A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Commencement Address

When I heard that I was invited to speak to this gathering, I knew almost immediately what ideas to present, but not how to give them.  A few days ago, by simple chance, a song played on the radio: Nina Simone performing a Bob Dylan song struck just the note I wanted. 

I see points of light come shining, coming through the dark.  Points of light moving slowly toward me – coming partly of their own movement and partly drawn toward me by the strength of my desire to see them more closely.  You, the young people graduating here today, are those points of light growing brighter and more powerful as you fuel your powers with experience. 

I want to spend the next few minutes looking at the physics of that light – its power and its fragility. 

The brightness of the day can confuse us.  Our own small contribution may seem of little importance.  It may seem that our actions do not matter, that we are replaceable and therefore unimportant. And yet, we are all that the world, in this moment, has made to carry on – to shine on into an unknown future.  Each of you is the source; there is no other. 

You carry the light of life, not just the simple act of being alive -- as incredible as life is, bacteria can do that: you honor that great responsibility by growing your strength as a member of the human species.  You must reach out, stretch your vision to the very edges of the darkness, risking and daring the future.  And you must protect your best experiences, your deepest understandings and discoveries. 

The brightness of the day can overwhelm.  In the words of a song: ‘the summer sun can burn you til you’re blind.’  How do we find our own way when it seems that every corner is filled with the often harsh glow of so many others?  My answer is to value your own light no matter how dim it may appear in any moment; and to increase its brightness with knowledge of the world and affection for life. 

Take great care in being drawn to the bright lights of others: the dazzling colors and brilliant patterns of the persuaders, and especially of the commercial world.  Your own light is the child of billions of years of history. It is from the unbroken glow and flow of all living things. It is only your own light that can illuminate your way.  Learn from others, certainly, but only your own light can be focused to your future. Yet, always remember that you share the world with billions of points of light: the beauty of a galaxy is found in no one star.

In ancient times nomadic communities had a fire keeper whose responsibility it was to keep an ember burning through all the travels and travails of the tribe.  You are that fire keeper for yourself. 

And there will be times of damp and darkness.   Times when you are challenged to keep that glow alive, when all the light of others dies away and you are left with only your own resources.  It is then that all that you have learned, all that you have stored will fuel your hope and light your way. 

There will be many challenges ahead of you: wind and storm, searing heat and numbing cold.  But also challenges of greatness: there is the chance that humanity will make a quantum leap in your life time – a leap from living on the produce of the earth to living in homeostatic harmony with the earth’s great movements and capacities.  It is a change that is and must be coming. 

And it can only come from you.  It will only come from you protecting your own lights and growing the reach of your understanding.  No leader will point the way, it will only come as you push back the darkness with the circle of your own growing light, as your light begins to overlap the circles of others, then more and more will be encouraged to join in. This is how all change happens.  Just as a candle or a lamp changes the space that surrounds it by spreading its light into the dark spaces, we change the world immediately around us with our knowledge and wisdom and the quality of our character. 

I was going to talk to you about how to accomplish these things, but it doesn’t matter how – there is no one way, there is just doing it, there is only discovering, each in our own way, how to keep the embers alive every day. 

And so, we are here at the turning of life’s clock to the next hour of your lives; for from my perspective you are but a few hours into life’s short day.  You will each move increasingly on your own path.  I cannot wish you a smooth road, but rather one that is never more than you can handle.  I wish you a life that builds character and tests, but does not defeat, your courage.  I wish you a life of pleasure, but with enough pain to make clear and give dimension to the difference.  I hope that you feel safe most of the time.  And I hope that you love others and are loved in return. 

Lastly, I want to leave you with a song in the sense of the revolutionary songs of history. A song to sing against the darkness.  It is my song, it can be our song.  I know that such things are generally come to by mutual consent, but think of its selection as my last teacherly act.  Please try it on.  “I shall be released” written by Mr. Bob Dylan. (and then I and two other teachers – James, Jason and Anna – played and sang. I am told that I sound like Dean Martin minus the slurring, but I suspect it was only encouragement from others who did not wish to sing so loud.   Not quite Chrissie Hynde, but we did OK.)


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