My Speech to the Graduates, 6.6.97
by Mark Smith
Ladies and gentlemen, friends and family, staff and students, welcome. I want to start tonight with a poem, which I think is appropriate to the occasion. The poem is caled:
- "Advice to my Son"
- by Peter Meinke
- The trick is, to live your days,
- as if each one may be your last
- (for they go fast, and young men lose their lives
- in strange and unimaginable ways)
- but at the same time, plan long range
- (for they go slow: if you survive
- the shattered windshield and the bursting shell
- you will arrive
- at our approximation here below
- of heaven or hell).
- To be specific, between the peony and the rose
- plant squash and spinach, turnips and tomatoes;
- beauty is nectar
- and nectar, in a desert, saves -
- but the stomach craves stronger sustenance
- than the honied vine.
- Therefore, marry a pretty girl
- after seeing her mother;
- show your soul to one man,
- work with another,
- and always serve bread with your wine.
- But , son,
- always serve wine.
That was a poem by Peter Meinke called "advice to my son". I have a son, and I have a group of graduates with me tonight , that I have come to know over the years, and who, for some reason, thought that I might be able to come up with some gems of wisdom for them as they embark on their great journey of life. Actually , I feel very honored to be standing here tonight, so that's why I started with the poem. My students will recognize it. Really, I can't think of a better, more important piece of advice for tonight than the one offered up in this poem - that is, the importance of preserving beauty in a world dominated by the daily grind. How many of us have solved this problem? Not me. It is an issue which runs deep : the purpose of life, the proper use of our brief time here on earth - or in business lingo, "time management".
But what I seriously want to talk about tonight is time. How much of it do we have, and what's the best way to spend it. In the poem I read the father tries to tell his son how to spend his time, how to live his life to the fullest, to live each day as if it might be his last, and yet still plan long range. Sounds easy? No. It's hard. Be practical, but plan for beauty: "To be specific, between the peony and the rose/ plant squash spinach, turnips and tomatoes" - a little of each, the practical and the beautiful. And don't forget "serve bread with your wine, but son, always serve wine." In other words, son, don't forget that life is more than eating, sleeping, getting up and working. It's your life, take time to enjoy it.
Why am I uncomfortable mentioning this to my son? Doesn't it seem like these kids already have it made? I mean, do they have to pay mortgages already? Do they really have to worry about sagging waists and thinning hair? Isn't the world their oyster? Yeah, it's all there for them, but somebody has to tell them. And that's myjob here tonight. The world is full of promise. And the danger is that we start to think of life as an unlimited quantity. And although I'm not the smartest man in the world, I know that we have a very limited time here on earth, and our job is to find out how to use it best.
From the earliest days of humanity, mankind has wrestled with the notion of mortality. The Sumerian epic of "Gilgamesh" is the oldest piece of writing known to man. Preserved on clay tablets some time around 2,500 B.C., the story chronicles a semi mythological king of Uruk, a great mesepotamian city state. Gilgamesh, the mighty ruler, apparently has everything he needs in life. He is two thirds god and one third man, and can more or less do what he wishes, being nearly immortal and nearly invincible. But it's that one third ingredient of mortality that really messes things up for him. I'm not sure how the proportion got to be one third, which, when you think about it, is a rather unique mixture, but in any case, one third, one tenth, one one hundredth is really all it takes to make him just as susceptible to death as you or I. When his bosom friend Enkidu dies before him, Gilgamesh grieves deeply and is forced to confront his own mortality. He plans a trip to the Underworld in order to get to the bottom of things and find an answer. Gilgamesh hopes that in speaking to Utnapishtim, the one mortal who, through some strange suspension of natural order, has made it to the other side safely, he too can uncover the secret of life and gain everlasting immortality. But as it turns out, after enduring extreme physical hardship, Gilgamesh must then wage a battle against despair when he learns from Utnapishtim that he cannot become immortal. The secret of life, says Utnapishtim, is that there is no secret. What you see is what you get. Don't count on immortality - count on enjoying your life. And in a passage of stunning clarity Gilgamesh is told this:
"When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man."
This sounds all right to me. This sounds good. We've got it good, we humans, but somebody has to remind us. As my old shop teacher used to say, "Whadda ya want? Eggs in your beer?" I still don't know what he meant by that ... but the general principal still applies, I'm sure. Anyway, Gilgamesh learned something. He learned to value the brief time he had allocated to him here on earth, here and now. He learned what Carly Simon sang about in her song "These are the good old days". This is as good as it gets, so wake up and DO something with your life.
There are millions of people out there yearning for immortality who can't even keep themselves amused on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It's not quantity, but quality of life that counts. Nonetheless, we worry.
When our time is up, who will remember us? Well, that depends. It depends how you use your time. Oh, sure, we all waste time like there's no tomorrow, or rather like there's plenty of tomorrows. I don't want to take up much more of your time tonight, but I do want to close with a remarkable and neglected quote from Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail". Students of mine know how much I admire this essay for its forcefulness and style. Written in 1963 in response to the eight white ministers who asked King to show some patience in implementing the boycott of Birmingham businesses because it was "not the proper time", King, from his jail cell patiently, yet convincingly set forth reasons why it was impossible to wait any longer for change to come. Because change never comes merely through the passing of time. Change comes because somebody makes things change. When asked to wait for "the fullness of time" to cure social ills King replies, and I quote:
"Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively...Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men (willing to be co-corkers with God), and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right."
Here was a man impatient for change. Perhaps he knew how little time there was. I often wonder if his mother ever told him he had a one track mind. It's possible. I know I've been accused of it. But I want to say to you graduates tonight, be impatient. Don't wait for things to happen. Make them happen. Live each day as if it is your last, but plan long range. But don't get caught up in work, work, work - money, money, money. And enjoy life, but not too much. "And always serve bread with your wine. But son, always serve wine." I wish you well, I wish you joy and I wish you ..... time.
Thank You, and good night.