Nobody knows why schools have commencement speakers, and I, at least, have no idea why people agree to speak to the Youth of America on these occasions.
Having returned this week, however, from addressing the graduating class of Millbrook School, N.Y., a high school, I shall print here my all-purpose baccalaureate effort in the chapel:
Distinguished headmaster, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen (in case these categories do not overlap), and worthy graduates: Greetings.
Our daughter graduated from college a few days ago and I noticed the speaker was an imbecile so I said to my wife, don't you think it's asking a good bit for people to sit and listen to him?
She said, Oh, they're all the same, aren't they, no matter who they are. Of course nowadays they ask just anybody.
How true this is. But I take comfort now, in this hour of despair, foisted off on you as a speaker, from an incident at Henry VII's chapel at Westminster Abbey.
Because of crowds there, they have separate stairs for coming and going. I was on the downward path, as usual, when to my surprise an impressive tweed-bearing matron was ascending with a breadloaf-sized parcel, which she dropped a few feet in front of me.
Ever the gentleman, I accelerated to pick it up. The lady looked up terrified. They know when you're an American. But before she was murdered (as she doubtless expected) she faced me with courage and said:
"I know I'm on the wrong stairway. I know you are right and I am wrong. Nevertheless, here I am."
Is this not a guide to life? Not that we should block traffic by going the wrong way, no. But when we botch it, we are still human, with human rights and dignities. Like the tweedy lady, we are nevertheless here.
Now it is customary to remind you that you are going into the world. This is supposed to inspire you with awe. Where you are supposed to have been the past 18 years, God only knows. Mars, maybe.
But I think the world you are entering is very like the world you are leaving. That is, dreadful people, weak coffee and injustice all about. How do you deal with it?
I have often wondered, but of course never known.
The trouble with people, you will see, is that they are not exactly like yourself. Naturally, then, they will have unsound views on Milton. But then I questioned myself: Would the world be better with 4 billion H. Mitchells in it?
Not necessarily. Thus it is not really a crime for others to be a trifle different. Within reason, mind you.
Obvious, perhaps. But much of the misery we suffer results from nothing more than assuming or demanding that others conform to our clonal ideal.
Further, I see I bond well with dogs. They neither offend nor disappoint me. They may slurp as they like -- I love to hear them eat. I do not call them pigs. They are dogs and eat like dogs, and I would not wish them different.
I apply this insight to people. At our office -- and by the way you should prefer to die rather than say "work place" -- we have bulldogs, poodles, German short-hairs and numerous ridgebacks. I take them as they are, or as they seem to me, and as long as I imagine a fine dog for each, it works well.
There is no need, if you should bump into my boss, to tell him you hear he's an Irish terrier. Bosses are often touchy. Often they lack insights that we have, who are mere cogs beneath the chariot wheel.
* Possibly something should be said about truth -- it is the custom on these occasions. Well, truth is hard. I have no great experience of it. But do not too easily trust those who think they are masters of it.
Because truth is seated on a high mountain, and anybody who would reach her will do considerable zigzagging. If truth is easy and obvious -- and to your advantage -- it is probably not Truth with a capital T at all, but only expedience in its commonest mask.
My admirable grandfather -- I shall give you an easy example of truth's difficulty even at a low level here -- went to Denver about the day after the railroad was built, to address some surgeons meeting there. My grandmother, who fancied herself a pioneer woman since she would be in Colorado two weeks, took along provisions including some China tea and plenty of jelly.
On the long hot trip the jelly melted over her husband's suits in the luggage car. Dry cleaning was not perfected then, as it is not now, and my grandfather drew flies in Denver.
In later years sometimes a person would say Denver was so high up that there were no bugs there.
"I hear people say that," my grandfather would say, "but it is a myth. I never saw such a bug-infested place. Flies settle all over you when you walk down the street."
Does truth require a grandson to set him straight? Betraying his grandmother, who took care he should never know? Sometimes truth is not only hard; sometimes it is also wrong.
Now let's see. What do I know at 61 that I didn't know at 17? That is worth passing on?
I should reassure you this is going to be a short speech. But what experience has taught me, well, I think it dangerous to move suddenly. When I do, I bump into things. It is not necessary to react on the instant. When aroused, sometimes a slight postponement serves well. So does counting to 10,000.
This is not much wisdom to give you. But then wisdom does not rain from the skies, you know, at least not on me.
On the other hand, disassociate yourself promptly from anyone who deems you a liar. Even if they try to patch it up, you may smile agreeably in the same room, but never have anything further to do with them.
Sometimes as citizens you must act quickly. In spite of what I have said. If you see a man murdering his wife, phone the police without thinking twice. Of course he may have reasons.
If you see a man kicking a dog, stop him. Don't wait. Even if he is bigger than you. This is one of the few absolutes. You have no choice in this.
You may someday marry. There are good rules for a lasting marriage:
First, do not have money enough for a divorce. Then, let the good wife learn to cook rice. No marriage will last if she does not learn this. Our terrier, Max, likes slimy rice and chicken stock on top of his bowl of Mighty Dog. It was a near thing the day I got Max's rice, but in general my wife cooks fine fluffy dry rice, a thing she learned in 1949, though it was a near thing then, too.
Third, agree with your partner (before you leap) on the few basics -- religion, money, opening and closing windows at night. Finally, be certain before you take the fateful step that the partner has a good, even a divine, disposition.
I imagine I have covered the main points. Except the injustice in the world. A kid hungry. There is only so much one can do. One never does even that little, perfectly. You have to come to terms with this. It is harder to deal justly than to sing piously. There is incredible sorrow in the world, but I shall not ruin your day dwelling on it. You will do better, alleviating it, than I and mine have done. You can hardly do worse.
Concern yourself with your motives. You will often be vain, deceitful and so forth. Try not to be. But at least learn not to fool yourself.
Others, oddly enough, will often praise you. Do not believe everything you hear. Try to think straight on this.
Force yourself, if at first it is strange to you, to become ecstatically interested in something apart from -- that is, in addition to -- sex. Learn some subject at least well enough to absorb you to an O altitudino, as Thomas Browne said. It is necessary to have grand excitements that you can control all yourself.
Oh, and don't waste your life making money for the sake of having power. What is the point of that?
As I near the end of this, I remind you fashions change, in literature, political thought, religion, science and everything else. Here, for example, is the wisdom of Mrs. C.W. Earle, writing in 1896 (she was an educated, compassionate, rather wise, and generally gifted woman, probably well in advance of the thought of the day, and her book is dedicated to her sister, the countess of Lytton, so you know it is reliable):
"Every girl can do something." (The word something is in italics.)
Finally, one more trifling thing: Happiness. Sometimes people your age are not happy. Older people insist you should be; you have everything in the world, health, bright eyes, physical beauty, zub, zub, zub.
At your age, you are not supposed to be happy. That comes later. With men, happiness usually starts increasing at age 35, and for women I am not sure, perhaps a bit later, but then with them it lasts the rest of life, and with men it tapers off about 70.
So if you should not be happy, do not feel guilty about it. Happiness will come. Get up every day and throw some water on yourself and start the day. It is better than not. Sometimes young people are fully miserable without knowing why. Keep going. Ask God for luck, and whatever else you do, keep hanging in there. It will work out.