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Why I don't get invited to give graduation speeches

Peter Goodman


This is for the season’s graduates.

But “Don’t Trust Anyone over 30!” People over 30 mostly have marriages, kids, mortgages, paying jobs, even nascent careers to protect. Graduates also shouldn’t trust me because they face a new world dominated by cyberspace, AI, drones, and climate change. Even so:

Life’s key challenge is to face the truth without letting it obsess or destroy you. We’re insignificant, powerless critters, confused combinations of body and mind, clinging to the surface of a minor planet for a nanosecond.

Scary. The traditional response is to hide in some religion, or start one. After this painful life, there will be harps, virgins, or plenty of buffalo in the next (and longer) one. So it’s cool. If you choose that route, I hope it works for you.

Riding a train across North China, long ago, I was reading Dogen’s words: “At each moment, do not rely upon tomorrow. Think of this day and this day only, for the next moment is uncertain and unknown.” As if to make sure I understood, the train lurched to a halt near a bridge. Just beneath our window lay a Chinese peasant, hit by the train, expiring, a small pool of blood spreading on the ground around her.

The challenge is, without some god to fear, doing the right thing, which often involves, yes, treating folks as you’d like to be treated in their place. Stripped of myths, “judge not that ye be not judged,” and “treat the least of your human brethren as you’d treat a king,” remain helpful ideas. So is the practice (widespread among “uncivilized” peoples) of treating resources as limited and animals, vegetables, and minerals as if they have spirits deserving of respect. If you must shoot and eat this deer, or hire that worker at low wages, be as respectful as you can. Destroy no more than you must.

“Be True to yourself!” – but nourish that self into its best version by keen observation, varied experience, and random kindness. Let it grow, not ossify.

“Everything is in the hands of its enemies!” Ambitious U.S. politicians destroy the U.S., while priests, roshis, and academic chairs battle to build their limited power into empires, ignoring what they claim to honor.

“Don’t Trust Everything You Think!” I spotted that bumper sticker on an old Volkswagen driven by a beautiful woman. So I married her. It’s a way I’ve always tried to be: receptive to new information that might contradict stuff I’ve thought so far. Great for our obscenely partisan era. The Buddhists suggest not getting too attached – to power, possessions, people, beliefs – because everything passes. Attachment, while beguiling, even irresistible, spawns pain.

An unfair world doesn’t mean we lash out like a crying child denied his ice cream. Rather, it makes all the good stuff more precious. Surprise at least one someone each day with kindness. Practice gratitude. Getting to live even our pathetic lives is a huge gift. (Science confirms that laughter and being grateful enhance and lengthen human lives.)

Treat others’ bad acts as bottles of poisoned wine those folks offer you. You need not drink. Let their greed and envy fester in them. But why take it into you? A friendly smile – honestly felt – is the most devastating response. Drop their broken arrows in one of those little plastic bags we use to pick up dog waste.

Maybe you see why schools don’t invite me to address graduates!

Peter Goodman's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.