Commencement Speech 2015

Associated School: 

[Ed.  There is a facebook album of some of the photos from the Graduation and End of Year BBQ at: 2015 End of Year BBQ and Graduation Ceremony.]

[Ed. Kiran specifically requested to be "roasted" by Matthew.]

I am really honored and flattered to be asked to speak again this year.  It’s always a pleasure for me to fabricate heady rhetoric. So, thanks guys.  But actually, you know, after they asked me to speak, I went to them - maybe it was just Kiran, and I asked him who he would really like to speak, and he said Steve Buscemi, of course.  I found Mr. Buscemi on and there was a form to request him as a speaker - the lowest fee you could offer was $5,000, so I offered that and added a note that really I was really only offering $250.  We didn’t get a response.  So you’re stuck with me.  

So, when I was working on this yesterday at school one of our youngest students approached me and asked if he could help, and I accepted the offer, and I’m going to begin with his contribution:

"Here ye, here ye, I am a pirate.  You will be missed.  Maybe see you on a visiting week."

Alright.  Here we are: you’re about to graduate.  Though, it’s a little weird to even call it “graduation” here, isn’t it?  Because - as we all know - at this school the curriculum is responsibility and the method is freedom, and so the content of what a student actually does here - what they “work on” - is different for each one; and ultimately, the curriculum is just their own person, their own genius.  

So - what does it mean to graduate here?  The transcripts we give you say that really only you can tell us.  When I was thinking about this I was reminded of a passage from the prologue to East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which I read over and over again in high school.  (I have done some slight editing to bring Mr. Steinbeck up to date politically.)  Goes like this:  A [person], after [they] have brushed off the dust and chips of [their] life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

This event is not quite as dramatic as end-of-life reflection, but here too, we are really only left with hard, clean questions, and you are the only ones who can really answer them: Did you complete the tasks you needed to? Are you satisfied with what you have done?  To what degree, in what arenas, did you do well--or ill?

So of course, at the majority of schools, the most important element on  this day is receiving a credential which shows that the recipient is capable and willing to meet sets of standards and complete set upon set of nested tasks - I’m not saying that’s bad.  Or good.  But this ceremony, I am happy to say, really has nothing to do with any credential.  We are going to perform the traditional ritual after I’m done droning on and on - you will walk across the stage, and I will speak your name and hand you something.  But there was nothing in particular you had to do to earn this experience, and therefore it’s not really a credential, which is good, because really, how much sense can we make of awarding one here? At this school that takes life itself as its curriculum?  Where we know very well that ultimately there is no credential; everyone is qualified to lead a beautiful life.  We are all qualified from birth to live a life that is good for us.

You’re already doing it.  You know that.  And you’ll keep doing it.  You’ll do better and better at it.  If you take my advice.  But - I want you to know something: there is no point in life when “you have made it.”  There is no perfected person; there is no finished product. I mean, you probably already know that, too, right - you guys all have parents.  But it is a relief to realize: the field is wide open, and you are allowed to make mistakes, because there is hardly anything else you can make on this strange planet.  And also, realizing this, you can laugh at yourself as you journey through life deeper and deeper into your own idiocy.  Try to get at least one really good laugh at your expense every year.  


There is no perfected person; there is no finished product. I mean, you probably already know that, too, right - you guys all have parents.


But somehow, despite our absurd limitations, we all have it in us to live the life we need to live.  What I want to say about it is that - if we’re actually going to do it - we each need do it for ourselves, but it’s something we do together.  We each need to figure out how we want to live, but we figure that out through contact, connection, friction, and, intimacy with other people.  Each of us has a unique way of being in the world, and being called into it, what I would like to call a “genius,” but our genius flourishes in relationship with other people.  

We all have our own tiny lives, and our own extremely limited perspective on ourselves and the world.  We need each other to see and experience more broadly and deeply; to get where we need to go.  So I encourage you, as you go forth from here to explore our strange world, to invest your time and energy and love in people.  Find people you admire - the ones you think really look like they know what they’re doing, and follow them around.  Get with them.  Find the ones who challenge you to think differently, the ones who are brave enough to be honest with you and call you out on your shit.  We all have shit, ok?  Pardon me for swearing.  These people are out there and - they could look or sound like anything - they could be from any demographic - so please be alert and don’t let yourself think, “I associate with this kind of person, but not this kind;” find the people.  Keep finding them.  Value them.  Take good, good care of them.  Do stuff with them.  And for heaven’s sake, ask them for help.  Don’t hesitate asking - we all need help or one sort or another, all the time.  We need to ask each other.  

And approach people, to whatever degree you are able at any given moment, without prejudice.   There’s an aphorism I like: “Not-knowing is most intimate.” “Not-knowing” here does not mean mindlessness or blankness or darkness - it doesn’t mean, like, forgetting people’s names or not knowing your own address (like Kiran) or anything like that. It means openness, curiosity, awareness, and attention.  It actually means knowing that life, and people, are dynamic.  As soon as you label people in any way you have made them static - it’s almost a form of violence - and when we do it we have become, in a profound sense, dishonest.  Adrienne Rich has said a lot of great things about this.  Like,  

The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.

Don’t be a liar; you won’t get what you need.  Stay open to the possibilities. Respect people by allowing them to always be new.  I promise you very good things will happen (I’m only doing solid guarantees this year).  Or Nina will refund your tuition (our counsel wanted me to be sure to say that that isn’t a legally binding statement, just to be clear - it’s only rhetoric).

Let yourself be new, too.  Kiran, if you do this, you really might make something of yourself someday (there’s at least a chance).  Take this posture of unknowing into the rest of your life.  Always be ready for new truth, and be willing to change accordingly. That’s called humility, and it is the secret of alchemy.  Get intimate with it.  You won’t regret it.  I promise.

“Not-knowing is most intimate,” and, really, there’s nothing better than intimacy.  It is the source of all our nourishment.

There’s something else I don’t want you to know, either.  I’m going to tell a little story to illustrate - just one story and then I’ll...give up, ok?  This one is from China, and it’s an oldie.

Mrs. Sei’s horse

Mrs. Sei had a tiny farm in a small, poor village in China.  She owned a horse and was therefore one of the wealthiest members of the village.  Her neighbors used to come to her and tell her how lucky she was to have that horse because could plow much more field and have a larger crop and take better care of her family than most people in the village.  Mrs. Sei was a very wise woman so she would never say anything back.  She’d just nod her head or shrug her shoulders.  One day, the horse ran away.  All the neighbors came and told Mrs. Sei how unlucky she was, and Mrs. Sei shrugged her shoulders and nodded her head.  But - the next week, the horse returned, and a second horse was following.  Now Mrs. Sei had two horses! And-the second horse was bigger and stronger than the first!  You can guess how the neighbors reacted - so lucky! Mr.s Sei nodded.  The next week Mrs. Sei’s son was plowing the field with the second horse.  The second horse kicked Mrs. Sei’s son in the knee and broke it badly.  The neighbors rushed over and said, “how unlucky Mrs. Sei was to have that second horse - her son would never have been injured if she hadn’t have got it! Mrs. Sei shrugged her shoulders.  War erupted in the province and the lords began conscripting all the young men to fight.  Since Mrs. Sei’s son had a broken knee, he didn’t have to go into battle.  The neighbors came again and told Mrs. Sei how lucky she was.  This story has no end - it continues to this day.

So - I’m going to swear again: shit happens.  Forest Gump said that, for heaven’s sake.  There’s all kinds of spot-on spiffy sayings about this: life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.  That’s John Lennon.  “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans. That’s Woody Allen.  It goes on and on.  What I don’t want you to “know” is what’s necessarily good or bad. Your life is an unfolding.  Don’t get too caught up on the particulars of circumstance.  The truth is we will never know how things will turn out.  It’s certainly appropriate and good to have emotional responses to life.  Just don’t cling to that.  Find a way to move through it.  Stay as present, and as open as you can, and in that intimacy you’ll find what you need to.

I’ve borrowed a lot from the far east for this talk, so I figured I might as well conclude with just a little more plagiarism. At the ceremony in which a novice Zen monk becomes a priest, the monk gives a little talk and then at the end says something like, “may there be enough rain in the heavens to wash my words from your ears.”

So.  I’m done.  Wash your ears out, guys, and keep them as clean and fresh as you can.

OK, congratulations, let’s do the dance.

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