard. But it’s expected that you work hard and make sacrifices in college. College is not a summer camp. If anything, being in college should be seen as a supreme gift. All of you metaphorically stand on the shoulders of the generations that have come before you and have built this school and this great nation of ours. College is not an entitlement; it is not a right. If anything, college is a supreme privilege.
By now you should know that some students wishing to attend a particular school have been turned down for reasons that are unclear. And some students get into schools for reasons that are equally unclear.
A humble soul knows and a prudent mind understands that some things in life come about due to luck or randomness. Even if you worked diligently through grade school, did well on college entrance exams and got accepted to the school of your choice, you’re lucky to have had other things given to you allowing you to succeed in that way.
So, keep a humble perspective about what you’ve accomplished. You have been given at least as much.
3)Include God/godliness in your life.
Embrace a religious, God-based worldview, not an undisciplined spirituality that blows with the wind — subject to caprice and fad. College is a secular institution — it is not a seminary where you’d expect to grapple with such ideas. But with a notion of God, and the discipline of a religion, you will live a more balanced and enriched life. You will handle failures better, and you will understand and appreciate success more.
Most important, understand this: Without God, ultimate morality cannot exist. Objective morality is dependent on there being a God who, in theory at least, set a moral standard that is independent and transcendent of culture, race, ethnicity and geography. That is not to say a life filled with God will guarantee morality; unfortunately, it will not.
Furthermore, God is not a crutch or an inane caricature. God is a concept, in my view a reality that is serious, necessary and challenging. Whether you accept the notion of God, don’t dumb down the role God can play by applying silly superstitions and simplistic thought. With all the questions you posed while in college, ponder this: The most important question one can possibly ask is whether God exists.
4)Don’t be fearful.
Go out and take some risks. There is an obsession with health and, above all, safety. Don’t be afraid. So many things of late have become a source of fear: the environment, food, the economy. Enough! Go live. Some parents think it is their duty to raise children. That’s only partially correct. The duty of parents is to raise adults. You are arguably at a point in your life where you are the most resilient you’ll ever be. Take some chances. Learn how to fail and you’ll learn to succeed. A successful person has failed many more times than one deemed a failure. If not now, when?
5)Enjoy the journey.
Life goes so fast. Notice I said life goes so fast, not time. Time is a human convention. We’ve invented and formatted time to help us function and literally “navigate” through life. But there is no such thing as time, per se. A waste of time is, more emphatically, a waste of life. Don’t think of life only in terms of goals to be accomplished, appointments met. In your haste to get a job, choose a spouse, pay off a debt (including student loans), take a breath and reorient yourself so as to savor the journey as much as, if not more than, the goal.
One last thought. Sadly, for many of you, college will be the high point of your life. I truly hope that it is not. I hope it was a positive experience, one that you can look back on fondly. But, like the Bible’s description of Seraphs wielding fiery batons at the entrance to the Garden of Eden, preventing man and woman from ever returning after they were expelled, you, too, can never return. But that’s not a bad thing. It is the biblical story’s allegorical way of saying: Grow up and stand on your own. Leave your comfort zone. Become an adult.
And so it is with all of you — it’s now time to move on. Move on and grow. Contrary to popular opinion, college was real. Every experience we witness is real, and life is not an illusion, let alone, a test run. But college is only a few years in a lifetime of accumulated experiences, ongoing challenges and adventures. Go, go out and continue to learn and to teach, and in the process, above all, go out and make your life a masterpiece.
Michael Gotlieb is senior rabbi at Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica.