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John Gardner's writings

Commencement Address
Sidwell Friends School, Washington, DC,
June 13, 1986

I've always thought it prudent to savor the applause that comes before the speech. I remember the sign over the bar in Luckenbach, Texas that says "If you're drinking to forget, please pay in advance." If you want to forget without resorting to alcohol, it may be that a commencement speech is the next best thing.

The school authorities have asked me to share with you my accumulated wisdom. My friend Fred Hargadon says this is their way of saying "Keep it brief."

At this point in your life you are no doubt being flooded with advice; and I am slightly reluctant to add to that flood--but only slightly. You will feel the same way 30 years from now when many of you who are here today will find yourselves standing, as I am now standing, trying to say something to a graduating class that may or may not be listening.

You yourselves have already tasted the joys of advising your younger brothers, sisters or friends, so you know the pleasure that advice gives to the advisor. Perhaps it's the enjoyment of displaying what we take to be our hard-earned experience. Or perhaps it is that none of us finds the path through this life particularly easy or free of heartache and we can't help believing that we might spare others what we could not spare ourselves.

I've decided not to take the route of Bob Hope who, confronting a class of graduates about to go out into the world, said "Don't go." Let's begin by assessing your present situation. You are now adults, for better or worse.

In your mid-teens you became old enough so that your parents could stop punishing you. Soon you'll be old enough to stop punishing your parents. Up to this point your jury in most matters has been packed with your elders. Now you must be willing to be judged by your peers--if you think you have any.

At puberty you were made self-conscious by the apparent attention of others. Now you are old enough to know that most people aren't studying you critically; they are thinking about themselves.

At age 16 you were old enough to doubt. Soon you'll be old enough to believe again and to bring doubt and belief into some kind of productive balance.

You learned very early that we react to our environment. You now know that in some measure we create our own environment. You may not yet grasp the power of that truth to change your life.

It's a melancholy thing to reflect on what you gain and what you lose as you grow up. When I was 18 I had the ability to look into a man's eyes and say instantly whether he was worthy or unworthy, a wise man or a fool. But then at 19, I lost it.

Now let me offer a few comments on the college experience ahead. I'm not as cynical as the professor who said "Never underestimate the capacity of the undergraduate mind to resist the intrusion of knowledge." But I agree with the implication that you'll learn only if you positively want to.

Why should you want to? To make the best use of your God-given abilities, to get into a good graduate school, to land a good job, to excel because you're used to excelling--those are reasonable reasons. But not the deepest reasons.

The reality that comes before those other realities is that you are caught in what Santayana called the human predicament, and you will find it useful to learn something about that predicament.

So I hope you will take the courses that expose you to the whole range of human experience--the heights of philosophy and the depths of suffering, the despair and resilience of the human spirit, the bloodshed and the great mercies.

Humans are creatures that live not just in the world of physical stimuli but in the insubstantial world of visions, aspirations, illusions, self-deception, faith, skepticism and reverence. We have seen them create inexpressible beauty and we have seen them descend to unspeakable depths. Exposure to that astonishing story can help us to prepare for what are to me central themes of moral striving--to be true to the best that humans have said and done, to strive for the enhancement of individual dignity, the release of human potentialities, the liberation of the human spirit.

Most of all, I hope you will come to understand that you are part of a long story, that you have deep spiritual links with those who have gone before and deep obligations to those who come after.

I think you're smart enough to know that just because it's called higher education doesn't mean that all of it is good for you. Robert Benchley said having a dog teaches a boy fidelity, perseverance and to turn around three times before lying down. Even in a great citadel of learning, one can come away with the wrong lessons. I think it was Karl Compton who spoke of the trained incapacity of the specialist.

In choosing your courses, bear in mind that you cannot predict with certainty what life holds in store for you in the way of changes and challenges. "Life is fired at us point blank," as Ortega said. You will prepare yourself far better for the unknown future if you cast a wide net during your undergraduate years. Careless people treat unique moments as throwaways, and live to regret it. You will never again in all your life have a better opportunity to explore the various fields in which you might exercise your skill and judgment. Life closes in. The path ahead narrows.

With respect to psychological stress, watch for the warning signals--anxiety, anger, fatigue, feelings of frustration, inadequacy, isolation. Perhaps you will need help, perhaps you can straighten it out without help, but the first thing to bear in mind is that whatever is happening to you, you are probably doing it to yourself. Nine times out of ten your problems are due to choices you've made. I won't give you advice on better choices. These are lessons you have to learn for yourself. But as the French say, be sure you want the consequences of what you want.

Keep one small independent corner of your mind that calls nonsense by its right name, that holds to the things you know to be true, and that laughs at pretentiousness even when it is exciting and fashionable with your contemporaries. Fools abound. Try not to add to their number. Don't damage yourself in your own eyes. Stay out of situations that diminish your sense of your own dignity.

If you're lucky you will escape the root ailments of the young executive and professional culture--an overvaluing of intellect as against character, of getting there first as against growing in mind and spirit, of food for the ego as against food for the hunger of the heart.

You have to build meaning into your life and you build it through your commitments--whether to your religion, to your loved ones, to your life work, to your fellow humans, to your conception of an ethical order.

One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of tangible, concrete, finite, describable goals toward which all of our efforts drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells us when we've piled up enough points to count ourselves successful. So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. When you get to the top you stand up and look around and chances are you feel a little empty. Maybe more than a little empty.

You may wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain.

But life isn't a mountain that has a summit. Nor is it--as some suppose--a riddle that has an answer. Nor a game that has a final score.

Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one's capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.

Now, the conventional thing for me to do in closing would be to wish you success. But success as the world measures it is too easy. I would like to wish you something that is harder to come by. I wish you meaning in your life. You are the architect. Build a structure you'll be proud to live in!

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