2020 Commencement

Webmaster’s Note: In May 2004, David Selby delivered the commencement address at West Virginia University. In 2020, commencement addresses have taken on a different form because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing that it necessitates. Those commencement exercises that have been held were often conducted via Zoom or other video conferencing applications. Public figures stepped forward to offer their own commencement speeches to fill in the gaps left by the lack of in-person ceremonies.

Commencement marks a beginning, and, in our present situation, the Class of 2020 are not the only ones venturing forth into a world that they now view with different eyes. As all 50 states move toward some sort of relaxation of stay-at-home orders, we all find ourselves facing a new beginning after what has most likely been a period of anxiety and, perhaps, reflection. What follows, then, is a commencement address suitable not only for the Class of 2020, but for all of us.

In the beginning of Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin Of Our Teeth, the character Sabina says:

I hate this play and every word in it. . . . I don’t understand a single word of it, anyway—all about the troubles the human race has gone through, there’s a subject for you. . . . I took this hateful job because I had to. For two years, I’ve sat up in my room living on a sandwich and a cup of tea a day, waiting for better times in the theatre. And look at me now. . . . Oh! Anyway—nothing matters! It’ll all be the same in a hundred years. . . . [M]y advice to you is not to inquire into why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate; that’s my philosophy.

So, folks, friends, enjoy the encouragements of this your day, soak up every smile and compliment. . . the old pat on the back before we were required to be six feet from each other. Linger over a meal and drink and bowl of ice cream. Savor the taste.

There will come, we have to believe, a new, fresh, sun-filled photo-op moment for the heart with loving faces around us. You may rejoice in the cherished company of the dear friends you have not broken bread with in a long time. You each have your own unique voice, your own song. Listen to it, so there will be no need to try to imitate anyone.

In this high tech, virtual world where your identity can be stolen at the drop of a credit receipt or the zap of your cell phone number, we never thought about friends and family being stolen by a pandemic. Our fate as human beings depends more than ever on education—wisdom.

But while education is treasured, vital, and powerful, it is not the be all and end all: for education can, as we know, be used for the teaching of both good and evil. We certainly don’t have all the answers. Sometimes there are no answers. Still it matters what we all think and feel. It matters that we are interested, that we still search and struggle and doubt in our quest to find solutions to our problems, to discover new ways to make this a better world.

The current time is one of those moments, whether young or old, to evaluate where you are, how your life is shaping up, and no one can answer for you. We are going forward in a dangerous and unpredictable world. But go forward we will. You must follow your path, a path that could conceal land mines not of your doing. Violence and greed will continue to have their day, but honesty, decency, courage and compassion—requisites for a healthy society—will have more days because of you.

Where is the light? It will be in the ideas that you pass on to your children, the ideas that they pass on to your grandchildren. Where is the light? It is before me. It is in each one of you. It is in the family unit that fosters foundations of grace and love. Don’t worry if there is a misstep along the way. As Leonard Cohen said: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Life is a constant audition. Life is a series of improvisations. We all find what’s important to us, what’s not. We find our truth through a series of hits and misses. Sometimes we can share our truth. Our knowledge spreads wherever we go like a burr that attaches itself to your pants leg from one place and drops off in another.

We hear a lot about a lack of individual responsibility. Before we can be responsible, we have to become aware of what is going on around us. Then we must care about what we’ve become aware of. Only then will we be able to act responsibly. That is what life asks. Idealism and optimism are our responsibility.

In his poem “Tristram,” Edwin Arlington Robinson writes:

Whether you will or not

You are a King, Tristram, for you are one

Of the time-tested few that leave the world,

When they are gone, not the same place it was.

Mark what you leave.

Be open in mind and heart. Encourage, as you were encouraged; mentor as you were mentored; give what you have been given. There is the obligation to give back. When you do, you will receive a gift.

Don’t forget who you are and what you want. It is out there for you. Nothing is impossible. Beware of celebrity and cynicism. Be thankful to your ancestors for they made this day possible. Keep your sense of humor. Get out among the people. Be cautious of the price for the “getting yours while it’s there to get” mindset.

Remember Abraham Lincoln’s words: “A drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” Don’t hold a grudge. There are many things in this often harsh, hard world that one doesn’t agree with, but we will find a way to work together, to adapt, to be open and flexible because of the inherent greater good that will find its way.

We struggle together to find what we are supposed to be. That’s what community is, not about each tending his or her own garden, but tending the cooperative garden where we all plant and reap for the common good. We can all learn to be caregivers. We are dependent on the other, stranger and friend alike. Expect more of each other.

Demand more from our leaders, more openness, more transparency, more equality, more accessibility, more willingness to go out among the people and explain their vision. We all want our lives to count for something. The nation’s needs give a practical meaning to our lives.

One of the most practical things we can do in the coming fall is to vote—remembering that leadership is no trendy style or spinning of words. It is knowledge, character and experience, courage and devotion, oneness with the people, and a vision that goes beyond the next hill. You are all potential leaders.

At the end of The Skin Of Our Teeth, Sabina says,

The whole world’s at sixes and sevens, and why the house hasn’t fallen down about our ears long ago is a miracle to me. This is where you came in. We have to go on for ages and ages yet. You go home. The end of this play isn’t written yet. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus! Their heads are full of plans and they’re confident as the first day they began,—and they told me to tell you: good night.

David Selby