My fantasy commencement address

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Article Highlights

  • So here’s my first piece of advice to recent grads: You are an adult. Act like one.

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  • Look around, find someone who is older than you and whose professional life you’d want at that age. And then work backwards, figuring out what you need to do today and tomorrow to make that professional life your own.

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  • Be fully alive, not through constantly trying to achieve worldly greatness —power and wealth and fame — but instead by doing all things in your life with great love.

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It’s that time of year again. After months of complaining about the long winter, you already find yourself wishing for a break from the heat. You can wear white once more. And folks with gray in their hair offer advice to young men and women who are graduating college and beginning their adult lives.

Right off the bat, our culture has made a mistake: It is unfortunate to think of a 22-year-old as “beginning his adult life.” We’d be better off if undergraduates thought of themselves as adults and comported themselves accordingly. Sadly, many 22-year-olds, thanks to the subtle mores they absorb, won’t think of themselves as adults for another half decade or so. So here’s my first piece of advice to recent grads: You are an adult. Act like one.

Lord Acton declared that freedom is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Work to emancipate yourself from your passions, to achieve true freedom, to do what you ought with your adult life. What ought you to do? Live for others, be a servant and slowly and steadily try to improve your moral character. To live life in obedience to this rule is to be truly free, and is the best path to joy and peace.

Heroes are real, and having them is powerful and immensely helpful. Find them and recognize them. Start with the people in your daily life. Find them among great men and women. Find them among the wise. Find them in literature, in fiction. Find them for all aspects of your life. Always be looking.

If you’re like I was, then right now you most urgently need professional heroes. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life — and didn’t know how to choose a professional path. I received some great advice that has stayed with me ever since: Look around, find someone who is older than you and whose professional life you’d want at that age. And then work backwards, figuring out what you need to do today and tomorrow to make that professional life your own.

I saw men like William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and was so impressed by the way they brought values and reason into the public square. They had a larger life; they participated in our democracy’s great national conversation. And I also greatly admired many economists for their depth of understanding and ability to add to the stock of human knowledge. I knew in my professional life I wanted to be at least a pale imitation of them, and I worked backwards — at the time it felt a lot like groping in the dark, and often still does — to try to make it happen.

But enough about me. Who are your professional heroes?

You’re graduating college, which means you’re educated. But education these days often feels more like job training than cultivation of the soul. So keep learning. In fact, expand your idea of learning. Don’t be afraid to ask the big questions: Why is there something instead of nothing? What is the point of existence? What is the true nature of reality? Why am I here?

On this side of eternity life is mysterious, and these questions don’t have intellectually satisfying answers. But there is value in the struggle to arrive at them. Remember that the invisible world is more real than the visible world — that things worldly are much less important than things eternal. Remember that experiential knowledge is often more powerful and more trustworthy and more real than knowledge that you can derive from axioms and assumptions or lab-derived formulas. Listen to and learn from the movements of your heart.

The world you are entering can be a dark, terrible, lonely place, governed by evil, plagued by the sin of Adam, the fall of man. Throughout your adult life you will catch glimpses of a better world. “But certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy Earth,” writes Tolkien. “We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with a sense of exile.”

Long for it, sure, especially during dark times, which sadly await us all. But also recognize that there is great beauty in your pilgrim home, and that you should add to its beauty. Make the world a better place by helping others who have less than you.

Live well. “The glory of God is a man fully alive,” said Saint Irenaeus. Be fully alive, not through constantly trying to achieve worldly greatness —power and wealth and fame — but instead by doing all things in your life with great love.

Michael R. Strain is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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