Last week, our friends at Married with Luggage wrote a commencement speech directed not at the 18 and 22-year-old students receiving diplomas, but at the friends and family members watching their younger counterparts graduate this May. Congruent with their typical fabulous voice, Warren and Betsy’s message was one of encouragement and can-do positivity. What do you want to be doing? You should do it.
The only other graduation speech I listened to this year was a recording of one given by John Green at Butler University. John Green is a Printz Award winning, New York Times best selling author, a video blogger, an avid Liverpool fan, and most importantly to us, the star of the Crash Course YouTube video series which produces 12ish minute episodes on U.S. and world history. They are funny, educational, entertaining, and thought provoking, and we’ve rewatched the first series at least half a dozen times in between new episodes of the second. We seriously love us some Crash Course. I digress.
One part of Honorary Doctor Green’s commencement speech stood out to me in particular, the closing, an anecdote that though different from Warren and Betsy’s message, partnered with theirs in inspiring me to share. Earnestly, I quote to you:
A couple years after I graduated from college, I was living in an apartment in Chicago with four friends, one of whom was this Kuwaiti guy named Hassan, and when the U.S. invaded Iraq, Hassan lost touch with his family, who lived on the border, for six weeks. He responded to this stress by watching cable news coverage of the war 24 hours a day. So the only way to hang out with Hassan was to sit on the couch with him, and so one day we were watching the news and the anchor was like, “We’re getting new footage from the city of Baghdad,” and a camera panned across a house that had a huge hole in one wall covered by a piece of plywood. On the plywood was Arabic graffiti scrawled in black spraypaint, and as the news anchor talked about the anger on the Arab street or whatever, Hassan started laughing for the first time in several weeks.
“What’s so funny?” I asked him.
“The graffiti,” he said.
“What’s funny about it?”
“It says, Happy Birthday, Sir, Despite the Circumstances.”
For the rest of your life, you are going to have a choice about how to read graffiti in a language you do not know, and you will have a choice about how to read the actions and intonations of the people you meet. I would encourage you as often as possible to consider the Happy Birthday Sir Despite the Circumstances possibility, the possibility that the lives and experiences of others are as complex and unpredictable as your own, that other people—be they family or strangers, near or far—are not simply one thing or the other—not simply good or evil or wise or ignorant—but that they like you contain multitudes, to borrow a phrase from the great Walt Whitman.
This is difficult to do—it is difficult to remember that people with lives different and distant from your own even celebrate birthdays, let alone with gifts of graffitied plywood. You will always be stuck inside of your body, with your consciousness, seeing through the world through your own eyes, but the gift and challenge of your education is to see others as they see themselves, to grapple with this mean and crazy and beautiful world in all its baffling complexity. We haven’t left you with the easiest path, I know, but I have every confidence in you, and I wish you a very happy graduation, despite the circumstances.