Jim Bishop: Giving Commencements the Third Degree, Part 1

Column by Jim Bishop
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“. . . Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.
Against the wind
We were runnin’ against the wind . . .”
– Bob Seger (1980)

I’ve been a participant or spectator in many events of pomp and circumstance over the years – starting with my own high school graduation in 1963 and college in 1967 to daughters Jenny’s and Sara’s high school ceremonies in 1990 and 1995 and their college graduations in 1994 and 2000.

This weekend, I’ll “cover” my 39th commencement exercise at Eastern Mennonite University as part of my work there. I pray that the weather will allow the festivities to take place on the front lawn of campus – there’s always a more celebratory mood when held outdoors.

I probably shouldn’t say this, but over the years I’ve come to view high school and college commencement addresses and similar milepost occasions as sort of a “necessary evil,'” like committee meetings, hypodermic needles and fund appeals for public broadcasting. The question resurfaces: why can’t more speeches actually connect with the realities of life that graduates will face, with less spouting of nebulous bromides about “unlimited opportunities,” “the challenges of the future” and “the whole world to discover.” Perhaps this latter approach helps the group retain a few more moments of security before the umbilical cord is severed and the collective group reluctantly exits the womb.

I’m a writer, not a public speaker, but in the unlikelihood that I was to speak at a commencement ceremony today, I’d offer this retrospective counsel, free for the taking:

* Expect the unexpected. The speaker at my college commencement some 43 years ago didn’t warn me what rude awakenings I’d have so soon after bidding farewell to the halls of ivy – two penniless college graduates facing a major repair bill to my 1956 Volkswagen Beetle one week into marriage, most of my paycheck going to pay back college loans, groceries and rent on a cockroach-infested apartment. The reality soon hit of getting up every day and being at work at 8 a.m. is how it would be for a long time to come.

* Unless some incredible job opportunity has already been handed to you on the proverbial silver platter, don’t robotically assume that the first offer that comes along is your destiny. It may take an extended period of rather monotonous work at a barely-living wage, but start by paying your dues and determining to improve your status. Are you dependable, hard-working and persevering? Such qualities go a long way in boosting your potential for advancement.

* If contemplating marriage or recently married, wait awhile to have children. Use the early stage of marriage to concentrate on each other, to set long-range goals, to travel and to put down stakes. A child’s arrival changes your lives forever.

* If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success. Review your personal goals regularly and make mid-course corrections. And don’t blame your parents or your circumstances if every day isn’t a little foretaste of heaven. Some days will remind you more of that other place – and make you want to avoid it.

* On a related note, accept that there will always be people around you with a Midas touch, proving that life isn’t always “fair and balanced” while you’re busy replacing your burnt-out exhaust system that isn’t covered by warranty.

* Don’t put off doing things you’re able to do today. Whether it’s cultivating a hobby, learning a new skill, righting a wrong or completing a long-term project, don’t procrastinate. Maximize the present moment. Aim high, but don’t overextend yourself. Smile, whistle and laugh often. Finish one task before starting another.

Believe me, certain activities and aspirations will keep getting harder to accomplish as one grows older. I can attest to this as I teeter on the brink of age 65 armed with a newly-received Medicare card. Just do it. Now.

* If you haven’t already done so, make a will, along with a Power of Attorney and a Living Will. You don’t need a “Fortune 500” listing to prompt this prudent move. Consult an attorney for assistance. Don’t put it off. It’s an exercise in good stewardship and removes a major burden from your next of kin.

Wow, I’m really full of it – advice, that is. I’ll follow in the footpath of the commencement speaker at my brother Bob’s college graduation who, just when we thought he was finally wrapping things up, would declare, “Let’s take this one step further . . .”

Come back next week, same time, same place, when I’ll offer a few more sagacious sentiments, then say the words you long to hear, “And in conclusion . . .”



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