“Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.” So read the penultimate paragraph in what may have been the most famous graduation speech ever.
Except that it was not a graduation speech, but a column in the Chicago Tribune, offering the author’s musing of what she would tell young people if she were asked to hold forth at an academic commencement ceremony. Even in the prehistory of 1997, the internet’s headstrong determination would not respectfully back off for the truth. The “speech” was attributed to Kurt Vonnegut at an MIT graduation, and became the subject of hit songs and videos.
Much of the advice contained in the column was upbeat and self-empowering, but offset by its cynical judgment of the value of all advice.
“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.”
Yet there are some who reject the notion that little can be mined from the past, and even less should be conveyed with conviction. They had their graduation moment yesterday at Loyola Law School’s ceremony when Dean Victor Gold offered a few words. I was alerted in shul to the address by a fellow-davener, whose son-in-law was among the graduates. He was impressed by the quintessentially Jewish themes of hakoras hatov and humility. So was I. I asked Dean Gold for a copy, and he consented to their publication. [Disclosure: I teach part-time at Loyola.]
I do not remember who spoke at my law school graduation and I do not recall what was said. I remember only one thing, the serious expression on my parents’ faces after the ceremony.
As I stood there in my cap and gown, I thought that I looked like a clown so I did a little dance as a joke. My mom shot me a dirty look that told me, this is no joke. This is important to us. So I stopped dancing.
Neither my mother nor father ever had the chance to go to college, much less law school. Mom was an immigrant. Dad had to quit high school to go to work. They married during the Depression and had my sister and brother by the time Dad was drafted and went off to war. Their lives were hard. So my graduation from law school was no joke to them. I could see written in their faces the years of sacrifice that made my graduation possible and the pride they took in that accomplishment.
This is all I remember about my law school graduation but it taught me everything I needed to learn that day. It was simply this – be grateful. Be grateful for those people who helped you get here. For most of you, they are your parents, a spouse or significant other, maybe a friend or a teacher. Maybe it was a law professor or even a dean. Thurgood Marshall said, “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here only because somebody bent down and helped pick us up.”
If the people who helped you are with you today, here is the first thing you have to do after all these speeches are over. Run to them. Find them. Give them a hug and say thank you. Then here is the next thing I want you to do. Take some photos with them. When you start to feel sorry for yourself in a few weeks as you are studying for the bar, take those photos out and look at them. Be grateful all over again. It will get you through the tough times that lie ahead.
After you become a successful lawyer, whenever you start feeling full of yourself, when you think you are G-d’s gift to the law, take out those photos again. Be grateful again. If those people are still around, call them and say thank you all over again. It will make you a better lawyer.
And finally, I want you to do one more thing. During the rest of your life, every time you look at the photos you take today, ask yourself this question: Does someone have a photo of you that reminds them of what they have to be grateful for? If the answer is no, then look around for someone who needs your help. Bend down and help lift them up. If the answer is yes, someone can be grateful for the help you have given to them, that is when you can stand up and do a little dance.
This is better than sunscreen. And its truth does not wear off after three hours.