On Graduation and Having a Great Life
Paul Westover is an associate professor of English. He delivered this talk at the English Department Awards Banquet in March 2016.
My remarks for tonight have evolved into something like a graduation talk. I wince as I say it, knowing that graduation talks often disappoint. Still, as I thought about this audience, I found myself wanting to share some advice. Many of you are graduating soon. And then, all of us are working toward “graduation” in a metaphorical sense.
The word graduation, as my fellow language-nerds may know, comes from the Latin word that means “step” (gradus); so graduating means, in one construction, stepping forward, stepping to the next level.[i] With that concept in mind, let me quote three stanzas from what I’ve come to think of as a great graduation poem, “Crossing the Bar” (1889), by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
Many of you know this poem, which Tennyson asked to be placed at the end of each of his collections. It reflects his understanding that each human life, like a book of poems, soon comes to an end. We’ll all graduate. We’ll cross over a threshold, and this brief educational experience will give way to the next one. Knowing that has profound implications. Prophets, philosophers, and poets have all tried to get us to see them. For good reason, death is one of literature’s great themes, if not the great theme.
As lovers of the Humanities, we might consider the proposition that awareness of our mortality is an essential part of what makes us human. The Italian philosopher Vico suggested as much when he observed that the term humanitas had its root in humando, which means burying. The word “human” is related to “inhume,” which means to place a body in the ground, to cover it with humus, the soil from which we came and to which, scripture tells us, we will return.[ii] Humility, tellingly, comes from the same root. I rather like the idea that Homo sapiens, “the wise or knowing man,” is knowing because he understands that death is coming and can act meaningfully as a result. All living creatures will die, but humans alone seem able to think about that reality and plan for it. For this reason, the Humanities consist of conversations among the dead, the living, and the yet unborn.
Almost two years ago, I lost my grandfather—a dear Homo sapiens and a faithful educator to the last. (A favorite photo of him that I keep on my office shelf shows him posing in his high school classroom, not long after World War II.) Cancer took him slowly, so I had frequent chances to talk with him in the months when we knew he was declining, and when, as he put it, he no longer felt justified in buying green bananas. He shared a lot of reflections with me at that time, but his simple last words, offered with a weak voice and an intense look, best fit this occasion: “Have a great life.”
What “having a great life” means may differ from person to person, but we can all agree that it will involve taking paths that lead to joyful places—intellectually, professionally, emotionally, socially, spiritually. (Feel free to groan at this point. If you embrace the genre of the graduation talk, you have to prepare yourself for clichés. Life is a journey! Choose the right road!) And yet, my argument isn’t simply that we must choose the right road; rather, I want to suggest that, in many cases, more than one road can be the right one.
It’s a crucial insight, because very few of us find our way without a good deal of trial and error—ask me about my traumatic year working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Furthermore, it’s the nature of mortality to close off alternative roads. Whichever way we turn, we feel the pressure of disappearing options and limited time. Most of the great poets have felt it and left words about it. Think of John Keats. He was already feeling “the fever, and the fret” in his early 20s—even before he knew he was dying of tuberculosis. Not all people face their impending graduation with such desperate effort or glorious results, but everyone needs to face up to it. Consider how C. S. Lewis put it in one of his sermons. Speaking to students at Oxford in 1939, he remarked, “You would be surprised if you knew how soon one begins to feel the shortness of the tether, of how many things, even in middle life, we have to say ‘No time for that,’ ‘Too late now,’ and ‘Not for me’.” Lewis was right. We can’t do everything we wish, and we have to accept the reality that a choice to do one thing is also a choice not to do another. If we are studying literature, writing, or education, we’re not studying something else. If we’re here tonight, we’re not with our families, not at a church meeting, not exercising, not reading, not on a date. This is the predicament of mortality; the fact that we have a physical expiration date puts weight on every choice we make.
On this subject, allow me to recite another poem, another old chestnut for graduation talks, and probably the most frequently misread poem in the English language. I mean “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I memorized that poem in Mrs. Skaggs’s third-grade class, little thinking how tricky it was. Like many people, I thought it was urging me to embrace my uniqueness and “boldly go where no one has gone before.” But that’s not exactly what the poem is about, is it?
First of all, as many of you have already noted, the poem’s title points to the road not taken, not the road boldly selected. Second, the poem takes away much of what it seems to offer. Frost’s speaker claims that he chose his path because it was less worn, but then he turns around and admits that “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” In fact, on “that morning” the two paths “equally lay” in freshly fallen leaves. Did the speaker really take the path less travelled by? Was there a road less travelled by? Was that even the issue? At the end of the poem, famously, the speaker says that his choice has “made all the difference.” It has, to be sure, but what kind of difference? Can he know? Most of the wood remains unexplored by this speaker-traveler, and it always will. Each fork in the road leads to another, and then another. This is a poem about (among other things) opportunity costs.
The poem’s basic lesson is clear enough: life requires choices, but sometimes there is no obviously better choice. Way leads on to way, and we’re never told what would have happened had we made a different decision. (C. S. Lewis enters again: “‘To know what would have happened, child?’ said Aslan. ‘No. Nobody is ever told that.’”) In my view, this mystery of agency is Frost’s real topic. There is a sting to agency, a cause for “a sigh,” but there’s also a blessing. If I had more time, I might speak about the grace of being able to choose only one thing at a time. For now, though, it’s enough to point out a key consequence: everything in this life contracts to a point of intense focus. We make our decisions in the present moment, and those decisions have real outcomes. Therefore, life is exciting—and potentially scary.
You may well feel nervous as you stand at the crossroads of young adulthood. Graduating students feel the anxiety of a world that looks like nothing but doorways and diverging paths. What if I choose the wrong thing? I know that “way leads on to way,” and who can foretell the consequences of any decision? I want to discern between bad, good, and best, but how do I choose between options that seem like equal goods, equal mysteries?
Of course, you’re not alone in that concern, as witnessed by that chief bard and philosopher of graduation talks, Dr. Seuss. No, I won’t be quoting from Oh, The Places You’ll Go!; instead, I want to introduce one of the doctor’s lesser-known gems, which my father used to recite to us at bedtime. It’s called “Did I Ever Tell You…?” or, more familiarly, “The Zode in the Road”:
Did I ever tell you about the young Zode?
Who came to two signs at the fork of a road?
One said: To Place One. And the other: Place Two.
So the Zode had to make up his mind what to do.
Well . . . the Zode scratched his head. And his chin.
And his pants.
And he said to himself, “I’ll be taking a chance
“If I go to Place One. Now, that place may be hot!
“And, so, how do I know if I’ll like it or not?
“On the other hand, though, I’ll be sort of a fool
“If I go to Place Two and I find it too cool.
“In that case I may catch a chill and turn blue!
“So, maybe, Place One is the best. Not Place Two.
“On the other hand, though, if Place One is too high,
“I may catch a terrible earache and die!
“So Place Two may be best!
On the other hand, though . . .
“What might happen to me if Place Two is too low . . .?
“I might get some very strange pain in my toe!
“So Place One may be best.” And he started to go.
Then he stopped. And he said, “On the OTHER hand, though . . .
“On the other hand . . . other hand,
. . . other hand, though . . . !”
And for 36 hours and 1/2, that poor Zode
Made starts and made stops at that fork in the road,
Saying, “Don’t take a chance. No! You may not be right.”
Then he got an idea that was wonderfully bright!
“Play safe!” cried the Zode, “I’ll play safe! I’m no dunce!
“I’ll simply start off to both places at once!”
And that’s how the Zode who would not take a chance,
Got to No Place at All, with a split in his pants.
I’ve known a few Zodes among my students. Don’t be one of them. You can’t get paralyzed, and you can’t “play safe” for long. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t consider big choices carefully, nor that you shouldn’t seek inspiration in making them. I don’t even mean that you shouldn’t revisit them from time to time, making sure that your direction squares with your values, your life’s mission, and God’s purposes for you. I merely wish to suggest that, starting with faith, righteous goals, and sound thinking, you have to be decisive.
What if you screw up? You will sometimes. Some of the most familiar scriptural language on agency—I mean the key passage of Doctrine and Covenants 58—hints at this. You probably remember the counsel about being “anxiously engaged in a good cause” and not waiting to be commanded in all things. But there’s another teaching in that revelation that’s infinitely comforting, and it passes so quickly that you might miss it: “inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward” (v. 28). It’s worth reading twice. I discovered the power of that promise years ago, in the year of my own BYU graduation. It was a time when I thought I had screwed up my life, despite my best intentions, and when I couldn’t see the path forward. The whole story is long, but you’ll understand if I say that my fiancé had just broken off our engagement—and that this was the second time this had happened to me in four years. My self-esteem had taken a beating, but that wasn’t the main problem. It was more that I doubted my ability to receive revelation, or rather to understand it when it came. I knew, though, that I had been trying to do good things. The feeling I had when I looked at that scripture renewed my courage to make the next big choices, decisions which have made all the difference.
I might observe here that the year following my BYU graduation was also the year I spent at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and it wasn’t a total bust. I saved money, learned about myself, found time to read poetry in the evenings and on my breaks, and met the woman that I’ve been married to for almost 16 years. I soon returned to BYU to pursue a master’s degree, and Katee came with me. So began a series of important choices that we would make together, some of which helped put us here tonight.
So, move forward and “do good.” You can trust that if you’re truly on the wrong path, you’ll figure that out and change direction. When it comes to careers in particular, is there something interesting that you can become good at, maybe even great at? Pursue it! Could you do something else? Sure. So what? It’s important to find a place to exercise your talents, but it’s highly unlikely that there’s only one such place. People often talk about careers in the same silly way they talk about marriage partners—as if young adulthood were a quest to find “the One.” But “the One” doesn’t exist; or, rather the One waits to be made, to become and grow into itself, through decision and faith and work. Choose well, and then, with God’s help, make your choice the right one. Love your work. Love your spouse, if you have one. Love your faith. Love all of the new opportunities your choices present. This is what you need to do for yourself, and this is how you’ll serve humanity and the kingdom. Have a great life. Don’t shy away or hide from it.
In the end, it’s not just that the world offers lots of exciting paths; it’s that the Lord can make many paths work. He’s not so limited as our ways of thinking. His plan gives us ample room to learn from choices and not be condemned by them. He can make crooked paths straight. Meanwhile, He offers the possibility of genuine success, through a process of challenge, risk, and step-by-step development.
That thought takes us back to the word graduation. One of the word’s older meanings, now largely forgotten, is “To improve the grade or quality of,” or “To carry up through a series of [steps]” (OED II.4.d.). The OED says that the word was once used by alchemists. It meant bringing matter from a lower state to a higher. Transforming lead into gold required processes of “graduation.” This sense of the word relates quite closely to sacred metaphors for the action of grace. We’re all lumps of lead, so to speak. But when the Lord has tried us, we can come forth as gold. All celestial beings have undergone a process of graduation: “These are they who are just men made perfect though Jesus” (D&C 76:69; but see also Job 23:10, Isa. 13:12, Zech. 13:9, Mal. 3:2–3, 1 Pet. 1:7, etc.).
I hope that you will graduate with studies and careers made perfect, with friendships and family relationships made perfect, with a whole life full of choices made perfect through the love of God and the alchemy of the Atonement. Then you’ll be glad to meet your Pilot face to face.
Thank you for coming and choosing to listen tonight. I wish all of you a great life.[iii]
[i] Graduation may also have to do with sifting or measuring, as in a graduated cup or a scheme of punishment or rewards. In math and science, graduate can mean “To divide into degrees; to mark out into portions according to a certain scale” (OED II.4.a). Even in the academic sense, graduation has to do with ranking performance, separating by levels of achievement, indicating what sort of credentials students have obtained, and so forth. The words grade and degree are closely related.
[ii] The Latin homo, too, is related to humus, and the idea seems to be that a human is an earthly being, born of the earth. Along that line, think of Genesis 3:19 and recall that the name Adam is a pun, since the Hebrew word for earth or soil is adamah. Adam is the man of earth who needs to till the earth until he returns to the earth.
[iii] For simplicity’s sake, this talk includes no citations, but let me note in closing that the observations on “human” from Giambattista Vico come from his New Science, 12; the C. S. Lewis sermon was later published as “Learning in War-Time”; the second Lewis quotation comes from Prince Caspian; and the hard-to-find Dr. Seuss poem was originally published in the February 1956 issue of Redbook (vol. 106, issue 4, p. 14).