You Are a Free Agent In This World: Go Forth and Earn the Best Life You Can

As we head into graduation season, I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about what I might say to the graduating class of 2014. Fortunately, for all you upcoming graduates, I’m the only one who has been wondering so none of you need to worry I’ll be at the podium anytime soon.

That’s not to say I’ve never been asked, of course. Way back in the Summer of 2004, I stood on stage at Angelo State’s Commencement and reminded students that Gold is Good.

Truthfully, though, I don’t really need an invitation to pontificate or profess. I’m more than willing to do so unsolicited and last year at this time, I blogged an updated speech, telling Graduates Anywhere to Keep it Simple. I had the speech, but no audience, something that probably worked out well for everyone involved.

Graduation speeches, though, strike me as really interesting events. Clearly, educational institutions hope to take one last chance to address their captive audience and impart some small nugget of wisdom.

Unfortunately, too often they invite people who don’t really have anything worth saying to talk to a group that just wants to get back to their cooler of cold beer or grandma’s tamales and pinto beans.

But first, the almost-graduates have to suffer through one last lecture.

If for some weird reason you skip your graduation this year and miss out on the speech or if you’re someone who just likes reading random graduation speeches on the internet (something you should probably never admit to anyone), here’s the speech I might give to the class of 2014.

Dear Graduating class of 2014,

Congratulations and welcome to the last time most of your lives will be measured in semesters or 50-minute blocks of time. Later today at your graduation party, someone, probably multiple someones, will offer you advice as you begin the next chapter of your life. Listen politely, but remember that those people are probably wrong. If they had anything worth hearing, they would be on stage (or posting to their blog) not standing next to the beer cooler spouting shade tree philosophy.

Any speech, I’m convinced, should be 10 minutes or less, partly because very few of us have anything worth saying that can’t be said in that amount of time, but mostly because after about 8 minutes we’re all ready for the next commercial break. I’m not implying we are a nation with attention deficit issues, but I’m fairly certain about half you are already wondering how long it’s been since I started speaking, wishing you could check your Facebook account, or watching that shiny thing flashing in the upper deck.

And that’s just the faculty.

Before we release you to the wild, though, I thought I would offer you a few things to think about as you make the leap into the unknown.

1. You don’t have to find your dream job to be happy. Don’t get me wrong: I hope you find a job that you enjoy and, if you’re really lucky, a job that speaks to some passion deep within your soul. At the end of the day, though, you get paid to do a job but no one has to pay you to be passionate. Your job should allow you to fulfill your passion, but your passion shouldn’t depend on your job. We’ve done you a great disservice these last few years of school by conflating the way you earn money with the manner in which you define your existence. Happiness, simply put, doesn’t come from a job: it comes from a job well-done, regardless of the job. Work hard, show up early, stay late, but never forget that you are a person first and an employee second. Recognize the difference between the two.

2. You’ve got to stand for something, John Mellencamp sings, or you’re going to fall for anything. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. While it might seem questionable to find philosophical truths in rock and roll lyrics,  Mellencamp and Rush remind us that our life is defined by our words and actions. Feel passionate about something, get excited about ideas, find your values and then live them. Be a person of conviction, but don’t be a person who finds it necessary to convict those who don’t share your values. You just spent four years of your life being told to think critically. Do it. The educated don’t get the luxury of apathy or intellectual laziness. Recognize, though, that you can stand for something without pushing everyone else down. The greatest enemy of democracy is the tyranny of ideologies that demonize, attack, and treat disagreement as treasonous. The well of public discourse has been poisoned by a system that rewards volatility and extremism. Help purify that conversation.

3. If the rules of your life, those values and things for which you stand, leave you unhappy or unfulfilled, what good are the rules? Life is about change. I hope you aren’t the same person you were four years ago. Certainly, you might hold the same values and ideas, but if we’ve done anything close to our job (and, most importantly, if you’ve met us at least halfway) your understanding of those values should be more nuanced and different. Those ideas should continue to evolve and change. Be prepared. Call into question the rules daily. Reaffirm them. Revise them. Reject them. Just don’t ignore them. Make the ideas and values earn your loyalty with positive results, but recognize that thinking critically and engaging with ideas doesn’t always provide neat answers. The world, despite what too many of our political leaders seem to imply, is not a dualistic and simple place. We exist in complexity. Embrace it. Value it. Live it. Never expect it to always be easy, though.

Your life, class of 2014, is now. In a few minutes you will walk across the stage, smile pretty, and feel that sense of relief knowing that this part of your academic journey will fade into a pleasant memory.

After this pomp and circumstance, I hope, as you leave these hallowed halls, that you never forget you are a free agent in this world. Please, for all our sakes, go forth and earn the best life you can.

Peace and joy to you and yours.

Time for a Come to Jesus Meeting

About three weeks ago, the Baptists came calling, ringing the doorbell and inviting me and mine to join them at Sunday service. I politely declined. As I started closing the door, one of the men reached out with a pamphlet, asking if I would like some information about Jesus Christ, “your Lord and Savior.” Tempted though I was to point out he was making a pretty bold assumption about the status of my soul, I declined again, telling him that I would just throw the pamphlet away unread.

I’ve made no secret in this blog (or anywhere else) that I’m not a particularly churchly man but I also hope I’ve been pretty clear that, as far as I’m concerned, we are all free-agents in this world. The two Baptists have just as much right to ring my doorbell as the Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Islamist, and any other group of folks who feel strongly enough about something they want to traipse around town and meet jerks like me.

Fortunately, I also have every right in the world to turn down both their invitation and their pamphlet without fear of repercussions. They can, of course, curse my soul as they head down the sidewalk, but last time I read my bible those are pretty hollow words coming from mortal men.

The reality is that I’m happy those men have found something that helps sooth their soul on this veil of tears we traverse every day. I tell my students all the time that one of our goals in this world, in fact, should be latching on to something that helps provide solace in times of trouble and humility in times of plenty. Mostly, I tell them, we need to find something that helps us respect our fellow humans. If loving God (and hoping God loves you back) does it for you, more power to you. If hugging a tree lights your fire, far out and rock on.

Like art, I tell them, religion and beliefs need to provide a momentary stay from the confusion of daily life. If they don’t offer us such things, what good, we might ask, are the beliefs? I’ll readily admit that I’m always really bothered by angry religious fanatics. The gods of religions aren’t angry and vengeful: we probably shouldn’t be either.

One of the glories of America, I also remind them, is that we are Constitutionally guaranteed the right to seek out and follow those beliefs. The State cannot “prohibit” that free exercise. Feel free, I tell them (looking at a couple in particular) to pray before any exam you want. Kneel down after the game, praise your god after victory, and ask for solace upon defeat.

But, I remind them, don’t fall into the narcissistic trap and assume my god and your’s are the same.

That same State that lets you practice your religion is also barred from establishing one that we all have to follow. Those dudes were pretty smart that way.

While it is true that Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution, it’s also true that Article VI makes a religious test illegal with regard to public office. In other words, the Constitution forbids a religious litmus test for holding public office, rejects the State’s ability to establish a religion, and makes it illegal for the State to prohibit the expression of religion all the while requiring that public officials support the Constitution, the “separation” Jefferson was so passionate about seems pretty clear.

We should tread carefully, then, when our theology turns into politics. (Go ask the Iraqis how that kind of system works out for ya.)

Certainly, our religious history in America is dominated by a Judeo-Christian past, and we should never deny or reject that part of our history. It is equally, true, though that the very nature of democracy dictates that the basis of that religious history has assumed a clear desire to provide checks and balances that respect the separation of earthly and transcendent powers. “Render unto Cesar” and all that jazz, right?

The power of that separation was, for Jefferson and many of our founding fathers, a desire to reject revealed truths in favor of rational thought. At the risk of offending a wide-swath of people (if I have’t already), the Virgin Birth is anything but rational. So is forcing me to believe what you believe.

Most important, though, that separation was designed to stop the religious majority from merging the power of the pulpit with the strength of the government to limit the free expression of ideas. They recognized that we can’t combine the power to condemn a man to hell with the threat of public incarceration and create a government of the people and for the people.

The only true democratic system is one that stops the public, democratically elected government from restricting the free expression of ideas and prohibits that very same government from endorsing particular religious systems.

We are, simply put, so great because Ted Cruz, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Rick Perry can’t tell us what we can and can’t think nor can they create a system where we have to run through a gauntlet of Christian prayer just to enter the town square.

Except maybe they can.

Yesterday the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, ruled that Greece, NY can, in fact, offer a de facto endorsement of one religion by offering Christian only prayers before their town meetings. The Supreme Court ruled that prior to a public meeting where citizens appear and petition their local government for progress, redress, or revisions, every person in the room must listen to and be subjected to a state sponsored religious message that focuses on one single belief system.

There goes Jefferson’s wall. And one more civil liberty.

Understand that the issue isn’t offering a prayer in a public forum that is state sponsored. The Court is certainly correct that we have a historical precedence for prayer in public spaces. (A fact, I remind my Christian friends, that shouldn’t make them feel very good. In essence, the Court seems to recognize that prayer has simply become something people are accustomed to and it rises above–or falls below I guess–it’s original meaning. In other words, prayer is okay, they say, because no one is paying attention anyway.)

The real issue is restricting and limiting the prayer to a single, solitary type of prayer and, by implication, endorsing Jesus as our only hope for filling that pot hole over on Magnolia Street. Welcome to our come to Jesus meeting. First they tax my body and now they want to help my soul. All I want to do is complain about my trash pick up times.

Talk about big government.

We are a short step, it seems, from claiming that “the First Amendment only applies to Christians” because “Buddha didn’t create us,” Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama State Supreme Court Justice said 3 days ago. “Mohammed didn’t create us, it was the God of the Holy Scriptures.” 

That, my friends, should scare every one of us regardless of what we believe.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)