David Brooks, in his recent New York Times column titled, “It’s Not About You,” succinctly and powerfully captures the zeitgeist of ingenuine commencement addresses that remain a staple of graduation ceremonies across the country. Brooks notes that the popular themes of graduation addresses, largely delivered by Baby Boomers to a Millennial audience, are misguiding today’s young adults or, to put it another way, “this year’s graduating class has been ill served by their [sic] elders.” So very, very true.
One might begin Brooks’s column thinking that the critique is aimed at the overly optimistic and hope-filled tone that these sorts of speeches bear, but the reader quickly realizes that it is the clear disconnect between the backwards ideology of the previous generation (technically, two generations prior) that proffers poor advice during this liminal moment of the young adult’s life.
Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.
But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.
The point Brooks makes is directly on target. The message, the soaring advice given to these graduates is one coated in “freedom and autonomy,” or as I might suggest more boldly — unapologetic individualism.
While Brooks does not speak explicitly from a creedal or religious perspective, his opinion does reflect something of a transcendent quality. He writes: “The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.”
In other words: vocation.
Vocation is the point toward which Brooks is pointing. Vocation, it would seem, requires more than simply doing whatever I want or would like to do in order to achieve a higher goal, purpose, mission, reality. This is at times a difficult task, and Brooks observes that it’s not all about “happiness and joy.”
The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things they did that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.
Isn’t this the truth? Do we really admire those who have had it easy, did what they pleased and were unchallenged in life? I certainly don’t (plus I don’t know many people that fit that description).
We admire the people like my college classmates that work hard to support their young family, sacrificing sleep to work a second job or labor for years completing graduate school part time. We admire the people like the students I went to the Dominican Republic with during Spring Break, who paid to work hard on a poor island while their peers from around the US partied on private resort beaches elsewhere. We admire the people who find themselves by working for and with others, not dictating who they are ex nihilo.
“Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life,” Brooks continues. “Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”
It is Brooks’s last line that I find to be most powerful: “The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”