A piece by Charles Wheelan that appeared in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago has been the go-to status update for the collective Class of 2012, many of who find themselves lamenting their impending commencement exercises. With unemployment still above 8 percent and college graduates leaving their alma maters with an average of $25,000 of loans, it seems as though any commencement address has an uphill battle ahead of it. Normally, these 30-minute monologues remind graduates of their duty to make “the world a better place,” or more shamelessly, to remember to give back to the annual fund. Wheelan takes a different approach: he looks at reality and offers some MBird-esque suggestions. While this enumerated list lacks the same ethos as DFW’s seminal classic “This is Water,” a similar message of humility permeates its simple suggestions. A couple of its highlights are worth a re-post.
Don’t make the world worse. I know that I’m supposed to tell you to aspire to great things. But I’m going to lower the bar here: Just don’t use your prodigious talents to mess things up. Too many smart people are doing that already. And if you really want to cause social mayhem, it helps to have an Ivy League degree. You are smart and motivated and creative. Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right, but remember that “changing the world” also can include things like skirting financial regulations and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children. I am not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it.
Both Calvin and Luther would be proud. The propensity to make things worse when acting on our personal, short-sighted behalves is a sad fact of human life, is it not? It doesn’t take much research to see the “good gone bad” in the news. In fact, I’m sure you could set up a Google RSS feed for that. Perhaps lowering the bar from “leave the world better than you found it” to “don’t make things worse” is a healthy antidote to today’s overwhelmingly ‘performancist’ mentality. Does this mean we shouldn’t try to make things better? Certainly not. Instead, maybe we could approach our jobs with the humility of a servant rather than a trailblazer.
Don’t try to be great. Being great involves luck and other circumstances beyond your control. The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn’t, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid.
When we try to be great, we take some nebulous Law of Greatness and begin the Sisyphean task of attempting to fulfill it. The end result is all-too-common: despair, shame, and guilt. What a relief to be told that we are not ‘great’! It certainly makes it a little easier to accept the grace of God. It reminds me of Romans 7:4-6, where Paul writes,
So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For when we were in the realm of the flesh,the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.