After I gave a commencement address for high school graduates on June 5, I was happily surprised by the number of people of ALL ages who told me they felt that I was speaking to them as well as the graduates. Upon re-reading the talk, I agree that I would have delivered essentially the same speech anywhere. What follows are excerpts from my remarks:
Almost every graduation address I've read or heard contains some variation of this message to the graduates: "You can change the world." Or: "Your choices will determine the future of this nation and the world." What enormous responsibility! I would suggest that you cannot change the world. The only thing any of us can change is ourselves. And what we make of ourselves shows itself in the nooks and crannies of our interconnected world. My graduation gift for you is a philosopher's check list. I think of the classic Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall film titled "To Have and Have Not."
THE HAVE NOTS:
*CONSUMERISM : Unbridled desire for more and then more is eating up individual lives as it eats up the planet. Philosophy has sounded the warning bell against materialism for thousands of years. Know what feeds your minds and hearts. Learn from the tragic blunders of excess so visible on the national level and in personal lives devastated by reliance on "credit." Earn your own credit and use it to buy time, to buy love, to buy commitment, to buy generosity, and to buy laughter. Toys are not us.
*ADDICTION TO TECHNOLOGY: My college students marvel at my ability to spot text messaging and to hear the drone from a backpack signaling a missed message. I am upfront intolerant of addiction to the cell phone, to text messaging, to Facebook fanaticism, to all that passes for communication and makes genuine interaction impossible. I think it is possible to me wisely modern. German philosopher Martin Heidegger warns that "we invent but we do not understand." Be smart. Make technology work for you and know its limitations and pitfalls. Be its master.
*A CLOSED MIND: Socrates still says it best from ancient Athens: "I am better off...I neither know nor think that I know...I seem to have an advantage." How can we learn anything new if we think we know it all? Cultivate intellectual humility. Polarization grips national debate and freezes progress. Closed minds shut down school board meetings, negotiation between employer and employee, and dinner tables. Open the window of your minds and behold a vast world. Don't become imprisoned by untested assumptions and callous stereotypes. Rather than coming armed with answers, keep asking questions.
*SELF-ABSORPTION: Thinking only about oneself is a deadly dead end. How fabulous can any of us be? Child philosophers understand the problem of this self-centeredness and talk about the need to "get over myself." Oh Yes! As American Zen Master Charlotte Joko Beck puts it: "Life is a second-by-second miracle, but dreaming our I-dreams we miss it." Don't mistake yourself for the world. Don't miss the miracle.
*A SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT: The world does not owe us anything. I am overwhelmed by the feeling that so many have that they deserve this and definitely that. Rather than assuming responsibility for being part of the world, self-indulgence takes over. Why can't I have the new Ipad? The grade I want? The clothes she has? The car he has? The house they have? The vacation they took? The Rolling Stones are right, "I can't get no satisfaction...!" Refuse to play the role of victim and accept the responsibility of earning self-love, of winning the love of others, and of making a home on the planet.
*THE ART OF CLEAR THINKING: I define philosophy as the art of clear thinking. Plato reminds us from ancient Athens that our mistakes come from confusion about ideas. We forget the meaning of Peace, of Commitment, of Beauty and of Love and the results are disastrous. We nominate Supreme Court Justices but rarely examine the meaning of Justice Itself. How many students and teachers talk about what Education is? Be vigilant and seek better and better understanding of ideas; this is essential because what you think determines your actions, for better and for worse.
*NON-VIOLENCE: The Dalai Lama tells audience after audience eagerly awaiting his words on world peace to focus instead on internal disarmament. If we strip our hearts of selfishness, anger, revenge, and resentment and replace these sources of violence with steadfast compassion, peace becomes contagious. Baptist Pastor Martin Luther King, Jr. agrees with his Tibetan Buddhist soul mate and insists that violence stems from ignorance; it does not solve anything. It perpetuates itself in a killing cycle. No war has ever produced peace. Disarm daily. Close doors softly. Give the benefit of the doubt.
*AN ETHIC OF CARE: American philosopher Rita Manning states that "an ethic of care is holistic.... It assumes an underlying picture of the earth as one body and of ourselves as part of this body." When we know with certainty that we are part of nature's tapestry, we make the choice to care, to pay our dues, to participate with appreciation. Isolation is impossible; everything we do matters. Keep your feet planted in the dirt.
*CREATIVITY: We live in a world starved for imagination and spontaneity. Embrace free-range living, anticipating possibilities and uncovering new chances. Create: a song, a dance, a story, a solution, an alternative. Refuse to be dragged down by the status quo. Wiggle through society's cracks and let the sparks fly.
*PLAYTIME: How often do we hear about the workforce? Yes, you will suit up for your calling, your job, but always make time for play. Laugh like all get out and maybe they will get out! Relax. Eat popcorn and watch movies. Take walks. Throw balls. Do nothing. Climb a tree and stay there. Roll down a hill. Roll up a hill. Play hide and seek and stay hidden. Count on your sense of humor to energize you for the hard work.
*GRATITUDE: Leaning into each day full of thanks cures self-absorption and entitlement. After all my study and teaching and writing about philosophy, this one concept seems at the heart of it all. With gratitude you can give, you can love, you can serve, and you can be happy. Thankfulness is in-your-bones appreciation for all that comes your way, come what may. It makes room for joy. Nurture a strong sense of gratitude, practice giving thanks, and live with outstretched arms and hearts. Love the world. Commit yourself with excitement to the great project of your life. No one ever does one BIG thing. Our lives are a series of little actions that add up. Give your undivided concentration to the moment at hand. Pay attention to the present and the future will take care of itself. I promise.