It is another season where many of us teachers look fondly back at our students’ achievements and forward to the fruits of their education blossoming in due course. It is also a season of platitudes and well-intentioned lies woven by commencement speakers paid to give you one last blast of praise before you leave the paternalistic confines of your schooling. I can tell you, my dear students, that every one of us faculty have sat through a two-hour-plus commencement ceremony and thought to ourselves, “Wow. I could give a much better talk and I’d do it for free.” Okay, not that part about for free, but definitely the better speech part. I have decided this year to not wait for an invitation to address you. I am writing it down here, and if Fate or luck brings it to your attention, then I hope you will find some nugget or two worth remembering.
If you’ve been in one of my philosophy courses or Honors seminars, you’ve heard me prattle on about “the human predicament.” (I prefer ‘predicament’ to the noncommittal ‘condition’ or ‘situation’, which seem to me embarrassed euphemisms for the Real Thing.) If you are blissfully unaware of the human predicament’s existential grip on you, then what follows may sound like the ravings of an extraterrestrial. Nevertheless, I have about a half century of life behind me and have felt its ever-tightening and omnipresent hold on me and on all those whom I love and know. So if you are a student, I can think of no better way to encourage you on your way beyond these first few years of your adulthood to those that follow than to describe this predicament as I have experienced it and give you what paltry advice I possess to help you navigate it. Because what I would never say in class I say now: the human predicament is very real, and at times very painful, but with some perspective such as that offered by the great wisdom traditions, it isn’t to be taken too seriously.
My philosopher friend Bill Vallicella wrote a short post in 2009 on his blog that perfectly captures my own difficult experience coming to terms with this. It is the heart of this post—I quote it below in full. It is my favorite thing that he has written and I hope you will find it, as I have, as honest, enlightening, and encouraging as it is challenging. It is a great Mirror. It can show you your own heart, that seat of will and desire, as well as the hearts of others. This Mirror will show you the truth about yourself. It is therefore no easy matter to stand before it and take in its revelations without the cover of our well-worn robes of self-delusion and bad faith. It will confirm the presence of real wounds you have suffered, those scars you carry, even from youngest childhood, while those fabrications of your own design dissolve. It will reveal to you, like Nietzsche’s greatest weight, in “your loneliest loneliness,” that which we take extraordinary pains almost every hour of every day to conceal about ourselves from ourselves and others. Bill’s text is quoted in blue; my edits and commentary are in black:
Can you control what others say and think about you? Nope, not one bit. Reputation is a fickle and cruel master. And the gossip train is always on time (gossip is the currency of the small-souled, bitter, and envious—for your own sake renounce it and all of its ways). Far better than managing your reputation (what a depressing phrase!) is the life’s work of developing your character. John Wooden, the great basketball coach, said it well: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” And if you really are, on balance, a decent character, this, like truth, will out in the end. But how do you know if you really possess good character? You can know by the quality of your friends—what does the Mirror reveal about them? The true friend, like my dearest friend Jack, knows your character. He will celebrate with you your joys and praise your victories—but not overmuch!—and will not forsake you when you do wrong because he knows doing wrong is not in character for you. The true friend always accepts you but doesn’t always approve—and because he’s a friend he will tell you when he doesn’t approve. You can endure and overcome any abuses to your reputation with such friends. Dare to be transparent and vulnerable to them.
That first sentence is ordinary professional life in a nutshell! The rewards of most of the work available to professionals of all kinds in these days, in tandem with the penalties, are delivered by aggressive forces of dehumanization. We easily become its agents and inevitably suffer as its patients. Your well-being will oscillate, sometimes wildly, under the force of these vicissitudes if your own sense of worth and importance is attached to the judgment and approval of those around you.
Institutions exist in part to evaluate individuals because people love to evaluate each other. It is up to you how much stock you will place in their measures, both favorable and unfavorable. I have been the recipient of many gifts, honors, and kindnesses, the genuine outweighing the treacherous many, many times over. These validate the good and true things I know about my work as a teacher and scholar. Even as they fill me with gratitude, I release them and their hold on my ego, just as I brush away arrows of spite and malice intended to poison me. If you were a student of mine, I probably had you read a Stoic–Seneca, Cicero, or Epictetus–and probably Boethius. Their works can be of consolation to you as your years accumulate and you endure the progress of Rota Fortunae. It’s good soil and the harvest will sustain you.
What is there of value to glean from these musings? I have added some of my own thoughts in the commentary above, some of which coincides with the points distilled by Bill in his post:
Easy to believe, hard to practice. Which reminds me of a related point that my friend George taught me a few years ago. Moral rules, guidelines, and policies have no power to guard or change your behavior.
Just above, I told you “Don’t be a gossip!” What good is that command if you haven’t the power to prevent yourself from gossiping? The answer to that question is the real purpose of such rules: to judge and condemn. That is their real power. And we humans love to exercise that power. And to turn the screw another perverse notch, we can condemn you for lacking the power to obey the rule.
But why isn’t knowledge of the rule enough? Why can’t you “just do it” (or don’t do it)? Often, the rule, or the fear of failing to do it, or the fear of breaking it, is enough to goad or restrain you. But sometimes behavior originates from our wounds. And wounded people wound others. Wounds—those of the heart as well as the body—have to be tended to and healed. Can you heal yourself? Maybe. But many of us need assistance outside of ourselves. The great wisdom traditions speak to this need for transformation. A good counselor or therapist can be a lifesaver. Don’t spurn these aids. That pretty much includes all of us.
Have you broken a moral or institutional rule and been subsequently judged or condemned for doing so? Then you have learned the point of such rules the hard way. Now comes the test: you have the option to own it or evade it. I recommend owning it, and let others think what they will of you. It may chasten you when you are tempted to stand as judge over a fellow rulebreaker. Such are the tests of character that actually count when owning your failures, mistakes, or transgressions: remorse and empathy. All of your deeds, good and bad, are part of your story, for better and for worse. And the same goes for all of us.
In the clear Mirror of Bill’s wisdom, a wisdom that springs from the likes of the Stoics, Boethius, and the teachers, ascetics, and monastics of the great religions of the world, the deformities and blemishes of our own hearts are laid bare. You may thunder “I!” as loud and as long as you please. Duly consider all that your hands have done and the toil you have spent in doing it. Is it worth anything? Of course! Is it where your worth is to be found? You might as well chase after the wind. Fix your gaze above the vanities, schemes, and petty vengeances in which your ego longs to embroil you, and with which others would brutalize you.
“I have been done wrong!” I have shouted, mostly to myself. And it was true. But that first sentence of Bill’s does not let me play the victim. Self-righteous indignation is not an option on the table because I have done others wrong, too. Will you be treated unfairly tomorrow? Almost certainly. And who judges this treatment unfair? You? That’s just another human judgment, yes? So don’t make too much of this shadow play of fairness while we tarry in the Cave.
You are not alone in the barbed net of the human predicament. Share in each others’ trials and joys as fellow sojourners through the heights and depths of this too transient life. You will know your true friends and you will be known by them. I am grateful always to those who have seen me in the Mirror and not turned away: Jack and Jack, Jack, Jeff, and Chris, and my family. My fondest wish for all of you is not that you will live a morally spotless life, or that you will know only pleasure and happiness and never pain, or that you will achieve an unbroken string of worldly success unblemished by failure. No, none of these patronizing fictions will do for this event. I give you instead this Mirror and trust that you will dust it off from time to time, heed its lessons, and persevere in the hard work of building your character and your life.