I have known some of you since you were one and two years old. You I played with and read to when your mother threw out her back; you were one of my son's best friends, although neither one of you remembers that now. You used to take my kid's pencils and throw them in the little well formed in the center of four individual desks clustered together. My son seemed upset by this, so I asked your teacher for guidance. "Oh," she smiled knowingly, "she likes him, that's all. And he likes her."
When you see a child through to adulthood, you can't help but flash on these moments that add up to a person. Impishness, solemnity, athleticism, grace, curiosity, wittiness: the germs of these are in the young child. And then when you look at the eighteen-year-old with such a grown-up face who stands before you in cap and gown, you startle, because that face is a mask of a truth:
We none of us - at forty, sixty, or eighty - feel like the grown-ups we resemble.
And that is good. Because if we still feel like children, we are more likely to take risks, to wonder, to leap, to try new cuisines, to stretch and grow and learn.
That's another truth: we do not stop learning. This graduation may feel like closure to some of you, an end point towards which you've been directing your course. I prefer the word "commencement." This is a beginning, not an end. It is the beginning of a time when the responsibility for learning lies with you. You will seek out what to learn, and how to learn it. That notion, I hope, is empowering. Don't be frightened of the responsibility. You will discover that self-directed learning is the most satisfying kind of learning, and the deepest kind, too.
Other kinds of decisions will lie with you, too: social and emotional ones. No one is promised happiness in a life. It takes some work to get to happiness. If you are in a bad relationship - whether platonic or romantic - don't waste too much time trying to repair what can't be repaired. Make the lonelier but braver decision to leave and find something better. Yes, there will be times in your twenties when the pain of cleaving a bond you thought unbreakable feels like it will destroy you.
It won't. And each time you separate and find yourself again and anew, you will grow stronger, and know better who you are and what you want and need. Until one day you will come upon a person who loves you for exactly who you are, instead of who you once were, or who you might be if you were to be a little quieter or a little louder or a little more graceful or a little less predictable ...
No. The person who loves even your flaws, your scars and stubborn spots, that's the person you want.
Go now, and remember the joy that is written on each and every one of your faces. This is what life can be at its finest, but you will experience joy in small moments, too, if you take time to look for it: the elegant arc of a tree branch over the sidewalk as you pass underneath, the winking of fireflies in the summer, the bleeding together of lake and sky at dusk, the smell of the air after rain has washed the streets, the elderly couple holding gnarled hands after fifty years of marriage.
Now go, and in the words of Andy Dufresne, Shawshank prisoner no more, get busy living.