More Than the Sum

After giving this commencement address at the graduation for Moses Lake High School yesterday, I have been asked by so many people for a copy for scrapbooks, etc., that I’m posting it here. You can make your own copies 🙂

The written version–which I followed pretty close in delivery:

There’s a sign over the entrance to the 500 hallway that reads, “Through these halls walk the greatest people in the world.” And, I’m not trying to pressure you, but think about that:  there’s almost 7 & 1/2 billion people out there. Do you really believe that the greatest people in the world walk the halls of Moses Lake High School? And that you are one of them?

If you have taken one of my AP classes, you know that you have–within you–enough water to fill a 10-gallon barrel, enough fat to make 7 bars of soap; carbon for 9,000 lead pencils, phosphorus for 2,000 match heads, iron enough to make a medium-sized nail; and small quantities of magnesium and sulfur—all of which can be purchased at Ace Hardware for $20.  That… doesn’t sound very impressive.

So who are we to say that you are more than the sum of your parts? Who are we to say that you are great, and turn you loose in the world as responsible adults?  84 of you received an essay assignment this week in which you were to argue for you final grade. Tanner Merkley argued his this way: “Mrs. Lybbert,” he said, “I deserve an A because I am an A student. I’m smart, and I earn A’s in all my classes. What is there to argue?”

Tanner still had to write the essay.

Maybe, like Tanner, you believe that you are one of the great ones. Maybe you believe nothing but the best about yourself today, and tomorrow, and in the future.  But maybe you don’t. Maybe you are looking around thinking, Yes, yes… I went to school with some great people.  I wish I were one of them.

Maybe, when you think about your future, it looks a little less brilliant than you’ve heard it’s supposed to be. Maybe, when you think about your past… Well. Maybe you try not to think about it at all, because there are things there which definitely feel like more than the sum of your parts–things that will swallow you whole if you stop trying to escape them for even a moment.

I want to say I know how you feel. But I don’t–because it’s hard to truly know another person–to figure the sum total of their experiences and contributions–and when we try, we’re not very good at it.

But I have had many of you in my classes over the past 4 years. Some of you twice. And I have noticed this: You are so much more than the fat and the iron and the sodium in your inward parts, more than the  electrical synapses and blood and the sweat and the tears, more than the blown-out knees and the championship titles. More even, that your grammatically incorrect tattoos.  

So who are you? How do we measure greatness?

I grew up on the Canadian prairie. It’s cold there, and windy. Really windy. In the spring, we’d tie one corner of a bed sheet to each foot, and hold the other two corners. And then we’d  stand up, and hold on for our lives, because the wind would grab that sheet and yank it out in front of us, and drag us across the dry grass. If we let go, it would–quite literally–knock the wind out of our sails, and we’d end up with grass in our teeth.

We’d have competitions, to see how far we could go. But the wind wasn’t really fair–it’d send one kid thirty yards, and his neighbor not even ten feet. It wasn’t a very good measure of greatness.

Life, like that prairie wind, often isn’t fair. It seems to favor one person, and punish his neighbor.

You know this.

But maybe you think that if you hold on tight enough, if you angle your sail just so, if you brace yourself in all the right ways, you are guaranteed to get to where you want to go. Maybe you think that if you’re one of the ones with grass in your teeth, you’ve done something wrong.

And sometimes that’s true.

But often, it isn’t. Life isn’t predictable, and it isn’t fair–but it’s a fantastic exercise in becoming.

And that’s how we measure greatness:  It’s not about what college you got into or how many scholarships you were or were not awarded. It won’t be about who hires you or what you invent, it won’t be about anything behind or before you–because greatness is measured by what is inside of you. [Reader footnote: Ralph Waldo Emerson said something along these lines; the idea is not mine, but a paraphrase of his: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”]

Good choices do result in better opportunities–most of the time. Effort is rewarded–in almost every circumstance. But not always. And circumstances are just that: circumstances. They aren’t you. No matter how great or average, terrible or wonderful, all the little moments of your life do not have the power to define you.Your reaction to those circumstances does that.

Over the past four years, many of you have faced incredible difficulty. Some of those difficulties have played out in public. Other setbacks were private–but every one of those challenges has one thing in common: they didn’t beat you. They didn’t win–because you are here today, and you are going to get up tomorrow, and you are going to get up the day after that, and you are going to keep showing up, every day, to face your life, imperfect as it may be, because that’s what kind of people you have become–not in spite of the difficult parts of your lives, but because of them.

A great life does not lack imperfection as one–or a thousand–of its parts. Life is not a fast food menu, and you can’t choose just one option. Life has never worked that way, and  it never will.  If you never risk failure, you will never succeed.  If you close yourself off from rejection,  you will never be capable of love. Setbacks precede progress.

Divvied up into your chemical elements, you are just 20 dollars worth of dry goods at a hardware store. Combined into the witty, compassionate,  incredibly resilient young people you are–whom I have had the privilege of getting to know–you are of immeasurable value: not because someone has run up a total on some cosmic ledger of all the pleasant or praiseworthy parts of your lives, but because you ARE, because you exist as a whole person, and because you are in the messy, painful, beautiful process of becoming something greater.

Class of 2016: You are worthy of love. Of celebration. Of charging into life with your arms and your minds wide open to experience all of it. I have been humbled to learn your stories, and to associate with you. Thank you for walking through the hallways at Moses Lake High school–and for finally walking out of them.

Walk every hallway of life with your head held high, and when you can’t hold it high, at least keep it screwed on straight. Don’t let appetites, fear, or other people control your choices. Find a mentor, and be one.  Be confident, but not arrogant; be bold, but not overbearing.

And above all else, remember Leonard Cohen’s advice: Ring out the bells that still can ring; forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.


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