Okay, so a few days ago I applied to be the class speaker for Commencement, but since I’m not a politician (my poll numbers, according to ”JOSE,” are low), I think I have a slim chance of actually winning. But I’ve got some real gems of wisdom here, so I would be doing the College a huge disservice if I didn’t try to impart them somehow, right? (If I were to list my strengths as a person, humility would probably be number one.)
So here is my version of a graduation speech, two months before graduation – while you still have sweet, valuable Williams College time left and can take my advice to heart. Note the brevity, humor and rhetorical grace, and keep in mind that my actual speech would be way, way better:
Most of you probably think iTunes and iPods are great. I certainly did. I mean, having 100,000,000 songs at your command is totally sweet. 100 percent choice. We can all feel like DJ Dirty Deeds whenever we want to.
But lately, I’ve realized that iTunes and iPods actually suck. They’re making us go crazy. We’ve become so worried about the next song that we forget why we’re playing music in the first place.
You know what I’m talking about. At every party, you see people climbing all over each other near the computer or iPod, desperate to pick a favorite song. Of course, when that favorite song is played, these people stay at the computer to pick their next favorite song. And so on.
This iTunes mania is certainly selfish, because we only tend to care about what we want to hear. But it’s also pretty ironic: we’re no longer actually having fun at the party, because we’re trying to get that perfect track so that we have a good time.
Our high-stress attitudes have led us to personally micromanage everything, even fun – unfortunately, this comes at fun’s expense.
Like most of you, I had a fully stocked resumÃ© when I applied to Williams. And like most of you, I was a pretty intense kid. I’m still ambitious and hungry to achieve great things in my life, as all of us are, but the most important thing I’ve learned at Williams is that to have a meaningful, fulfilling life, you have to constantly and consciously force yourself to relax, enjoy the moment, and let go of the micromanagement. This seems a strange lesson to take out of a liberal arts education. After all, Williams is an intense place with a demanding schedule. But the direction of this intensity, for me, has been towards conscious critical thinking. Such thinking is great for papers or (I imagine) problem sets, but it’s also great when you turn it towards yourself.
What I’m advocating is not a hippie-style, lazy approach and I’m not preaching about how great a person I am. Instead, I’m saying that being at Williams has indirectly taught us to be critical of whatever we’re thinking about, whether we’re at a party or writing a paper. Such a mindset should allow us to know what stuff to take seriously and what stuff to let go, but all too regularly it favors the former over the latter.
My favorite writer, David Foster Wallace (unfortunately an Amherst grad), often tells this story: ”There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”
At Williams and at the high-anxiety jobs that we will have next year, we can be so caught up in achieving and controlling every moment of our lives that we forget to remind ourselves how great life actually is – to say, over and over again, ”This is water. This is water.” Consciously thinking this way is hard work, but its reward is perspective, humility, and awareness. Appreciating my own life often helps me to remember that everyone else is not a supporting actor in my movie.
Of course, appreciation and unselfishness tend to be front and center at culminating events like graduation. Since we only have two months of Williams left, though, it’s even more important that we avoid getting caught up in the day-to-day drudgery. Sure, it’s standard procedure to complain about homework, sports, etc., but it’s important that we consciously avoid the self-indulgent act of privileging our own stress.
As we leave Williams to go make our mark on the world, we should not limit ourselves to appreciating only the endpoints; let’s remind ourselves, day in and day out, that we are lucky beyond belief to be the brilliant, athletic, creative, funny and beautiful people that we are.
And let’s not worry too much about what song is playing. As long as we are dancing, it’s probably perfect.
Matt Roach ’08 is an English and history major from Middletown, Del.