Earlier this month, we pulled together the annual commencement speech issue of Vital Speeches of the Day. It’s like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, except less anachronistic.
Though I don’t love commencement speeches as much as the best commencement speech writer of them all, I don’t hate them as much as my colleague Mike Long, who says of them, “The rhythms, setups, and payoffs of the springtime address come as natural to an American speaker of English as cluelessness to a DMV clerk, and in a vocabulary as finite, cramped, and specific as a linguist might collect at a Starbucks counter.”
But I do know what Mike means. Even having rejected the most platitudinous of this year’s commencement speeches, we still published 10 speeches in which the word “journey,” appears 33 times.
“Mine was not a carefully curated journey.”
“Like all journeys, life always presents a plot twist.”
“Sometimes the turns in your journey are not by choice.”
“Every step of my journey led to this moment.”
“Embracing your journey with curiosity will lead you to where you are meant to be.”
“My journey is your journey and my message to you today is that you will be OK.”
“For so many of you, this is the end of your college career. And the beginning of a fantastic journey of planting the seeds of your legacy.”
This notion of life as a journey is just as false as it is banal.
A journey has a purpose. But life has a thousand perhaps-purposes, many of which conflict with one another. “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy,” E.B. White wrote. “If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem,” he continued. “But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
To see life as a journey is to see life as our own exciting travelogue. But that’s not at all what the best lives are, and it’s surely not how you want to be remembered. “Well, say what you will about Nancy, her life was quite a … journey!” No. In a good life, we often veer from the mountaintop where we are headed to the strip mall where we are needed. And if you like the current shape of your nose, do not tell me, “It’s all part of the journey!”
A journey has a fixed destination. The only fixed thing in life is your pupils, at death.
Yes, I understand why commencement speakers tell young people that life is a journey. Commencement speakers are trying to be encouraging to many folks trembling on the edge of starting from scratch—and to their anxious parents. But life is not a journey, any more than life is a game, any more than life is a bowl of cherries, or a box of chocolates. Any more than than life is a bitch and then you die.
It is all those things, of course—depending on the day, on the season, on your parents, on your genes, on your socioeconomic status, on your will, on your faith, on your luck and on whether you smoked the indica or the sativa.
But it’s not any one of those things, all the time.
In fact, if I were forced to describe living life as any one thing, I wouldn’t say it’s enjoying a winding journey. I’d say it’s more like, making the most out of a general clusterfuck.
And so commencement speakers might just as honestly wax on about that:
“Mine was not a carefully curated clusterfuck.”
“Like all clusterfucks, life always presents a plot twist.”
“Embracing your clusterfuck with curiosity will lead you to where you are meant to be.”
“My clusterfuck is your clusterfuck and my message to you today is that you will be OK.”
Now that’s a commencement speech I’d be proud to publish.
Maybe next year.