Click-click-click. Tap-tap … “Is this thing on?”
“Okay, can you hear me back there? Check … one … two … check … check. Okay? Okay.”
Today you can be justifiably proud. Your have learned to think more deeply, consistently, and reflectively. You have learned to express yourself more clearly, to say what you mean, and to support your assertions with good evidence. You have learned to address problems in light of both their historical and present contexts, and to consider alternate perspectives charitably. You have been exposed, wherever possible, to global perspectives on the world and its problems, and have been encouraged to see your own interests in the context of the interests of others. The fact that you are sitting here before me today, in robes and funny hats [laugh], is testament to the fact that you have done well. And so, would you — faculty, administration, staff; families, and fellow-students — please rise and give our graduates the applause they so richly deserve.
And now, even as we celebrate your accomplishments, it is my somber duty to inform you that none of this is going to matter.
At least at first.
No, you are about to be thrown into, and swept away by, the muddy and mindless river that some people call “the real wold.” It’s a misnomer, really: this world by no means real, but disturbingly surreal. Not even Tim Burton and Johnny Depp could imagine, portray, or prepare someone for it. But that is not the topic of my address.
Nevertheless, you may, in fact, have come to the university hoping that your education would give you a boat in which you could paddle happily about on this river to your wild hopes and big dreams. I’m sorry if that is still your impression. If it is, let me assure you, in the words of the late Tony Soprano:
On this river, everyone has to build their own boat, and it’s simply sink or swim until you do. All that we are able to do is to give you some of the tools and underlying skills for making and piloting that craft well. In time, these will come into play and you will be grateful for them. But in the short term, you will curse us all because we haven’t even been able to give you a pair of floaties.
The truth is that you’re largely on your own. We all are.
The river in which you will soon find yourself will enfold, judge, and seek to control you within the undertow of its relentless social currents. These currents are powered by two deeply seated impulses: the impulse to oversimplify, and the impulse to project one’s own fear and insecurity. These are the primary mechanisms by which the “real” world reduces the complex world — and will reduce you — to a largely inaccurate but easily understood and compartmentalized caricature.
You cannot fight these impulses. The best you can do is learn to control them in yourself and to navigate the social currents powered by them with the skills and knowledge that are now at your disposal. It will take time. It will be difficult, confusing, and, because of your inexperience, overwhelming. And so I have two suggestions for simplifying the process.
The first is to get a divorce as soon as you can. And the other is to start smoking.
Getting a quick divorce under your belt will free you from the onerous application of others’ unreasonable expectations of you in innumerable ways. Your failures and successes (financial, relational, or otherwise), sexual history, emotional stability, and even a bad day at work can be explained by a simple reference to “my divorce” or “my ex.”
And if you have children, the benefits increase exponentially. No one gazes across Denny’s at the unruly little brat who keeps climbing over the booth, or the kid who screams and thrashes in the booster seat as if she were being slowly electrocuted, and whispers knowingly to a companion, “That’s what you get with … marriage.”
The parents of the girl who becomes too precocious or of the boy who acts out will be assaulted by a bewildering panoply of judgements citing parental failures ranging from improper breast feeding and developmental toys to early exposure to Facebook and South Park. All such judgements are erased for the divorced parent, because divorce is all the reason that others need for childhood problems and a less than perfect outcome. A “normal” kid who gets a B is a tragedy of parental failure; the child of divorce is a tale of triumph if he manages to graduate.
These benefits continue to trickle down to the children, who — as many of you already know — continue to use divorce as a whipsaw for their own personal limitations. In a society of endless self-actualization, boundless expectation, and the self-contraditory assertion that everyone is — and wants to be — above average, divorce can be a multi-generational tool for simplifying, explaining and justifying one’s own messy mediocrity.
A similar phenomenon attends smoking. Now, some of you may not wish to begin smoking. You may fear smoking’s undeniable health consequences, its costs, and its lingering smell. My advice for you is to buy a pack of cigarettes and use it as a prop. Every once in while, walk around banging it in your hand like you are packing the tobacco or walk about with an unlit smoke looking as if seeking a smoking area.
You may need to light one every so often and wave it around your head so that your hair will pick up that charmingly unmistakable “pin the blame” scent. If someone asks you about your smoking directly, tell them you are trying to quit, and look very angry and distressed. This will work in nearly all situations, and even with smokers.
But whether you actually do or do not smoke, having others think you smoke means that you can avoid many of the pressures brought on by age, illness, and mortality, and our public obsession with flawless youth and perfect health. To coffee or not to coffee? What to do about the endless parade of advice from Oprah and Dr Oz? What explanation can be given when, despite all these things, and despite exercise, supplements, meat and vegetables raised in an emotionally supportive environment, and giving up the drink, you still become ill and eventually die? Does anyone die saying “I wish I had spent more time peeling my carrots and eating bee pollen?” No, my friends, they do not. And nothing says “Don’t bother trying to make me immortal or morally pure” like an open pack of Camels.
Yes, until you build your own sense of self and learn to sail confidently amid the ambiguity and complexity of the world and your other fellow travelers, smoking (or the appearance of smoking) will shield you from the changing winds of public judgement and collision with those buffeted by its erratic squalls. The complexity of the world, and so much social pressure, can be resolved and avoided by one simple refrain, which is: “I’m sorry, but I need a cigarette.”
People who let their children crawl around on chemically and naturally infested ground, who smother them with carcinogens in the home, and who pollute their bodies with all manner of foul things will fear to have them touch the hem of your garment. Others, similarly, will give you a wide berth when you are trying to have a quiet moment by yourself outdoors. Indoors, you will have a ready excuse to escape from all manner of tedious, onerous, and stressful conversations and social situations. Nobody will try to make you a vegan. No, smoking (or the appearance of it) — in a single breath — narrows your social identity down to such an extent that most social and interpersonal stresses simply will not be applied to you. In time, if you find that your habit or the ruse has served its purpose, let it go. All will praise you for your good decision and your fortitude. If need be, you can always relapse.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to address you here. Please remember to pick up your free samples and your folder, which contains a marriage certificate and a form designating the university as your beneficiary, as you leave. I want to thank Philip Morris and the Washington State Family Law Association for generously donating these items. Thank you, and good evening. I will not see you at the reception: I would love to stay and talk to all of you, but I need a smoke.”