A real commencement speech

We’ve all experienced the cliches and boredom of a graduation ceremony. There’s that point during the speech where, as Orwell described it, “one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.” That’s what made this Alan Keyes speech memorable when I first saw it on C-Span years ago. It was so strikingly different than the usual flowery nonsense. It spoke of inevitable disappointments and (imperfectly and obtusely) the point of the Christian life.

And at some point in your lives I think you will pass a certain line… where you feel the weight of your past a little bit more than you feel the lure of your future. … [Y]ou will reach a point … where most people most of the time have to acknowledge that all of the wonderful dreams that fill your mind today didn’t quite come true. The books were not written, the films were not all made, the loves were not all enjoyed and somewhere along the way you have to deal with things you already have begun to know. The hard hours and the tough losses, the things that don’t work out and the people who were here yesterday but are gone now, whose love was a certainty that failed, whose hope for you was expressed in ways that you did not understand until it was too late.

I, unlike some folks, I can’t stand up here and say, Well, just go out, dream as you please and everything will happen, success will be yours, all you have to do is believe in yourself!’ This is not true. You can believe in yourself all you like, you’ll still fail, some of you. But in the midst of all of that, in the midst of all the things that go wrong and don’t come out right and don’t quite measure up to what you had hoped would be the case as you sit here today, if you are able to believe in something more powerful, more important, more permanent, more true, more good, more just than you are, then, then you have some hope of real success.

We’ve heard that term “American exceptionalism;” I think many American graduates have great expectations for life. However, then life happens and they realize that they aren’t going to be the center of anything extraordinary in earthly terms. They won’t be St. Augustine, putting an unmistakable stamp on civilization. They likely won’t even attain 15 minutes of fame. Consider, though, that even those obscure fishermen of Galilee, if Christ hadn’t come to them, would’ve lived out their days as obscure fishermen. God raises up and casts down.

And so this, it seems to me, is our purpose: to live our lives modestly, fulfilling our vocations, looking forward to our entry into the presence of God. To not seek fame with the world, but, as Lewis termed it in The Weight of Glory, “fame with God.”

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