The Commencement Speech I Have Not Yet Been Asked to Deliver

Good morning! I won't thank all of you for being here as I know most of you have to be here. I know the kids want to get their diploma and get the hell out of here and I know that the parents want to see their kid get their diploma and get the hell out of here. I will be brief.

To the grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, thank you.

And thank you to all of you, in advance, for listening to what I have to say.

Keep studying, kids. Life is full of unanswered questions.

Keep studying, kids. Life is full of unanswered questions.

Recently I was asked if I would photograph the graduation ceremony at a small private high school near my home. I was honored, as I don't do a lot of photography work these days. In thinking about it, I realized I could have been a wise-ass and said, "Sure, I can do that ... and I can give the benediction, if you like, in my role as a pastor. I can provide floral arrangements, if you need, in my role as the owner of a small flower business. Or I could give the address, as a writer with a loyal following in the blog-o-sphere."

I thought that was kind of funny, that I could potentially play all of those roles. And I also thought it was pretty great, that I have discovered, in this lifetime, many different ways to express myself and to be of use.

It made me recognize what I want to tell you today.

There is always a lot of talk at these things about beginnings and endings, all that graduation gobbledy gook that puts everyone into a trance and causes a lot of watch-checking. 

Today isn't either of those things. Today, for certain, is a really great and important day in your life. But your life began when you were born, and it will end when you die. Everything in-between falls on the continuum of Your Life, capital Y, capital L. Every single day matters. 

I am going to tell you something you don't want to hear today. 

Some of you graduates are not going to make it to your 40s. Someone here, graduating today, will die early in life. Some of you graduates will live a very long life. Most of you will live an average life, in terms of time-span.

But you are, indeed, going to die.

And that is both the truth and the mystery that you must use to propel yourself forward to wherever you're going next.

I would like you to begin today to stop thinking about these years now as preparation for what's to come. You are living your life right now and it is imperative that you really do what you heart is asking you to do. Not what your parents want you to do or what your friends are doing. Not some disconnected and confusing notion that society has imbedded in your head about what you are supposed to do with your life.

But rather, what your soul needs you to do. 

Because that's pretty much what the deal is around here. That you came here, at the beginning, with a song lodged in your beautiful soul, and the work of your life is to find it and to sing it, every day that you are alive. 

As a 52-year-old human, I can assure you that adulthood is not better or worse than childhood or teenager-hood. It's just different. Every phase of life comes with its challenges and with its joys and freedoms. All of the "hoods" of life are great and awful and very much worth living with a full heart and a fair measure of gusto. Your life isn't beginning today. Your life will not begin after college. Your life isn't going to begin when you get married, and I know for certain that your life is pretty much over when you have kids, if you have kids. Then it becomes their life, but that's another story.

This is your life right now, today, and you don't get to have it forever.

In my lifetime I have been many things: a teacher, student (I am still studying, now). I have been a writer and a photographer, a preacher and a fire fighter. I have been on boards of important organizations, thinking I was an important person, which I'm not. And I have sat at the bedside of some of our society's most lonely and impoverished people as a hospice chaplain. 

I have felt far more useful serving the most vulnerable of this world than I did sitting around a table in a meeting room discussing budget details.

I have been rich and I have been poor. I have found a freedom and meaning in having less of everything that did not exist for me when I was playing tennis in all-whites at the all-white private clubs to which I once belonged.

But that has been my path, and yours is yours.

I ask this of you today: I ask that you stay true to yourself. And by that I do not mean trudge through this life serving only you. I mean let go of any notions you have about "traditional" or "normal." Those things don't exist. There are 7.3 billion people on this planet which means that there are 7.3 billion different ways to live a life. Yours is one of them.

I ask that you take responsibility for your choices. Disconnect yourself from your parents and your devices long enough to hear your own heart speaking to you.

I ask that you take the goodness and the riches of the life you have been given and return those gifts back to this need-filled world, when the time is right and in the way that makes sense to you.

But mostly I ask that you don't think of life in terms of beginnings and endings. You began about 17 or 18 years ago and there is no way to know when the end will come. Move through this life with the quiet resignation that you do not get to have unlimited time here.

I promise you that making peace with the truth of your own mortality will fuel the fires of your creativity for your whole life. 

Three weeks after I graduated from college, in 1987, a speeding car hit me and my bike. I spent most of that summer going to and from the hospital, dealing with various medical issues and grateful to be alive. When you walk across this stage this morning and take your diploma in your hand and exit the other side, think about that for a moment, if you will.

I graduated from St. Lawrence in 1987 and thought my life was finally going to start. Only, what happened next was that it almost ended. After the car hit me I travelled through a dark space and I wondered, "Is this death?"

It wasn't; I lived. I was lucky.

Imagine, if you can, that this happens to you. You receive your diploma here today and a short time later you are in an accident and you taste death and then ... you get to stay alive.

You get to stay alive.

Imagine the sweetness of the air you are breathing, the greatness of the arms and legs you still have. The beauty of the brain inside your head. How good chocolate pudding tastes, how soft your dog's fur. How warm your mom's hug. That's called being alive and that's what you are today.

The diploma you get today is really great. But eventually you will put it in a drawer or a box and forget where it is.

But your life  – that awesome, one-of-a-kind, first-in-the-history-of-the-world thing you own  – that's yours to treasure every single day of your time here. To treasure and behold and explore and express.

Please spend your hours wisely, in service to your rich and elegant soul. Make your life a blessing upon this magnificent world. Make your whole life a prayer, of joy, of gratitude, of kindness, delight and of love.

Congratulations and God bless you all.