Reinventing the Secular Sermon: Remarkable Commencement Addresses by Nora Ephron, David Foster Wallace, Ira Glass, and More
By Maria Popova
We live in an era where religion is, thank “god,” increasingly being displaced by culture and secular thought. And yet, secular education and the arts have a great deal to learn from religion as a mode of seeding values of good-personhood and disseminating ideas about the meaning of life. The contemporary secular equivalent of the sermon — religion’s most potent ideological delivery mechanism, that compact packet of wisdom on how to be a decent human being and lead a good life — is the commencement address. This singular genre of intergenerational hand-me-down advice accomplishes something no other form of modern communication does — it inverts our culture’s skewed balance of cynicism and hope and fosters what Oscar Wilde called a “temperament of receptivity” to deliver messages we would dismiss as trite in any other context; here, however, we know that trite means vitally true — it means hard-earned, life-tested, experience-proven truths about the simplest yet most difficult tenets of existence.
Now, some of the greatest commencement addresses of all time have been neatly packaged in Way More than Luck: Commencement Speeches on Living with Bravery, Empathy, and Other Existential Skills (public library) — a compendium of timeless wisdom including classics like David Foster Wallace’s indispensable This Is Water, delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, and Norah Ephron’s piercing 1996 Wellesley College speech, as well as contemporary masterworks of the commencement genre by This American Life host Ira Glass, writer Michael Lewis, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, artist and educator Debbie Millman, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, actor Bradley Whitford, and more.
The book opens with artist, author, and Design Matters host Debbie Millman’s 2013 San Jose State University commencement address, which was originally and exclusively published right here on Brain Pickings. She writes:
For most of my adult life, I traveled a safe path. I remember in vivid detail the moment I began my journey: August 1983, the hot muggy summer of David Bowie’s Modern Love and Synchronicity by the Police.
A few months after I graduated college, I stood on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Bleeker Street in New York City, wearing pastel blue trousers, a hot pink V-neck tee shirt, and bright white Capezio oxfords. I lingered at the intersection, peering deep into my future, and contemplated the choice between the secure and the uncertain, between the creative and the logical, between the known and the unknown. I dreamed of being a successful artist, but inasmuch as I knew what I wanted, I felt compelled to consider what was reasonable in order to ensure my economic security. Even though I wanted what my best friend once referred to as the whole wide world, I thought it was prudent to compromise. I told myself it was more sensible to aspire for success that was realistically attainable, perhaps even failure-proof. It never once occurred to me that I could succeed at what I dreamed of.
As I look back on this decision nearly thirty years later, I try to soothe myself with this rationale. I grew up in an atmosphere of emotional and financial disarray, so my impulse as a young woman was to be tenaciously self-sufficient. As a result, I’ve lived within a fairly fixed set of possibilities.
Her decision, Millman points out, is far from uncommon — most of us, in one form or another, limit our own possibilities. But what begins as a reasonable and voluntary self-protection mechanism often gathers exponential momentum that ends up dragging us down life-paths further and further from our dreams:
I discovered these common, self-imposed restrictions are rather insidious, though they start out simple enough. We begin by worrying that we aren’t good enough, that we’re not smart enough or talented enough to get what we want. And then we voluntarily live in this paralyzing mental framework, rather than confront our own role in this self-fulfilling paralysis. Just the possibility of failing turns into something self-fulfilling. We begin to believe that these personal restrictions are in fact fixed limitations of the world. We go on to live our lives, all the while wondering what we can change and how we can change it. And we calculate and re-calculate when we’ll be ready to do the things that we really want to do. And we dream. If only. If only. One day. Someday.
But then, Millman argues, we meet “someone more courageous” than we are, a person who “didn’t determine what was impossible before it was possible,” and something in us is reawakened. (The very purpose of a commencement speaker, after all, is to be such an awakening example of that courageous someone, a preemptive living proof that there is hope for transcending those self-imposed limitations.) Turning to Robert Frost’s famous proclamation, Millman transmutes the secret of a great poem into the secret of a great life:
The grand scheme of a life — maybe, just maybe — is not about knowing or not knowing, choosing or not choosing. Perhaps what is truly known can’t be described or articulated by creativity or logic, science or art. Perhaps it can be expressed by the most authentic and meaningful combination of the two: poetry.
As Robert Frost once wrote, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.”
I recommend the following course of action for those, like you, who are just starting out, or who, like me, may be re-configuring midway through. Heed the words of Robert Frost. Start with a big fat lump in your throat. Start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, a crazy lovesickness, and run with it. If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love. And don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can. Imagine immensities. Don’t compromise and don’t waste time. In order to strive for a remarkable life, you have to decide that you want one. Start now. Not twenty years from now. Not thirty years from now. Not two weeks from now. Now.
That same year, Twitter CEO and former improv comedian Dick Costolo took the podium at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He recounts moving to Chicago, young and broke, hoping to get into the legendary improv comedy group Second City, the yellow-brick road to Saturday Night Live and “ultimate fame and glory.” Eventually, he got to study with the acclaimed director Martin Demont. He shares one exchange with Demont that shaped his approach to life:
Steve Carell was out on stage improvising something. I was backstage and I came up with this amazing line and I thought, “I’ve gotta get out there and get this line out.” So I went out on stage and started trying to move the scene in the direction of what I wanted to say, and Martin stops the scene and says to the whole class (but really he was talking to me): “You can’t plan a script. The beauty of improv is you’re experiencing it in the moment. If you try to plan what the next line is going to be, you’re just going to be disappointed when the other people don’t do or say what you want them to, and you’ll stand there frozen.” He stopped everyone in the room and said, “Be in this moment.”
This became a powerful parable for how over-planning limits our happiness — a lesson that reemerged in a different guise when “the Internet happened” around the same time. Recognizing it as an “extensible structure with amazing possibilities,” Costolo dove in and helped build a number of companies over the years that followed, including Twitter. He illustrates how not planning a script enabled this humble startup to become a global force:
When [Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey] sent out his first tweet — “just setting up my twttr” — he didn’t plan for President Obama to declare victory on that platform in the 2012 election. None of us at Twitter thought that during the earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, that our platform would be a great alternative means of communication if mobile networks were spotty in the aftermath. Certainly none of us even hoped, let alone considered, that our platform would be used to help organize protests across the Middle East and Egypt during the Arab Spring.
Here’s the amazing thing about what I’ve observed from those things. Not only can you not plan the impact you’re going to have, you often won’t recognize it even while you’re having it.
The impact is what others frame for you and the world after it happens. The present is only what you’re experiencing and focused on right now.
Echoing Steve Jobs’s legendary 2005 Stanford commencement address — “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” — Costolo reflects on Twitter’s unexpected journey and his own unscripted career outcome:
You cannot draw that path looking forward. You can’t draw any path looking forward. You have to figure out what you love to do and what you have conviction about, and go do that.
He exhorts graduates to unmoor themselves from the system of external expectations that is formal education — a special kind of societal script — and plunge into the uncomfortable but infinitely rewarding task of writing their own ongoing, open-ended internal scripts:
You are no longer meeting and exceeding expectations. There are no expectations; there’s no script. When you’re doing what you love to do, you become resilient, because you create that habit. You create the habit of taking a gamble on yourself and making courageous choices in service of what you love.
If, on the other hand, you do what you think is expected of you or what you’re supposed to do, and chaos ensues — as it surely will — you will look to external forces for what to do next, because that will be the habit you have created for yourself. You’ll be standing there frozen on the stage of your own life. If you’re just filling a role, you will be blindsided.
Speaking at Indiana University Bloomington in 2006, Batman / Dark Knight franchise originator and executive producer Michael Uslan echoes what college-aged André Gide’s rules of conduct penned a century and a half earlier — “One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it.” — and counsels graduates:
You must knock on doors until your knuckles bleed. Doors will slam in your face; I guarantee it. You must pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go back and knock again. It’s the only way to achieve your goals in life.
This calls to mind Adrienne Rich’s spectacular 1977 Douglass College commencement address, in which she argued that an education is not something you get, but something you claim. An opportunity, Uslan seems to suggest, is equally something you actively claim rather than passively get.
Bradley Whitford, perhaps best-known for his role as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on The West Wing, opens his 2004 University of Wisconsin–Madison address by lamenting the quintessential commencement challenge of speaking to “a big, distracted crowd that thinks they know everything about everything.” (This, indeed, might explain one of the most prevalent commencement-address tropes — the speaker’s admission of not remembering who spoke at his or her own graduation many years earlier. Perhaps part of our youthful arrogance is the tendency to dismiss as irrelevant any information with which we aren’t sufficiently familiar — like, say, a prominent but unknown to us cultural figure tasked with delivering a commencement address — and bar it from entering our long-term memory.)
Whitford shares his six most important life-learnings, which he dubs “Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned on My Way to a Humiliating Audition”:
Number One: Fall in love with the process and the results will follow. You’ve got to want to act more than you want to be an actor. You’ve got to want to do whatever you want to do more than you want to be whatever you want to be, want to write more than you want to be a writer, want to heal more than you want to be a doctor, want to teach more than you want to be a teacher, want to serve more than you want to be a politician. Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.
Number Two: Very obvious: do your work. When faced with the terror of an opening night on Broadway, you can either dissolve in a puddle of fear or you can get yourself ready. Drown out your inevitable self-doubt with the work that needs to be done. Find joy in the process of preparation.
Number Three: Once you’re prepared, throw your preparation in the trash. The most interesting acting and the most interesting living in this world have the element of surprise and of genuine, honest discovery. Be open to that.
This third piece of advice parallels what we now know about the role of “effective surprise” in creativity, including the supreme creative act of forging one’s life-path. Whitford, like Costolo, admonishes against the tendency to peg our sense of arrival on having fulfilled external expectations:
You’ve all spent the majority of your lives in school, where your work is assigned to you and you’re supposed to please your teachers.
The pressure to get into wonderful institutions like this is threatening to create a generation of what I call hiney-kissing requirement-fulfillers. You are all so much more than that. You’ve reached the wonderful and terrifying moment where you must be your own guide. Listen to the whispers inside you.
Whitford offers the fourth of his learnings:
You are capable of more than you think. If you’ve ever smashed a mosquito on your arm, there is a murderous Richard III inside you. If you’ve ever caught your breath at the sight of someone dipping their toes into Lake Mendota in the late afternoon sun over at the Union, you, too, have Romeo’s fluttering heart.
Echoing Anna Deavere Smith on the importance of listening in a culture of speaking, Whitford continues:
Number Five: Listen. It is the most difficult thing an actor can do, and it is the most riveting. You can’t afford to spend your life like a bad actor stumbling through a predetermined performance that is oblivious to the world around you. We can’t afford it either. Listening isn’t passive. It is an act of liberation that will connect you to the world with compassion and be your best guide as you navigate the choppy waters of love, work, and citizenship.
And finally, Number Six: Take action. Every story you’ve ever connected with, every leader you’ve ever admired, every puny little thing that you’ve ever accomplished is the result of taking action. You have a choice. You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life. Action is the antidote to apathy and cynicism and despair. You will inevitably make mistakes. Learn what you can and move on. At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble.
Speaking to the 1996 graduating class at Wellesley College, her own alma mater, Nora Ephron begins by offering some perspective on where the world was thirty-four years earlier, when she was sitting in one of those seats herself — an era when “if you needed an abortion, you drove to a gas station in Union, New Jersey, with $ 500 in cash in an envelope, and you were taken, blindfolded, to a motel room and operated on without an anesthetic”; when women were asked to, and complied without so much as a second thought, to strip and have their “posture pictures” taken; when there was a mandatory class called Fundamentals, Fundies, in which women were actually “taught how to get in and out of the back seat of the car.” Ephron, a master at the art of rhetorical buildup where no detail is superfluous to the ultimate point, writes:
Why am I telling you this? It was a long time ago, right? Things have changed, haven’t they? Yes, they have. But I mention it because I want to remind you of the undertow, of the specific gravity. American society has a remarkable ability to resist change, or to take whatever change has taken place and attempt to make it go away.
In a sentiment that has aged lamentably well in the two decades since — a fact that speaks equally to Ephron’s genius and to our culture’s tectonic, toxically reluctant pace of change — she adds:
Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, “Don’t take it personally,” but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged… The acquittal of O. J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you — whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.
Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.
There is, of course, the mandatory David Foster Wallace classic, delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 and considered the beloved author’s only public talk directly addressing his views on the meaning of life. The speech, the original delivery of which you can hear in full here, is strewn with his singular gems of deeply irreverent, deeply urgent wisdom. Among them:
I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
Please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
This theme of kindness — for what else is there? — recurs throughout most commencement addresses, but nowhere with more timely poignancy than in the speech Jonathan Safran Foer delivered at Middlebury College in 2013. He recounts finding himself on a Brooklyn park bench across from a teenage girl who was crying into her phone. As she sobbed “I know, I know, I know… Mama, I know,” he wondered about what portion of the fragile human experience she was coming to know. Reflecting on his inner tussle with whether to try comforting her or to continue staring into his own device pretending not to have noticed, Foer considers how technology has come to mediate our experience of who we are to one another, as people bearing witness to crying strangers:
It is harder to intervene than not to, but it is vastly harder to choose to do either than to retreat into the scrolling names of one’s contact list, or whatever one’s favorite iDistraction happens to be. Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat.
He chronicles how we got to this paradoxical place:
Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.
But then a funny thing happened: We began to prefer the diminished substitutes.
Foer traces our sliding scale of communicational convenience — making a phone call is easier than traversing space across time to meet someone in person; leaving a voicemail is easier than investing in the cognitive and emotional tennis match of a two-way conversation; sending an email is easier still, for it removes the emotional undertones of vocal inflection and enables us to deliver an even more sterile one-way message; texting reduces whatever complexity of meaning there might have remained in an email to mere information, distilled to a bare minimum of sentiment. (There is something to be said, too, for the demise of correspondence, which ushered in the death of mutual response and the rise of mutual reaction.) Foer considers the outcome of this process:
As the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.
The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.
I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.
He returns to the encounter with the sobbing girl, which precipitated his concerned contemplation:
Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word, or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.
Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.
Complement Way More than Luck with some of the genre’s greatest secular sermons not included in the book: Joseph Brodsky on winning at the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and hate (Fredonia College, 1978), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Neil Gaiman on courage and the creative life (University of the Arts, 2012), Patti Smith on learning to count on yourself (Pratt University, 2010), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), and Anna Quindlen’s undelivered Villanova address on the secret to a happy life.
Published March 25, 2015