Graduation address – Dr William A Tooman

Tuesday 25 June 2013

New graduates celebrate receiving their degrees at a ceremony on Tuesday morning.

New graduates celebrate receiving their degrees at a ceremony on Tuesday morning.

Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, and most especially… victorious students:

The graduation address is a time honoured institution. Like all venerable customs, it was created and evolved and eventually settled into a predictable pattern. A good graduation address should feature, at its core, an impressionistic life lesson, embroidered with a few poignant metaphors, some evocative quotations, and, above all, an introductory joke or two.

This is a lot to accomplish in the four minutes allotted to me this morning. But the Principal has promised that if I can do so, she will permit me to stay for dinner. These dinners are always memorable, so this is not an inconsiderable incentive. Condensing this speech into just a few minutes, however, proved a prodigious task. To do it I had to strip away much of the traditional embroidery. This means that you will not even get any warm-up jokes.

In this triumphalist moment, this day of academic success, this bright and shining moment of accomplishment and distinction and merit, I believe the best use of my time is to turn your eyes not to the wealth you can now begin to accumulate, or the honours you can strive to achieve, or the good that you can do in the world, rather I think the occasion will be best served if we all take a moment to contemplate death.

There is a wide and growing body of research on the regrets of the aged. There are dozens of such studies available, applied to various subject groups and receiving a variety of different results. High on the list of common regrets expressed by those at the end of life are: broken relationships, lack of exercise, and the failure to secure a quality education. (After this day is done you will all have managed to avoid this last regret, so that’s one more thing for which you should congratulate yourselves.) One commonly cited study of persons over the age of 95 produced a particularly startling answer. Many reported that their chief regret in life was that they did not court true risk.

They were not talking about taking up hang gliding, or playing the lottery, or having an online affair. They were talking about the hard calculated risks that shape one’s whole life. I strongly suspect, after looking at the evidence, that what they were trying to express was a wish to have exercised choice.

This seems a surprising regret. After all, life in the Western world is filled with choice. We choose the small things in our day: what we wear, what we eat, where we go and when. We choose the structures of our year: our new year’s resolutions, where we holiday, which relatives we visit and which we avoid. We choose the big things that give our lives a narrative: which schools we attend, what vocations we pursue, whether or not we have children. Choice and personal freedom is one of the core values of modern culture. It is our birth right, the most precious of our possessions, guarded fiercely. It is the temple in which we worship.

And yet, for all our belief in personal freedom, our faith that personal autonomy and unhampered will are preserved in our cultural values and enshrined in our laws, businesses know that most people make fewer choices than they think. In fact, there are very few mechanisms with the power to disrupt our habits as consumers. Most of us shop for the same things, at the same times, in the same places … over and over again. We are so predictable that small changes in our habits can be tracked with remarkable precision. As the New York Times revealed in 2012, the US based corporation Target, for example, is so accomplished at tracking small changes in consumers’ habits that it can determine not only if a female customer is pregnant but her due date to within a small window. Target uses this information to hone their marketing to surgical precision, posting coupons to customers timed to very specific stages of pregnancy.[1] Creepy as this example might be, it highlights an important truth, a truth that businesses know all too well, but which we do not recognize in ourselves. We are creatures of habit more than creatures of choice.

The tyranny of habit stretches far beyond the bounds of our personal shopping. We are inculcated, from birth, with certain cultural programming, hardwired to construct our lives in predictable ways. Go to school. Get into a good university. Graduate from university. Take a gap year. (Never take two.) Secure a stable and (if possible) lucrative job. Buy a car. Buy a flat. Hoard some money. Buy a house. Take increasingly expensive holidays. Keep at it until you can go on permanent holiday, preferably in Spain.

Parents have an understandable motivation to propagate this cultural programming, this timetable for life. They are the voice of our wiser, safer selves. Your parents cannot stop rearing you, hovering, helping, keeping you from bad falls, and binding your bruised feelings, until you are a fully-fledged and independent adult … until you have, at the very least, stable employment. Also, they cannot turn your room into a home office until you move out for good.

But note well, dear students, this is another form of habit. It’s a society-wide, multi-generational construct, to be sure, but it’s no less a habit. Just as there are very few moments in life, when we disrupt our shopping habits – in pregnancy for instance – there are very few moments when we are able and willing to see and ask the life changing questions, to consider our cultural programming, to choose.

Fortunately, graduation from university is one of those moments. You have – on this day, in this urgent now – a rare opportunity to lock your eyes on the end of the race and ask “what can I do that I might be content at the end?” Not to be weighed down with regret, not to be bettered by pernicious habit.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, grasped the transformative power that is latent in a contemplation of death. He put it better than I can: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

For some among us, the thing that prevents us from breaking the shackles of habit is fear. Not the fear of the unknown or the fear of risk, but the fear of excellence, the feeling that we do not deserve opportunity, that it is hubris to strive. As Nelson Mandela, put it: “Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.”

Please do not think that I am giving you moral counsel or recommending some idealistic high road. Please do not think that I am even saying that you should contemplate your habits and exercise choice. No. I hardly dare to recommend it. This is no domestic spiritual exercise. It is hard. It takes mental effort, determined will, and steadfast resistance to the advice of well-meaning friends. But I do know this. One day we will – all of us – inevitably, face our regrets. The mortality rate for human beings remains, stubbornly, at 100%. When the percentages of your life begin to wind down your mind will turn in this direction. What did I make of the days God gave me? What paths did I tread? What choices did I really make? If you have the strength, the gumption to face the questions of old age while still shining in your youth, you will have, at the least, the chance to write the road map of your life, rather than following your reflexes and pursuing the path to safe ground. Today you are still young, most of you. Your life is still widening out before you. The vistas of opportunity are unfolding, and – by God’s grace – they will yet for years to come. You will have options. Do not make the mistake of confusing options with choices. Do not be content to slip down the well-trodden, frictionless, path of habit. Your habits will be your destiny unless you dare to choose.

Dedicated to the memory of Oliver Smith, Lewis Greig, Louise Wilson, and Berenike Walburg.

Dr William A Tooman
School of Divinity

[1] How companies learn your secrets – New York Times

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