Thinking Like a Graduate Might Save Your Life

One of my favorite authors is Shauna Niequist, author of Bittersweet and Cold Tangerines.  This past Saturday she spoke at the Azusa Pacific University commencement, and she just posted her speech two days ago.

I love this speech.  She is talking to graduates, but I feel like so many adults (myself included) have lots to learn from Shauna’s commencement speech.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,” but he might as well have said, “Let the college graduate come to me.”

We are so busy accumulating things and “succeeding” (whatever that means) in life that we forget to stop and value what we have and who we are.

So stop.  Listen to what Shauna has to say, and see if her words don’t stir something deeper inside of you.  Here is a link to the speech as originally posted in her blog.

Forces of Nature

Thank you for having me. I am so incredibly honored to be with you today. I know that I am a little bit of an unconventional choice for a commencement speaker, but I’m okay with it if you are. I knew I was out of my natural habitat when I was asked if I would be bringing my own regalia. I did not bring my own regalia, first, because I didn’t know what it was, and second, because when I figured out what it was, I realized I certainly didn’t have any.

I’m not a scholar, or an expert in anything at all, but I graduated from a Southern California college very much like this one, on a day very much like this one fourteen years ago. That makes me about half a generation older than you. In half a generation, some things are still the same. The Dave Matthews Band, U2, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are still touring. Traffic is still the major topic of conversation in LA, and they’re still making Mission Impossible and Men in Black movies.

But a few things are really different. In 1998, Gwen Stefani was just a girl, and No Doubt was an Orange County band. Now the No Doubt guys are dads, and Gwen Stefani pretty much runs the world. When I graduated from college, you could bring anything you wanted on an airplane—liquids, weapons, etcetera. Also, when I graduated from college, many of you still had your baby teeth.

You all grew up with computers—that pesky half generation between us means that I remember a world without email, and you don’t. Also, when I was in college, no one was taking cell phone pictures of all the dumb things I did and posting them immediately on Facebook. For this I am very grateful.

One thing that has not changed at all is that we as a culture love to move on to the next thing, on to the next thing, on to the next thing. You’ve already experienced this, I’m sure. The second you started high school, people started talking to you about college. As soon as you arrived, people wanted to know your major and your plans after graduation. The bad news is that this never stops. After you go on two great dates with the same person, your aunts and grandmas want to go ring shopping, and the moment you are pronounced husband and wife, someone will ask you about a baby.

I am not kidding when I tell you that one of my family members came to meet our baby Mac in the hospital—he’s seven months old now—and while he was holding this brand new baby, that sweet family member asked when we were thinking of having another baby. I thanked him for asking and told him I’d be delighted to revisit that conversation just as soon as I could walk again.

We tend, as a culture, to be future-focused, on to the next thing, but let’s not be so quick to move past what’s happened here, in this place, in this season. There are some ways of living that you’ve experienced in this context that I believe are so helpful for the new season you’re entering, ways of living I’d like to encourage you to keep for the next leg of the journey. 

First, as of today, you are no longer a college student. Congratulations! But my hope is that you will never, never, never stop being a student. Some of my favorite people in the world are people who possess an unquenchable curiosity about life, people who, no matter their age or accomplishments, are still learning, still asking questions, still willing to be wrong. 

Your formal education has concluded, but I cannot encourage you enough to continue your own education. Travel, read, ask questions, challenge assumptions, ask for help. Listen to people’s stories, ask good follow-up questions. Never assume that you know all there is to know about a place, a person, or a situation. Commit to being a life long-learner, a person of relentless curiosity.

And become a student of your own developing self. Pay attention to what moves you, what you love, what makes you angry, what makes you exhausted. There are no right answers to those kinds of questions, but if you don’t pay attention, you may find yourself several years down the road, living a life that looks good on paper, but doesn’t ring true to the deepest parts of you. That’s a terrible place to be. Become a student of what you love, because what you love flows out of the way God made you.

Another thing about college life that I would recommend you take with you is a commitment to living in community. The people that you’re sitting with right now are your tribe, the brotherhood and sisterhood of people who know you, who love you, and who will walk with you into an uncertain future. The relationships you’ve formed here are of great importance, and I urge you to continue to value and invest in these friendships and relationships.

Now may be the time goodbye to this town and this campus. But absolutely do not say goodbye to the people who have walked most closely with you during this season. This is just the beginning for many of your most significant experiences together. You have just barely laid the foundation—keep building, keep making memories, keep telling each other the truth, even when it’s hard. You cannot imagine how badly you’re going to need these friendships throughout your life. The people you’re sitting with today are your lifelines for the next passage—hold very tightly to them.

My best friend’s name is Annette, and we met the first week of our freshman year of college. A few years later, I stood in her wedding and then she stood in mine. I visited her in the hospital when her son was born, and then five months later, she visited me when Henry was born. Still now, after years and moves and babies and long distance, she teaches me and challenges me, tells me the truth and makes me laugh, and if my college experience had given me nothing else, it would have been worth it for that friendship.

Another aspect of college living that I think you should hang on to for a few years at least pertains to your stuff. Most college students have almost no stuff. When Annette and I drove my car back to Chicago after graduation, the only thing that wouldn’t fit was a twin bed I’d bought for $99, so I left it in the house I was moving out of, because some guys from my college were moving in after we left.

College living generally means all your earthly possessions can be stacked up in four crates and a duffel bag. You run a nimble organization, with very low overhead. That’s good. Stay with that for a while. There’s no need for a mortgage and bedroom set and media center. Decide, before you start accumulating things, what you want your life to be about, because you might find along the way that those things you thought you needed end up being the things that handcuff you to a lifestyle you don’t want. Stay nimble with low overhead, so that you can listen closely to the whisper of the spirit instead of the scream of financial obligations.

You may feel right now quite uncertain about the future, and you’re anticipating that one day, things will stop feeling so scary and foreign. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, especially on such a happy day, but that feeling will never come, not when you start your job or find your spouse or buy a home. That wiggly, sometimes scary feeling like anything could happen and you don’t totally know what’s next, that feeling is called life, and it would be best for you make friends with that feeling, because it will be with you for ever. It would be best as well for you to remind yourself that you’re not the only one feeling it. We tend to believe that everyone else has the answers to the most important questions, but I have it on good authority that everyone else is just as scared and uncertain as we are.

Dear graduates, this is the heart of what I want to tell you: God made you. He loves you, and he created you for a purpose. I used to think that purpose was singular—like I was made to be one thing and one thing only. But the more life I live, and the more things I become and un-become as life progresses, the more I realize that he’s not calling me to be a certain thing, but rather that he’s calling me to live a certain way. He’s created me and calls me to address the world’s need with my gifts, with my heart and my mind, with my hands and my voice.

It’s very easy to wait around on the sidelines for your very specific, perfectly-fitted part to play. But in my experience, you might find yourself waiting around for a long time. In my experience, God uses willing hands, not spectacular ones. He uses passionate people, not extraordinarily-gifted ones. We all want to feel that sense of everything coming together, our gifts and our passions and our life experiences. We all want to have that “I was made for this” feeling. In my experience, the way to that feeling is to put on your boots and get to work.

Start where you can, when you can, with what you have. Start with your belief that God loves you, and that he made you on purpose and for a purpose. Not for a moment, but for an ongoing lifestyle of service and sacrifice and vision. Don’t wait around and expect that amazing experience to come find you and tap you on the shoulder. Start making the world better every day, every day, every day, with your hands and your resources and your love and your willingness and your belief and along the way, you will find your place. 

In the twentieth chapter of Acts, Paul wrote “I consider my life worth nothing to me, in order that I may testify solemnly to the goodness of the gospel of the grace of God.” That’s the heart of it all. God made a deeply beautiful and multifaceted world, and along the way, that beautiful world became broken, still very beautiful, but now also very broken.

This is where it gets exciting. You can make it better. You can testify to the goodness of the gospel of the grace of God. You can bring the garden back to life. You can stand in the way of injustice, or isolation, or abuse. You can sing or dance or teach or write stories that call us back to our better selves. You can be architects and speech therapists and scientists and athletes and pastors who give themselves, in daily, unglamorous ways to making the actual world better, to beating back the darkness and bringing light and life and motion and healing to the corner of the world that you’ve been called to.

In the words of George Bernard Shaw “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. 
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Dear graduates: the life you’ve been waiting for is happening all around you. This is it. This is life in all its glory, swirling and unfolding around us, disguised as pedantic, pedestrian non-events. But pull off the mask, and you will find your life, waiting to be made, chosen, woven, crafted.

Your life, right now, is exploding with energy and power and detail and dimension, better than the best movie you have ever seen. You and your family and your friends and your house and your dinner table and your garage have all the makings of a life of epic proportions, a story for the ages, because they all are. Every life is.

You have stories worth telling, memories worth remembering, dreams worth working toward, a body worth feeding, a soul worth tending, and beyond that, as though that was not enough, the God of the Universe dwells within you, the true culmination of super and natural.

You are more than dust and bones.

You are spirit and power and image of God.

And you have been given today.

How have Shauna’s words impacted you?