Graduation Speech Reject
by Christopher Yin
As this is my final article for The Bolt, and since my graduation speech has been rejected for presentation at the graduation ceremony, I thought it appropriate to repurpose my speech into a conclusion of sorts to my high school newspaper career. Goodbye…
The future is yours! Dream big, and seize the day!
The danger of any graduation speech, I think, is that constant, Damoclesian threat of clichés. And that, to me, is worth exploring. We as a society have an interesting relationship with clichés. On one hand, we tend to denigrate and belittle them as signs of unoriginality and creative deficiency. On the other hand, we allow for their propagation. Clichés stick with us, sink into our brains, circle around so long they become integrated into our collective social consciousness. We dismiss clichés as empty and trite, veneers of words overlaying voids of meaning. Yet we hold on to them, and they hold on to us.
The reason behind this, I think, is the simple truth that clichés aren’t actually empty. And if anything’s doing the hiding, it’s us. Because by wrapping the things we’re afraid to look at in big bright garish banalities, we make it not just acceptable, but encouraged, to ignore them. It’s easy to hear “carpe diem” and tune out; that song’s been sung too many times before. Through mechanical repetition the words fade into background noise, and they drag their meaning with them into purgatory.
Some people openly dismiss clichés as naïve oversimplifications. Some people embrace the words of the clichés without ever looking beyond. So let me go back to one of the most overused and obnoxiously superficial of them all- “carpe diem.” Seize the day. What does that even mean? You’ll die soon, so take control of your life now? Sure, I can say the words, but that doesn’t magically imbue them with significance. How many times have you heard the phrase, or even uttered it yourself, and then proceeded to very much not seize the day?
Because the cruel reality is we can’t. At least, not in the way most people intend. The day doesn’t belong to any one individual. It doesn’t even belong to the collective human race. The day exists autonomous from every living creature, because time is inorganic, and at least from our perspective, inexorably linear. Even within humanity, the day is broken up, partitioned, divided amongst us like bread for beggars. Maybe we start out with a loaf, but then we have to break off pieces for our work, for our families, for fixing this or dealing with that, until all we’re left with is crumbs.
In the big picture of things, we don’t have nearly as much control over our lives as we want.
Say you hate school. Say the thought of going to class, sitting through monotone lecture after monotone lecture until your ears are bleeding, writing paper after paper until your hand is frozen in premature rigor, performing calculation after calculation until your mind is a jumbled mess of numbers- say the thought of suffering through school is so reviling, so intractably repulsive, that to do so every day is tantamount to quotidian suicide. Or say it’s not class that causes your skin to crawl and your stomach to heave; say it’s your job. Now you can bail on these responsibilities and obtain a temporary relief from the deadly monotonies of the world. But in the end, what’ll it cost you? An education? Money? A chance at a comfortable and successful life? We are chained by the looming shadow of society and its arbitrary definitions of right and wrong, success and failure. So, really, there’s nothing we can do to take our day back. We just have to suck it up, go to school, and get a job.Day in, day out, week after week, month after month, year after year, until the accumulated weight of it all has warped our spines and greyed our hair.
So we can hear “carpe diem” and ignore the death knell behind the exhortation. We can let the truth of our imprisonment slip through our minds, the reminder we don’t want and can’t let ourselves receive neatly packaged for us in an acceptably detestable cliché.
That’s how a lot of people tend to function. David Foster Wallace called it the “default setting.” There’s always this balance within ourselves, between the desire for power and the desire to be freed from the burden of responsibility. The default setting maximizes this perceived freedom. On default, we don’t have to stop and look closer. We don’t have to ask how or for more or why. We can do what’s expected from us, follow the trite laws of society and the working world. We can wear this and say (or not say) that and behave just so. We can fabricate these personas of normalcy and obeisance, using the templates provided for us. Passive living.
And passive learning. My personal belief is that within every person there resides a core of curiosity. That’s what lets us keep living. Without the desire to learn, to explore, to experience new things, we wouldn’t be who we are. We wouldn’t be human. But somehow, somewhere along the way, this core became a burden. Learning was painted black with connotations of boredom and labor and wasted time. So either two things will happen with education: one, the student just won’t care, won’t put any effort into his/her classes, homework, studying, etcetera. Learning is a chore, school is lame, trying is for losers. Two, which is no less unhealthy, the student will study hard, will apply his or her self, will get the grades, and this is the key, will do the work. And that’s it. It ends there. Learning is a means to an end, not an end to itself. It’s a way to get ahead in the working world. Work hard, get into a good college, study hard there, get a good job with a good salary, work hard at the job to earn promotions and pay raises, until your life has been subsumed by the mindless mechanical motions of the work. Either way, it’s a surface level learning. It’s default. It’s passive.
Because that’s easy, right? Just like clichés? We follow the established route. We don’t have to figure it out for ourselves. We don’t have to risk deviation into the unknown. We don’t have to look past the words and see the meaning. We don’t have to see that sometimes there’s nothing, and take it upon ourselves to make our own meaning.
So no. We don’t seize the day.
But we can.
Because here’s the thing about clichés- they exist, they endure, for a reason. There is something defiantly true about them that lingers below the surface, if we take the time and effort to really look beyond the mechanics of the words. Maybe we don’t have control over the autonomous realities of the day. But we do have control over the realities of our minds. We can choose how to perceive the world. We can turn off the default, think, and learn to do things for the sake of doing. We can choose to learn because learning is amazing, because the only way to change and adapt and progress is through learning. We can listen to that lecture, write that paper, perform those calculations, not because these things are chores, but because they’re opportunities, opportunities for us to know more. That’s seizing the day. That’s taking what you’re given, and making something of it, making it your own. Learning is giving yourself the freedom to choose, well, do I want to carry on in the default? Do I want to look for more, or am I content with what I have? I’m not saying there’s a right or a wrong. It’s the asking and the choosing that’s important. And it doesn’t matter what you learn, whether it’s computational physics or tying knots. It only matters that you truly, fully, actively learn. And that doesn’t mean just taking in information. It means so much more than that.
But I can’t tell you exactly what, because that’s something personal, something that you have to find out or make for yourself. That’s part of what learning is- the search for meaning. And I’m in the same place as all of you; I don’t know anything about where I’ll be or who I’ll be in the future. What I do know is that in the end, I want to know more. And as long as I keep wanting, the day can never entirely be taken away from me. There will be times when I’m inundated by work or study and I’ll wish I could just step away and breathe, when I’m too exhausted to want to think, when all I want to do is sleep. And that’s fine. Life isn’t easy, or straightforward, or simple, and sometimes we just want to pretend like it is. That’s not wrong- that’s human. But I think what I’m really trying to say is that we have to give ourselves that choice. Because I think as soon as you ask the question, “Is there more than this?” you give yourself the freedom to create your own answer.
So, clichéd as it might be, think about it.
Maybe you’ll end up seizing that day after all.
…and hello, as always.