Then we had to listen to the obligatory commencement address.
As commencement speakers go, our guy wasn’t bad. A local radio talk show host, he was humorous and engaging. He delivered a speech that was part pep talk, part political diatribe. The pep was fine, the politics unnecessary considering the occasion. To his credit, he admitted that he didn’t remember a single word uttered at his own high school graduation many years ago (I could relate to that). He assured the assembled grads they would forget his words, too.
It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was the Gettysburg Address compared to the typical commencement speech — particularly the ones heard these days at major universities. Often delivered by media types or celebrities, such speeches usually consist of clichés, platitudes and outright insults to the young minds and hearts they’re supposed to inspire.
“Worst of all, [students] are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears,” writes New York Times columnist and social critic David Brooks. “[M]any graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.
“But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.”
Misleads how? For one thing, it promotes absurdly unrealistic expectations among graduates entering today’s tough job market. On a deeper level, however, it glorifies the self-worship that has come to define so much of American life. Too many boomers have yet to notice the destruction this mindset has wrought on our culture, so we pass the all-consuming idol of self on to the generation now coming into its own. We tell our children, “It’s all about you, kid. You’re the god of your little world, which you create and which exists only to make you happy. Go forth and fulfill yourself!”
This is a perversion of the American ideal of liberty, which certainly includes individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness, but not to the exclusion of shared responsibility and voluntary, possibly sacrificial service to others.
“The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and a calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy,” Brooks observes. “Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. … Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose of life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”
Sound familiar? It should; it’s a secular echo of the words of Jesus Christ: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:24, 25, NASB).
Following Christ is the antithesis of the pagan cult of self. Indeed, He demands the ruthless, daily execution of self. The Apostle Paul describes such a life:
“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant …” — to the point of death upon a cross (Philippians 2:3-7, NASB).
Personal fulfillment — happiness, if you will, though joy is a better word — comes in the daily act of loving and serving Jesus and others. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 summarized it.