College is not a magical place. I learned that pretty quickly, and I think most of us in the class of 2011 did as well.
It is a time where feelings of promise and naiveté are actually valuable things; in fact, these characteristics are encouraged. College does bring opportunity, excitement and the chance to do things you will never get to do again, and I will always be glad I took advantage of a couple opportunities here and there.
Certainly, listening to most commencement speakers talk about the “future” won’t prepare you for the future. There are things they don’t tell you: the years we spend slipping into morbid obesity, until one day we are sitting on our couch watching the 97th season of some reality show, dipping our KFC into a gallon of Haagen-Dazs, thinking nothing of it. The year we spend after finding out our daughter has leukemia, grasping for anything that will help to cure her, doing all we can to not see a big countdown clock following her around from hospital to hospital. The day we fire somebody with a family who can barely make ends meet so our bonus will be $50,000 more without any moral dilemma. The unplanned pregnancies. The one night we try meth, and the ten years down the road we’ve lost everything because we never stopped. The night our favorite sports team finally wins a championship, and we’re sitting in the stands. The morning we look at our significant other and realize we are happy. The late-night diaper runs. The week our unemployment runs out.
There are even more things you aren’t prepared for. Cancer finally finds our parents. Cancer finally finds us. The promotion we’ve always wanted is finally ours. Sunday afternoons on the couch are the only vacations we get. Our own child’s graduation day arrives. We eat the best damn food we’ve ever had. We get sent to a place where we might get blown up walking down the street. We change faiths. We lose faith. We move across the country or even across the world. We wake up and don’t love our spouse anymore. We realize we’re the sad, old alcoholics at the end of the bar. We realize that a beer at noon on a Tuesday with an old friend is exactly what we need.
And in between all these big events, we have the mundane. “Boredom, routine, and petty frustrations,” as David Foster Wallace wrote, “will fill our lives, but a paradigm shift on the smallest of daily rituals might make us happier.” Nabeshime Naoshige once said, “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” This doesn’t mean you should be petty and rude. It means that little things are what most of our lives are filled with, and if we approach these with the right mindset and keep our house in order, then a serious event will not phase us.
That is how it should be. We should not be phased by big changes or events no matter how jubilant, tragic, devastating or trepidatious the circumstances. But maybe we should still have a little bit of that naiveté we came to college with. It will keep us in check, and probably keep us from going insane.
Tom Waits sang “How do you move in a world of fog, that’s always changing things?” I guess the only way you can is with confidence and cautious optimism. Of course, a few lines later he sings, “I don’t wanna grow up,” and that’s the way most of us probably feel, too. I never want to fully grow up. If I lose my sense of humor the day I lose my hair (and that day is approaching fast, let me tell you), I don’t know what I’ll do.
So when graduation day comes, I will be confident and cautiously optimistic about the future. On such a day that most consider one of the most important of your life, I will also treat it as it should be: completely lightly, not serious, and with little concern.
After all, you’re preparing for the real world, and if the real world is sitting in the hot sun or driving rain for hours at a time surrounded by reminders of the massive student loan debt you will carry with you for years is the real world then, well, that noon beer idea is starting to sound better already.