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Advice for Graduates

Part 1 of 3 of my 2019 Commencement Address at Augustana College.

May 21, 2019
 
 

Bruce Springsteen held his first concert when he was seven years old. The whole neighborhood came. His rented guitar shone in the sun. He whooped and he hollered. He danced and he shimmied. He pointed at the sky and he implored the audience to scream.

Up until that point, Springsteen’s life had, by his own account, been an endless loop of school, homework, church, green beans; school, homework, church, green beans.

“But then” as Springsteen tells it in his one-man show on Broadway, “in a blinding flash of sanctified light … a new kind of man … just a kid from the southern sticks … split the world in two.”  

The revolution had been televised right under the noses of the powers that be - and remarkably, those powers had not shut it down. The fateful event took place on a Sunday night in 1956 and young Bruce, living somewhere in nowhere New Jersey, suddenly knew that there was more – “more life, more love, more hope, more truth, more power, more soul.”    

It was Springsteen’s Elvis moment. And he didn’t waste it.

“I listened, I believed and I heard a mighty call to action.”  

College is a little bit like Elvis.

James Carville, the political commentator, once said that America never tasted the same after Elvis.

The same is true for college. If you did it right, your life should never taste the same. You will have had a set of experiences, collected a group of friends, read a stack of books, had a million arguments, failed a zillion times, written a paper or two, succeeded often enough that you made it to this day …

Congratulations.

I hope your time in college was full of Elvis moments – moments when the world feels new and full of possibility. Moments when you listened, believed and felt a mighty call to action.

It has been a quarter century since I was an undergraduate, and yet my own such moments feel fresh as if they were yesterday. The first time that I read the poetry of William Carlos Williams, the first time I heard the name Dorothy Day, the week I made my first gay friend, the moment I heard the story of Ruby Bridges, the class where my professor posed the question: is Christopher Columbus really a hero?

I’m in the full-swing of middle age now, but those moments from my undergraduate years are the deep waters in my spiritual well. I find myself returning to them over and over - for guidance, for nourishment, for a reminder of what it felt like when a poem/a story/a question/an insight could be like seeing Elvis on a Sunday night in 1956 - and feeling like the world had just been split in two.

How do you keep that feeling after you cross this stage and gather your degree? What lessons and themes will you carry with you from your years at Augustana? Here’s my list. 

First, I hope you learned the electric combination of imagined possibility and disciplined work ethic. Irish Murdoch wrote, “Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble those pictures.”

I hope that all of you got a glimpse of a future you here that could never have crossed your mind in high school.

You as someone who starts a global company, or a protest against one.

You as someone who writes novels, or an essay that argues the novel is dead.

And then comes the discipline – the work required to become the picture you just made of yourself.  

Remember the seven-year old Springsteen headlining that first concert in the backyard? All the whooping and dancing and shimmying? Well, he never actually plays the guitar. Elvis had made it look so easy. When Bruce held his first guitar in his hand, he kind of hoped it might play itself. He thought his job was just to look cool.

But once he realized that he wasn’t satisfied with the picture of being a musician, he actually wanted to be a musician, Springsteen started to put in the real work. He spent Friday nights watching local bands play gigs at YMCA’s and high school dances, stood in front of the lead guitar player to see what he was doing, then went home and tried to play what he’d seen.

The secret to being Bruce Springsteen has two parts – imagining a character for yourself, then putting in the work to become it.

I hope somebody shared that secret with you while you were in college, and that you bring both parts with you into the great beyond.

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