This speech was first read to the 2012 class of Eastern Washington University on June 15 by Skyer Oberst.
“Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid” – Basil King
CHENEY — Some weeks ago, I was asked to speak at the Eastern Washington University Baccalaureate ceremony. I said I would, on the condition that I would wear my robe. I figured I had to pay for it, and the honors cords as well, so I’m going to wear it as much as possible. The day before graduation I came into the kitchen wearing this get up and my dad just stared at me, saying I looked like an extra in a Harry Potter movie. It was the best compliment I have ever received.
Graduation is a special time. But for all of the pomp and circumstance these past few days, Baccalaureate (which was held on the 15th) is a unique event. It’s a little different than the rest of the university’s events during the great and imminent graduation agitation. The tone is a little more — urgent. Like a briefing before a mission. Before we are handed our diplomas, the university has requested we hear from preachers, pastors and religious people for prayer in all of the religious traditions that can be mustered. Things must be VERY BAD indeed.
Baccalaureate, unlike commencement, concedes that we don’t know all there is we need to know, and that we will leave here unfinished, incomplete people, although we may have met all of the requirements for us set by the faculty. This event has, in the past, been designed to be as long as possible, and for good reason. The longer we stay here, the longer we have to avoid the future and with it the problems we will be charged to solve. We have an economy in turmoil. Gasoline prices are as so high they’re almost as much as our tuition. Seemingly endless unrest and wars surround the globe. The election we will endure rather than enjoy. And everywhere, the illusion of prosperity and security all around us. It’s no wonder we need prayer.
But, we are young. We are full of ambition and achievement. We are bright and have enormous talent. But our chief quality now is our youth. It has always been every graduate’s main quality. If you doubt this, look around. They too were once young, and they too were filled with excitement and anticipation and they too had multiple people stand-up in front of them and proclaiming “the world awaits you! Go forth! And bring peace among the nations!”
In some respects, that is true. We do, in a sense represent the hopes of humanity. The degrees we receive tomorrow are but a small down-payment on what we can offer the world during our lives. This is all fine and well, but at the ceremony, I wanted to talk to my fellow classmates about something else. We, the class of O’12, will need to summon-up all of the courage and humility we can muster. The greatest test in life is how to live when we are unable to fulfill our own ambitions. Conventional wisdom dictates that “we are ready. We are prepared. We can do it!” And it’s also conventional wisdom to say that the world is waiting for us, eager to embrace the graduates of EWU this year. Last year was chaos. Tomorrow will be sublimity.
Well, I wish to be quoted in saying that both points of conventional wisdom are wrong. It may be harsh, but the world will scarcely remember what we have said or done here, and smarter people have tried their hand at world peace, and they have failed MISERABLY at it. Of course, it may not be a bad idea to stay here. In fact, some of the best advice I have ever received here on campus was given to me when I expressed my anxiety about going out into the world and looking for a job. Dr. Elder, director of the honors program at the university simply listened to me and then said, “Don’t go. Stay here. Keep going to school until they pay you to do go.” When I echoed this to my parents, they weren’t as thrilled as I was. Obviously, they didn’t see these great threads. But of course we can’t stay. Our rooms have already been rented out. Brighter people are on the way. We must leave as soon as possible.
Now here’s where I will differ from convention and offer you some unconventional advice. I want to suggest to you that there is a great deal of virtue in counting up your failures rather than your successes. Failure, not success may prove to be our biggest teacher in life off campus. When we leap from mountaintop to mountaintop, from success to success, we scarcely pause and reflect on how did we get there. Some of us even think we deserve to be on top, because we know the answers. We are clever. We are the best. Not only did we buy the books, but we read a few, from time to time.
But things in the real world don’t work like they do here at university. College is good for us while we are here, but it’s not the be-all-end-all once we’re gone. On campus, we learn to be assertive, confident and even the best. But when things don’t go our way as they inevitably will do, it is in that moment when we will begin to ask what happened? What went wrong? Failure teaches us a great deal. And if our education has any value, it should help us to understand the constructive principles of failure. We will make mistakes, but ideally, we won’t make the same mistakes over and over again.
If an EWU education is of any value, it will help us make and lead a good life — not necessarily a good living. I’ve lost count of students who have shared with me that their true passion lies in something other than what they are currently studying, and while they would love nothing more to devote their life to these pursuits, they are unwilling, because there is no way to make money with it. Somewhere along the way, we have been told that the key to life is to get an education-to-get-a-good-job-to-make-enough-money-to-retire-early-to-have-time-to-pursue-something-that-makes-us-happy. Our whole object here is not to make a living, but to make a life worth living. And the question we’ll have to ask ourselves is what will happen when the things we don’t want to happen do happen, and the things we have learned here, we forget.
Some of us are already on our way to forgetting. That’s a good thing. One of my majors is/was philosophy. I spent four years pouring over texts and abstruse treatises, and to this day, I have NO IDEA what Nietzsche meant. In fact, I feel like in college I have un-learned everything I was taught prior to coming here. I’m sure many of you feel the same. I know less now than I did before setting foot on campus. This is a good thing, though. We’ll have to improvise and make it up as we go. That’s part of the reason these guys are offering prayer for us: That God will grant us the wit, imagination and courage to make it up along the way. We will fail, and when we do, we would do well to reflect on our failures. Think about the things that don’t go right, and how we will deal with them.
It will force us to do something that we’ve seldom done in our college careers, and that is to take risks. Some people say that our undergrad experience is/was meant to be practical. I hope it wasn’t, because then we’ll be obliged to continue our education in life when we leave here. This is why failure is so important to us as graduates: If we are to profit from failure, to learn from it, then we are free to take on impossible things that we would otherwise avoid in fear of failure. In failing to take risks, we also fail to take part in success, or I daresay joy. We are meant to be happy. We are meant to fail. We are meant to be bold.
Aristotle defines happiness as the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them so. That describes us! Failing. Succeeding. We have these life forces! We have compassion, common sense, imagination and courage. Along lines of excellence, is the very best of what we make of our powers. We all will have opportunities given to us, and it is in using these powers well that we will come to know happiness. Happiness is not something pursued, but discovered doing something useful and good.
It is all that we can hope for, if we are brave enough to tackle our fear of failure. In maintaining our spirit of imagination, and hope of the impossible, let us not forget the value of failure. Congratulations, class of 2012. And may we strive to use our vital powers excellently, helping others and each other in making a world a happier and more compassionate place.