Faith Gong: A commencement address for 2020

For the past two years, our family has celebrated homeschool graduations. Both years we’ve had daughters who were moving up to middle school — but mostly we just wanted an excuse for a party. My daughters create a yearbook and video of the year’s highlights, we lay out a display of their school projects, we invite grandparents (virtually and in-person), and we serve refreshments.

At our daughters’ request, my husband has delivered the commencement speech at both events. I get it: They have to listen to me, their primary teacher, for hours every day. Plus, my husband has the spiffy robe/hood/floppy hat that he wears to Middlebury College graduations, which lend a certain gravitas to our event. (I, too, have a robe and hood from earning my master’s degrees, but they’ve long since disappeared into our dress-up bin).

Still, given the year that’s just passed, I have some thoughts. Were I to deliver a commencement address this year — to my own children, or to any young person — here is what I would say:

“You don’t need me to tell you this, but it’s been a strange and difficult year.

“About 15 months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world and changed everything. If you went to regular school, you were suddenly doing school at home; even if you were homeschooled previously, you were now really homeschooling, isolated from your learning community. Many things got cancelled. Activities stopped or moved online. You couldn’t see people besides your own family unless they were either on a screen or masked, distanced, and outside. You got very used to wearing face masks, and you learned how long six feet is. Your parents started working from home, or had to stop working. A lot of people got sick, and a lot of people died. Everyone was anxious, and nobody had quick and easy answers.

“In the middle of all this, there was an election that made everyone tense for a while. After it was over, some people who disagreed with the results had an adult temper tantrum and stormed the United States Capitol building.

“There was bad news about the economy, climate change, and racism. The rest of life kept going, too: At my home, we had a tornado, two power outages, a couple of hospital visits, and a rooster attack.

“The amazing thing about this year is that all of us, no matter our age, location, or situation, have had to face the fact that life can be difficult and unpredictable. We can’t always control what happens to us; things we take for granted can disappear in an instant. And sometimes adults don’t act very grown-up, and the people in charge don’t have all the answers.

“These are all very important things to know, because they are true. We’re usually able to ignore these facts by distracting ourselves with friends, work, shopping, travel, food, or entertainment, but this year nobody could ignore them. You, the rising generation, have had to learn some of life’s hard truths much earlier than my generation. My own children tell me that this year has taught them not to have high expectations, and that’s not a bad thing: I just read that people from Nordic countries, like Denmark and Finland, rank highest in the World Happiness Report because “happiness” in polls is determined by how closely your actual life situation matches your expectations. In other words, the key to happiness is setting realistic expectations. 

“Of course, you’ll probably forget most of what you’ve learned this year; we all will. Life is already starting to look more normal, and most of us will go back to doing what we did before 2020, relieved to put this year behind us. Other commencement speakers are going to say something like: ‘This was a hard year, but YOU DID IT. You persevered, you overcame, and everything’s going to be better from now on!’

“But if this year taught us anything, it taught us to question that narrative. Even if you forget much of what you’ve learned, I hope you’ll feel doubtful whenever somebody tells you that life is just going to get better. They are lying to you. Life is not a series of constant improvements; sometimes terrible and unexpected things happen. Pandemics, tornadoes, and rooster attacks are rare events, but there will always be illness, hurts, disappointments, and death.

“People who tell you that life just gets better are confusing outward circumstances with the inner person. The truth that I’ve experienced is that, even if the world around you doesn’t keep getting better, you can keep getting better. You can keep growing, learning, listening, becoming kinder and more loving. You can’t control what happens to you, but you can make choices about the sort of person you become as a result.

“Two natural responses to the past year would be to become hard and bitter, or full of fear and anxiety. I hope you will resist either pull. Just because life is hard doesn’t mean you have to become harder; just because life is scary doesn’t mean you have to be ruled by fear. Choose to stay soft: You can mourn the world’s brokenness without becoming terrified, and you can get angry at injustice without turning hopeless and sarcastic.

“I wish we could have protected you a little longer; I wish we could have spared you disappointment, isolation, anxiety, masks, online learning, and poorly behaved adults. But even as these things fade into the past, my hope is that you’ll be better prepared and less surprised when the next hard thing rolls around. When COVID hit, most of us wasted time waving our arms in the air and wailing, ‘I don’t like this! It isn’t fair! Life wasn’t supposed to be this way!’ Now that you know better, you might deal more productively with life’s difficulties.

“One of my family’s favorite books this year was The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton. It’s the story of an island kingdom that realizes it’s built on top of a sleeping giant: If the giant wakes up, their entire civilization will be destroyed. The beautiful thing is that, in the end, they don’t ever solve the problem; they just have to live knowing that disaster may come at any time — which is how we have to live, too. But they conclude that ‘…even though life may never be the same again, it can still be a very good thing indeed.’

“Remember the things that brought you life, joy, and comfort during this year: The love of family and friends, religious beliefs and practices, moving your body, spending time in nature, snuggling with animals, preparing and eating nourishing food, art and music (both experiencing and creating them), reading books and watching shows that encouraged you to be better and braver. These are the beautiful things of life, and they are all around you if you pay attention. Turn to them the next time life’s uncertainties or disasters strike. 

“Many commencement speakers pass the buck, saying things like, ‘The world’s a mess, but YOU are our hope for the future, because YOU will make everything right!’ That’s unfair, like giving you a broken toy and saying, ‘Isn’t it great?!? YOU get to fix it!’ Between long division and puberty, you’ve got enough to handle without feeling like you’re responsible for saving the world.

“My generation used to feel responsible for saving the world, too, but we got distracted by things like work and raising kids and oil changes and Netflix, and at the end of the day we’re just really, really tired. It took a global pandemic to make us wake up and realize that we’re the grown-ups now.

“I’m sorry: We took our eye off the ball and now we’re bequeathing you a world that’s a little more broken. You needed adults and instead you got a bunch of bickering, confused social media addicts. What you’ve suffered this year might have been a bit more bearable if the generations before you had been less selfish.

“While I can’t promise that my generation will save the world for you, I can at least pledge that I will endeavor to be the kind of grown-up your generation deserves: a grown-up who blazes a better path for you to follow. Commencement is a beginning, so let’s begin together.”

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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