Thursday, October 16, 2014


Norman Fischer's Stanford Commencemnt Speech
Thanks, CMS for sharing it.

We all have high hopes for you, probably higher hopes than you have for yourselves. Let's be honest – as much as we discuss and practice wise punditry, we older people don't really know what the world will require in the coming times – and we are a bit bewildered, and unsure, though we hate to admit it. To grow old is to gradually cease to understand the times in which you live. So we are placing our trust and our hope in you. No pressure, of course. But the promise of the future really is yours.
And yet the truth is, it is not going to be so easy to survive your promising life. For one thing, there are a lot of promising young people out there – not only here at Stanford, or here in California, here in the United States, but also in Europe, in China, in Latin America, all over Asia, and in India, and Africa – some of you in fact are those people – bright, energetic, and mobile. With so much competition, and so much anxiety about that competition, it is possible that success, if it comes, will not come easily. It is also of course possible that success will not come – or that it will come, abundantly, but that you will not find it as meaningful as you had expected. It is also possible that success comes, and you do find it meaningful and satisfying – but only at first, when it is still bright and shiny. And that later, the state and pace and social implications of the successful and ambitious life you will have lived will wear you down, and you'll find yourself tired and bewildered.
It's also possible that as time stretches on your personal relationships will not work out as you had hoped, your sense of yourself will not hold up to scrutiny, that there will be disappointments and setbacks, acknowledged and unacknowledged – in short, it is possible, even likely, that there is some pain awaiting you as you go forth from this bright day – ruptured love affairs, betrayals, losses, disillusionments – seriously shaky moments. It's possible too that, as you move through the decades, it will become increasingly difficult for you to maintain the idealism and the hopefulness you have today. It's possible that one day you will find yourself wondering what you have been doing all these years, and who you have become. It's possible the life you wanted and have built will not be as you'd expected it to be. It's possible that the world you wanted and hoped to improve will not improve.
Anyway, you will keep busy, you will have things to do. And you will try not to notice such feelings. You will try to deny any despair or disappointment or discouragement or boredom you may be feeling two, five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years from today. And probably you will be able – more or less – to do that. But only more or less.
I am sorry to say all these things to you on such a wonderful day and in such a beautiful place as this.
I realize that baccalaureate speeches are supposed to be bright, uplifting, and encouraging. The folks at Stanford who invited me to speak today sent me links to previous baccalaureate talks so I would know how they usually go. The speeches I looked at were wonderful – they were serious about challenges ahead – but they were always positive. So, yes, I too intend to say something bright and encouraging. But I thought I would be more convincing if I were also realistic. And it is realistic to say that your lives from now on are likely not going to be entirely smooth sailing. The skills you'll need to survive may be more than or other than the skills you have been focusing on so far in your life. The truth is, it takes a great deal of fortitude and moral strength to sustain a worthwhile, happy, and virtuous human life over time in the world as it actually is.
OK, here is the uplifting part:
Your life isn't and has never been about you. It isn't and has never been about what you accomplish, how successful you are or are not, how much money you make, what sort of position you ascend to, or even about your family, your associations, your various communities, or how much good you do for others or the world at large. Your life, like mine, and like everyone else's, has always been about one thing: love.
Who are you, really? Where did you come from? Why were you born? When this short human journey is over, where are you going? Why – and how – does any of this exist? What is the purpose and the point of it all?
Not even your Nobel Prize-winning professors know the answers to these questions, the inevitable, unavoidable, human questions. None of us knows the answers. All we know is that we are here for a while before we are gone, and that we are here together. The only thing that makes sense and that is completely real is love. Love is the only answer. This is no mystery – everyone knows this. Whether your destiny is to have a large loving family or to have no partner and no family – love is available to you wherever you look. And when you dedicate yourself to love, to trying your best to be kind and to benefit everyone you meet – not just the people on your side, not just the people you like and approve of, but everyone, every human and nonhuman being – then you will be OK and your life – whatever it brings, even if it brings a lot of difficulty and tragedy – as so many lives do – as even the lives of very privileged and promising people sometimes do – your life will be a beautiful life. As I promised, this is uplifting – or at least I hope you find it uplifting.

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