Condemned to be free
I couldn't think of how to start this speech off, so I did some research on the internet. It seems everyone—everyone—has this problem. Every single speech begins in this way: "Ladies and gentlemen, students of the INSERT SCHOOL HERE class of INSERT YEAR HERE, I'd like to thank you for inviting me, INSERT IMPORTANT PERSON'S NAME HERE, to be your commencement speaker. I never would have thought that I, a humble INSERT IMPORTANT PROFESSION HERE, would one day be asked to give this address. I'd like to congratulate you and your parents for INSERT SENTIMENTAL CLICHE HERE." Even Conan O'Brien, who is a genius, opened his speech like that. In any case, ladies and gentlemen, staff, parents and family, and (INSERT HIGH SCHOOL HERE), I'd like to thank those of you who wanted me to give this speech tonight, I'm definitely honored, and I'd like to reassure everyone who knows my style that I will not make this into a political statement.
Existentialist philosophy is a terrible subject to bring up at a graduation speech, an occasion so full of celebration and possibility. Basically, existentialism tells us that life is absurd, that human beings can never truly relate to each other, that, to put it really simply, life sucks, and then you die. Depressing stuff, none too appropriate for this ceremony, and none too easy to create a meaningful life around. There is one concept from the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, however, that I believe perfectly articulates how we all feel today. Sartre wrote that human beings are creatures "condemned to be free." Think for a moment about that paradox, its positives and negatives all wrapped up together: "condemned to be free."
When men are released from prison, they sometimes feel lost. They feel an inability to control their own lives, having grown accustomed to the terrible routine of jail. It's interesting that some writers have noted many similarities between schools and prisons—though I think that's a completely unrelated point, isn't it?
But think about it, think about what this day means. Today is largely symbolic, true, but it is a huge step toward adulthood, independence—freedom. And that's exhilarating. And at the same time, I think that you all feel the same fear that I do. Bank accounts, marriages, careers, salaries, mortgages, audits, taxes: freedom, this exhilarating freedom we have all begun to experience, it carries a vast responsibility. We are utterly free to make what we can of our lives, and at the same time, utterly responsible, in the end, to make them meaningful.
That's a lot of responsibility. And that's why I feel like the diplomas we are about to get are a little like an emancipation proclamation, and a little like a sentence. They're throwing the gates open for us, open to the future, to all that possibility, simultaneously making our doubts and fears as pressing and immediate as our hopes. Condemned to be free.
How then can we give meaning to our freedom? That's a question humankind has been asking throughout history, so I have no answer. I can only guess: bring some beauty into this world. It sometimes feels, doesn't it, like the world lacks beauty. We've seen so much of its ugliness during our years in this school. Columbine, September 11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—this massive, massive, shocking and awful ugliness. We are condemned to be free in this world, and one of our responsibilities is this: to counter the ugliness and make it, in some small way, beautiful.
Fall in love. Raise children you love. Plant a tree. Paint. Play the guitar, learn the violin, plink idly at a piano. Say hello to a stranger, tell them they look nice. Tip well. Travel the world, see Italy, England, China and Japan, Africa, South America. Meet the natives, have dinner with them. Write a poem or a short story and leave it for your children to find when you're gone. Send a letter to an old friend. Stand up for what you believe in. Protest, or support. Be socially active. Search for the truth. Stargaze. Hike. Go kayaking. Watch whales. Surf, skateboard, ride a bike. Take photos. Blow out seventy, eighty, ninety birthday candles in one breath. Give blood and donate your organs. Mentor a child. Adopt. Tell your parents you love them and appreciate them. Tell your kids you love them and appreciate them. Read a book. Read ten books. Write a book. Write ten books. Tell a joke. Laugh. Don't take it too seriously. Dream. Sleep in late with the window open, listening to the birds. Spend the night in a tent in your backyard. For a week. Make a campfire. Sing. Swim. See a play. Act in a play. Go to a concert. Dance. Make snowmen and throw snowballs. Write lists of randomly beautiful experiences and memories. Let these little actions stand defiantly in the face of the world's ugliness.
Someone once told me that Zen is not a philosophy, but a practice. I think life is the same way. That's why this speech began with empty philosophy, and closed with action. If life is practice—start practicing.
You're free. (Thank you for listening.)