I offered the following commencement address at the Mirus Academy (Ellsworth, Maine) 2023 graduation ceremony.
Graduates, I’d like to let you in on a little secret.
If you had attended half as many graduation ceremonies as I have, you would not be excited for the speech I’m about to give.
There’s no kind of speech in all the world so full of cliches and platitudes as a commencement address.
Some of the worst speeches I’ve ever heard were commencement addresses. What made them so bad wasn’t just the cliches and platitudes, but the lies.
Granted, it’s a very particular kind of lie you’re apt to find in a commencement address, but it’s a lie nonetheless.
What kind of lie? Flattery.
There’s just something about the commencement address—the setting, the occasion, the audience, the time of year—that tempts adults to say things to young people that sound really good but just aren’t true.
Graduation is a happy event, to be sure, and the people who give commencement addresses know that what the audience wants most from them is brevity. The commencement address is really—let’s be honest—the worst part of graduation ceremony. It’s always given by someone you don’t know, who doesn’t know you, and who doesn’t know what you’ve been through. As soon as the commencement address begins, the audience tries to gage how long it’s going to go on. The shorter the better.
Most commencement speakers try to maintain a light and inspirational mood. They begin with a joke, tell a story, draw out some tired lesson from it, and then say a few words about “your generation.” The tired lesson tends to be a simple slogan that goes down easy, like:
“Don’t be afraid of failure.”
“Do something you’re passionate about.”
“It’s not about the money.”
“Never stop learning.”
“Make the world a better place.”
“Make a difference.”
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
“You are the future.”
“The future is yours to shape.”
These are all very pleasant things to hear, but if you consider any of these exhortations long enough, you will begin to be a little suspicious of just how pleasant they are.
“Don’t be afraid of failure” sets the bar pretty low. Alarmingly low, perhaps. Anyone who tells you, “Don’t be afraid of failure,” obviously doesn’t think you’re planning on giving your life to an important cause.
After all, “Don’t be afraid of failure” is not the sort of advice that you want pilots taking, or doctors, surgeons, soldiers, or firefighters. If you’re on trial for your life, you want a lawyer who is afraid of failure. When you’re a mother, you want a babysitter who is afraid of failure. You want anesthesiologists to be afraid of failure, as well as prison guards, dentists, and pharmacists. “Not Afraid To Fail” isn’t a slogan that would inspire you to call a plumber or an auto mechanic. It’s not a campaign motto for sheriff, governor, or country commissioner that is going to win a lot of votes.
Similarly, “Make a difference” sounds great until you realize that everyone is being told to make a difference, which means there are bad people out there doing bad things because someone told them long ago to make a difference. “Make a difference” is especially strange advice to give to high school graduates given how impermanent your beliefs are at eighteen. In the ten years which follow graduation, your ideas and beliefs and convictions change so much. When I think back on the kind of changes I would have liked to impose on the world when I was twenty-one, I thank God I wasn’t in any position to make a difference. Had I been allowed to make a real difference back when I was twenty-one, I would have spent the rest of my life trying to make the world undifferent again.
“Make a difference,” “Change the world,” and “Don’t be afraid of failure,” may be thin and vague, but I began this speech by talking about lies—and there’s a real difference between shallow advice and flattery. The flattery which often occurs in speeches like this one is sort of a combination of all the cliches I just named, and it sounds a little like this:
The world is beset by a great many problems, but your generation seems different. Your generation is poised to solve problems which have vexed us for centuries. Your generation might just be the one which finally heals longstanding wounds which have afflicted mankind for centuries. Things are changing—and many people say they are changing for the worst—but I don’t believe that’s the whole story. I believe there’s something special about this generation, something different, and that they might just turn things around for all of history.
I don’t know how many graduation ceremonies you’ve attended, but over the last ten years or so, that speech has become as common as daisies. The guy giving the speech makes himself out to be some sort of prophet who understands “your generation,” someone who sees something beautiful in you that almost no one else sees, someone who really gets you, your potential. It’s a speech that describes “your generation” as though you’re a group no bigger than a basketball team which can meet later, hash out the matter, and decide whether you’re up for “solving problems which have vexed mankind for centuries” or not.
But that’s just not how it works. That’s not history. That’s not real. My generation didn’t collectively decide to do anything, and neither will yours. Things don’t change, and when they do change, they don’t change in ways that any one person can control. The question is not whether your generation is going to use social media and AI technology for good or evil. The question is not whether your generation is going to end racism, end poverty, end gluttony, end pride, or end any sin—they’re not. The question is whether you are—individually, next year and the year after—going to be faithful to God or not. That’s the only real question in front of you. That’s the only question that matters.
It’s a question that your parents and teachers and pastors and friends—and you—are about to get an answer to. Up until this point in your life, your parents have chosen a righteous life for you, but now you’ve got to choose it for yourself.
Soon, you will leave your family home. Soon, you will go wherever you want, whenever you want. You will date whoever you want. Stay out as late as you want. Listen to whatever you want, watch whatever you want, read whatever you want, eat whatever you want, eat as much as you want. If you want to drive to New York City at two in the morning, no one will hold you back.
Everything is about to turn on your wants, not on your parents wants for you, and so you are quickly coming to the point where the question will no longer be whether you can have what you want, but whether you want good things.
“Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you” is not a claim exclusively true of Christianity. If you seek money, you will find it. If you seek pleasure, you will find it. If you seek advancement, you will find it. But after you find those things, then what?
The point of a classical education is to help you want good things, and pretty soon now, all your teachers will get to see whether the education they gave you worked, whether it did any good. Sort of like the first 48 hours after an organ transplant, everyone will get to see whether your education took, whether your soul will accept it or reject it.
Honestly, your teachers and your parents don’t care all that much about “your generation.” The reason they sent you to this school is because they have very little confidence in your generation—or their own generations for that matter.
Your teachers and your parents do care about you, though.
In sending you to this school, your parents have chosen truth over trends. They have chosen beauty over fashion. They have chosen the hardships of goodness over the pleasure of personal advancement.
Life will change quite a bit over the next several years.
Your interests change, your hobbies, the style of clothes you wear, the music you listen to… And this is because, as soon as you leave high school, a new set of people enter your life. The new people who enter your life will be friends, teachers, classmates, coworkers, the people with whom you attend church, and the thousands of nameless strangers who go to college with you and live near you in whatever new city you move to. You are going to leave behind the people who have influenced you for the last several years and a new group of people will begin to influence you. You will influence them, as well, but their collective influence over you will be far greater.
It will take some time for you to sort these new influences out. A sudden burst of autonomy and freedom does not often result in moderation and prudence and so—to your parents—I advise patience. Not eternal patience, but patience. There is no need to weep uncontrollably if your children come home with tattoos. Derisive laughter will be more than sufficient.
To the graduates who will shortly enter an uncertain, perplexing, and tumultuous stage of life, I would like to offer three well known, commonly misunderstood proverbs which you can cling to for stability when everything else is turbulent.
I want to give you well-known proverbs so that you will remember this speech whenever you hear them, and I want to give you commonly misunderstood proverbs so that whenever you hear these proverbs used incorrectly, a little voice in your head immediately begins correcting them—and you end up repeating significant portions of this speech to yourself. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon says that proverbs are like “well-driven nails,” which is to say, the right proverb can hold your mind together when it wants to fall apart.
The first proverb is, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Many people abbreviate this proverb and simply say, “When in Rome,” and assume that everyone knows the rest.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This may sound like pure relativism, but it’s not. It’s actually something St. Ambrose told his student, St. Augustine. Both of these great saints lived in the city of Milan and, on a certain occasion, Augustine had to take a trip to Rome, where he knew that Roman Christians employed a separate schedule for fasting, and he wanted to know whether he ought to keep the Milanese fasting schedule he had always followed or switch to the Roman schedule for fasting. His spiritual father told him, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Ambrose told his student this because it’s generally not fitting for Christians to call attention to themselves. There are exceptions to this, but it’s a good rule of thumb. If Augustine adopted an unusual fasting schedule while in Rome, everyone would have noticed and been tempted to envy or pride in thinking that Milanese Christians didn’t follow the rules.
If you took, “When in Rome, do as Romans do” to mean that you need to adopt the ethics and tastes of every crowd in which you find yourself, that would be relativism. But for you, graduates, the real meaning of the proverb is this: be careful where you go, because you will end up adopting the tastes, preferences, beliefs, and habits of the people you surround yourself with. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” means you’ve got to know what the Romans do before you decide to go to Rome. If the Romans don’t behave rightly, don’t go to Rome.
This is an uncomfortable truth in the world of classical Christian education, because many graduates are under the delusional belief that they’re going to go to college, befriend a bunch of unbelievers, and slowly win them over to the Christian faith. That’s not how it works. That’s the kind of naïve plan that leads half of all self-professed Christians to quit the faith during college.
And when I tell my students this, a good many of them say, “But Jesus hung out with prostitutes.”
But that’s the kind of thing you say when you don’t actually read the Bible much. Jesus didn’t hang out with prostitutes, potheads, or members of the gay-straight alliance. He hung out with the apostles, who were not cool or fun or important. I mean nothing impious by it, but the apostles were a bunch of dorks.
Jesus spent his entire adult life with the apostles. Jesus spent some time with prostitutes, but He didn’t seek them out. Very few people read the Scriptures carefully, which means they often miss this subtle point. Jesus sought out the apostles. Go back and reread those passages—the prostitutes sought Jesus out. There was something about the way that Jesus lived which made sinners seek him out.
And so, graduates, if sinners seek you out for the way you live, then tell them the good news, but you need to be like Christ, Who spent His life with people who loved God. “When in Rome, do as Romans do.” When with Christians, do as Christians do—so, graduates, be with Christians as often as you can.
The second proverb is, “Speak of the devil and he doth appear.” As with the first proverb, people often say, “Speak of the devil” and leave off the ending, assuming that everyone knows the rest. Often enough, “Speak of the devil” is just a joke. A few friends are talking about Tom, then Tom enters the room, and one of the friends says, “Speak of the devil.”
Many modern Christians think this proverb pure superstition. They think it means, “If you so much as pronounce the words “Lucifer,” “Satan,” or “Beelzebub,” the devil will immediately appear in the room, and so they take the proverb to be some old wife’s tale handed down from the Middle Ages, or the Salem Witch Trials, or some backwards, benighted time prior to the age of reason, logic, and Facebook, wherein people know the unvarnished truth.
But modern Christians don’t understand the meaning of the proverb at all, probably because we come from the benighted era of Facebook. There’s nothing superstitious about it. “Speak of the devil and he doth appear” means that you never have to tell the devil twice. He’s Johnny On The Spot. You don’t have to beg, plead, or earnestly beseech him. If you so much as speak his name—subtly implying you might possibly have some interest in his wares—he shows up to see what he can do for you.
This is not true of the Lord and this is because the Lord is the Lord. He is not a butler. He is the master of the house, the Lord of the feast, and He requires diligent persistence of his servants. He is not a genie. In fact, if you read Arabian Nights, you will find that everyone in the story of Aladdin knows that genies are demons and ought to be avoided at all costs. Like a genie, the devil is at your service to give you whatever you want right now. Vice always pays off right now. Virtue pays off later. Virtue is difficult and painful. In fact, pain is simply the raw material of virtue. If you want virtue, you need to start with pain. Vice begins with pleasure, though. Vice is pleasure right now.
Dante offers a profound illustration of this truth in the Divine Comedy. The gates of Hell are eternally left open for anyone to pass through. There is no guardian at the gates of hell. It’s true that there is an inscription over the gates, but there is no one there to make sure you’ve read it. You can accidentally wander into hell. It requires no effort at all and no one cares whether you genuinely understand what you’re doing should you wander through.
The gates of the church work very differently. When Dante leaves hell behind for the church, an angel stops him and asks what he wants and warns him that he may regret entering the church, for the church is a place of healing, and healing requires endurance, patience, and the longsuffering of a drawn-out rehabilitation. Hell may be entered accidentally, but Heaven requires great concentration and intentionality. Christ implies as much when he describes the path to destruction as broad and the path to life as narrow. It is very hard to fall off a broad path, but easy to fall off a narrow path. A man may stagger around drunkenly on a broad path without fear of falling off, but a narrow path must be walked deliberately, carefully. In high school, the path which leads to life is narrow, but graduates, after you leave home, that path becomes even narrower. The path is probably never more narrow than it is when you’re nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, when many people fall off. Speak of the devil and he doth appear, so graduates, be very careful how you live and very careful how you walk.
The final proverb I’ll offer you is, like the first two, commonly misunderstood.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
Almost no one thinks of this as an actual proverb. It sounds more like a tagline invented by the National Apple Council than a piece of genuine wisdom. But this is because we think it a proverb about apples. It’s not. It’s not about apples or doctors. It’s about living according to a plan.
Please note that the proverb is not “Apples are good for you,” or, “Apples are healthy,” or, “Raw foods have more nutrients.” The proverb is “An apple a day…”
If you’re going to eat an apple every day, you’re going to have to live according to a plan. You’re going to have to plan out your week so that you have enough apples to last until Sunday. You’re going to have to take a regular trip to the grocery store, because you can’t buy enough apples to last for a month. The last dozen or so will be rotten.
One of the reasons many people’s lives fall apart as soon as they leave home is that they don’t have a plan. They don’t give themselves daily rules to live by. They don’t surround themselves with people that help them live by those rules.
In your parents home, your life is governed by a plan. Five days a week, you wake at the same hour, roll through the same routine, and go to school—where everything is similarly governed by a very predictable plan—then you come home in the afternoon at the same time, eat dinner with the same people while sitting in the same place, and go to same church on Sunday morning. Your life has daily rhythms, weekly rhythms, yearly rhythms. You celebrate the birthdays of your siblings, your parents, Christmas, Easter, the fourth of July. You wake up nearly every day knowing what you are going to do, where you are going to go, who you are going to see. After you leave your family home, there’s a period of about ten years where life doesn’t necessarily proceed—on a daily, weekly, or yearly basis—according to a plan. The rhythms of life imposed on you by your parents and your school disappear.
In college, you will find yourself with far more time, time where you don’t have to be anywhere, with anyone, doing anything in particular.
While I’ll gladly grant that people sin while maintaining a schedule, most people do most of their sinning during their free time. Over the last several years of your life, would you say you’ve done most of your sinning in school or outside of school? Of all the sins you regularly confess, how many of them are committed on school days between eight in the morning and three in the afternoon? And how many of them are committed during free time?
These rather simple questions illustrate the immense spiritual value of living according to a rule, a plan.
During which of the four seasons do you do most of your sinning? Is it summer? The season where you’re least likely to have a schedule? It is for me.
So take what you know about yourself, and what you know about your patterns of temptation, and consider that for the next decade—give or take a couple years—your family rule, your family schedule, is going away. When you come out the other side, it will be you who is setting a family rule and a family schedule, but until then, you need to give yourself a daily litany a daily rule. Don’t not have a plan. Rule yourself. Force yourself to do good every day.
Graduates, let me finish by acknowledging that I have joined the growing chorus of people giving you advice on how to handle the trials and temptations of life after high school, and I know that after a while it all begins to blur together. I may have even said some things to you just now that are the opposite of what other adults have told you. That chorus of advice threatens to become a cacophony, so let me conclude with the same words Solomon used to close out Ecclesiastes—which is also a collection of proverbs directed at youth.
Lest you despair that making your way in the world requires obedience to a thousand contradictory maxims, Solomon says this:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Graduates, best of luck to you, and godspeed.