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

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America

Through all its struggles, America has been a haven, much as a good home is, of sharing, caring, and grace. American courage, compassion and generosity have been overwhelming. America has always been about hope and fortitude. No matter how profound the tragedy, this country’s courage has been astounding. America has achieved greatness by accepting great challenges.

America tries to be many things to many people. No other country has been so successful at providing a home for such a diverse population. Most Americans relish the customs and traditions that immigrants bring. Assimilation is one of the things that make America great. America’s courage and willingness to take risks is generally exemplified in its tolerance. America is struggling now to see how free it can truly be without destroying the whole. Never before that startling September 11th morning of 2001 had so many people mourned and shed tears for people they had never seen or known. We regarded each other with renewed appreciation, respect and love, for each lost life, then. . . and now. . . reminds us that each one of us is important for the survival of the whole, and to know our lives have value, that we are all accepted and appreciated, is to be in the best sense an American.

We know that America has not always been an innocent in world affairs and that slavery was our sin, and, though the fight continues, freedom and dignity will win out. Those who plotted and carried out the carnage of that September morning saw no value in the American way. They were and are wrong. America’s way is optimism and idealism. The American way is the creative process of building which is an act of faith and confidence in the future. Thousands of individuals were involved with the process of production and creativity when their lives were taken not only on 9-11, but on the battlefield. And today we are losing precious lives and the future they were working for. Those faces were the promise of America, its future, a future we must not lose because, if we do, then all the advances will be lost, and the loss will not only be America’s but the world’s.

We cling to our country as we mourn the young lives that have been taken from us. America will not only survive, but it will be better and stronger because American youth will look back on America’s story and will cling to it and fight for what it stands for. These young students will take us over the mountain to that safe harbor, home, America, where life and its blessings are honored.

The pandemic has reminded us that being human is a high-risk activity. We know the dark and the light, the good and bad, the pessimistic and optimistic sides of our nature. When the roof falls in, love can be mighty helpful. Today, let us feel the love around us. Love allows us to have hopeful hearts. But, as William Butler Yeats reminds us, “Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned. . . .” Leaders must earn our hearts and minds.

Is there a more appropriate time to be discussing leadership and the need for the kind of leadership that Abraham Lincoln practiced? Lincoln was the essence of leadership. He was straightforward with no gimmicks. As he said, “The time will never come in this country when the people won’t know exactly what sugar-coated means!” Lincoln’s intelligence was combined with courage and perseverance along with a passionate devotion to principle.

The question today is, do we have the courage to stand up and do what we know is right? Is there a revolt in the making?

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” What Lincoln wrote was a “how to do it” manual on leadership in crisis. Government has, Lincoln said, a responsibility “to do for the people what—they cannot—do at all, or well, for themselves.” A president’s words must be fresh, exact, and true – he or she must fight power and privilege and special exceptions. This is the kind of leader America needs.

It is impossible not to think about all the lives that have been lost, but we go on, we must, we owe it to them. They must not have died in vain. We all wish for secret places. As children free of care, we explore the mysteries of life behind the couch or under a table. As adults we are most fortunate if we can turn to home, a place without secrets, where life and its blessings are honored. Home is the foxhole, cocoon, where you can find comfort and good food. Home has always been a place of seclusion, a safe harbor for frets and outbursts. Home is the place where so many are desperately and heart wrenchingly missed. When I think of home, my thoughts are wound around my mother. Mothers are havens of sharing, caring and grace. My mother died while planting flower seeds, an act of faith and confidence in the future. We lose our mothers and, sadly, our children. But may we not lose our country.

Protective thoughts and love of country spew forth because a great price has been paid through the years for being a great and wonderful country, whose people want to do the right thing.

In the conclusion of Elizabeth Maddox Robert’s The Time of Man, Nan asks, “Where are we a-goin, Mammy?” Mammy answers, “I don’t know, Somewheres… Some better place.” It is our children who give us the best chance of reaching that better place.

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Better Angels

David asked that this be posted to mark today’s anniversary of President’s Lincoln’s assassination. It is from the commemoration of the 150th anniversary in 2015 at Ford’s Theatre.

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