The end is near for us graduates to be, and in the next few weeks, we’ll be getting lots of advice. With anecdotes, aphorisms and earnest looks, those who have been where we are now will share their hard-earned wisdom.
Some of it will be idle speculation. Anyone who’s seen “The Graduate” remembers the neighbor’s prophecy to Dustin Hoffman — “Plastics!” — and knows that such suggestions are worth less than the effort it takes to make them.
But some of these things will change our lives. If we listen carefully, we might manage to catch a little of our antecedents’ wisdom without having to earn it. That would be a wonderful thing, for much of what they will share are lessons learned from mistakes.
In theory, at least, the people who will speak with us are full of wisdom we do not yet possess. The prospect of hearing them has led me to wonder about those people and what it is they know. What does it mean to be wise? What kinds of things might a wise person tell us? And, vexingly, if the lessons they share with us were drawn from their lives, will it really be possible to apply them to our own? Most of us know the refrain “You don’t know what it’s like!” with which adolescents distance themselves from their parents. There’s a part of me that worries that, in fact, those around us don’t know what it’s like to be us, here, now.
One of the main themes of the speeches will be our pending entry into the “real world.” The speaker’s wisdom is, one supposes, that he or she knows something of this other world that we do not. If that is what makes them worth hearing, perhaps we should be worried about our futures.
In one of the saddest moments in our country’s history, shortly after the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy spoke to a disconsolate Indiana crowd about the kind of nation we are and where we might want to go. His own difficult life was very much on his mind.
In his brief remarks, Kennedy quoted Aeschylus’s “Agamemnon,” one of the first books I read in college. The line he chose said that wisdom comes through suffering: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
There’s a whole genre, call it the Great American Novel, that tells stories of men — the ones about men seem to win more prizes — who wake up in the morning and realize they’ve done it all wrong. This is the Aeschylus kind of wisdom — painful knowledge, slowly accumulated, that leaks from regret-filled people.
Stories like these are popular, and that should give us pause. Do most people wake up one morning certain that the preceding 25 years were a waste? Are we on track to do the same? Advice will come our way because our elders hope that wisdom can be transferred, less painfully, to those who will listen.
At Kenyon College in 2005, author David Foster Wallace told graduating seniors that a liberal education gives control over “how and what you think.” In the real world, where the way one sees what happens is the product of patterns that “you gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing,” control over what and how one thinks is a kind of freedom.
Being trained in thought means that if we put in the time, we can figure out what it is we’re trying to achieve. It gives us the chance to understand what’s pushing us to chase our goal. The choices we make now will set the course of our lives more than many others — it would be prudent, maybe even wise, to make such choices conscious of our reasons.
Choose to think about why you want the things you are pursuing. Use your freedom to examine your motivations. Do your due diligence — know the costs of what you hope to achieve and weigh them carefully. Then move forward, confident in the knowledge that if someday in the middle of your life you, like Dante, wake to find yourself in dark woods you’ll at least know why you’re there. Self-knowledge, kept, is a sure bulwark against regret.
Seth Soderborg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @thedailyseth.