When I originally wrote this column, seven years ago, I was more in touch with the steady drumbeat of time than I was with the inevitability of death. The two are, as I’ve since come to realize, much more closely linked than we may appreciate as we scurry along with the day-to-day business of our lives.
But life and death are marked by time, and the passages of our lives, while often less dramatic than academic graduations, are steps in time leading to its inevitable conclusion. With than less that sanguine thought, I offer this reprise of a far more sanguine essay.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that most rites of passage are easier to appreciate when someone else is the person celebrating the event. So it was last month that I found ample reason to reflect on the significance of graduation ceremonies, as I attended the commencement exercises at the law school where I teach (Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law) and at my older son’s college graduation (from the University of California at Berkeley). In both instances, the standard number of speeches by students, faculty, administrators and keynote speakers reminded me of the line that if all the graduation speakers were laid end to end, it would be a good thing.
But apart from the levity, and let’s acknowledge that we can never have too much of that, there is, in the celebration of an academic accomplishment, something universal, something that I think extends beyond scholarly achievement. We don’t have caps and gowns and pomp and circumstance for life’s non-academic passages, but the similarities are there, nonetheless.
As I watched our older son receive his bachelor’s degree, I recalled the first of his graduation ceremonies. He was five, and he was “graduating” from pre-school. My wife and I had just purchased a video-camera that weighed about twenty pounds, and I struggled mightily to record the entire event, which, as I recall, included a tape of Elgar’s famous Enigma variation and several songs sung by the five year olds, including “Climb Every Mountain,” or maybe it was “The Impossible Dream.”
Seven years later, he graduated again, this time from elementary school, and that year I recall that he sang a solo on one of the two aforementioned songs. (Sorry, I can’t remember which, but they are really interchangeable, aren’t they?) And then, in another two years, he was graduating from middle school, then in another four from high school, and now, four years later, from college.
College graduations are variously referred to as “exercises,” “ceremonies” and, almost universally, as “commencements.” Each of these words connotes a different significance. Exercise suggests a form of practice or a procedure that leads to something more important. Ceremonies are unique and, in a way, unreal. And commencement clearly indicates the beginning of something, even though, for the graduate, it is more meaningfully the end of something else.
Certainly, academic graduations can mark the end of the “practice” phase of life, to the extent, at least, that book learning is the preparation for the real world. (Oddly, the major professions, including law, are commonly referred to as “practices,” suggesting, perhaps, an ongoing education that extends beyond the classroom and, in effect, never ends.) And they assuredly mark the end of a unique and, quite literally, “un-real world,” as graduates prepare to encounter the “real” world where making a living, creating a career, establishing an identity become the focus.
And academic graduations (especially past the middle school variety) may certainly mark the point at which the rest of a life begins or commences. But so does the start of every new day in the sense that the phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous intends it. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” reads the message, suggesting that what has passed is behind and what lies ahead starts now. “Commencement: an act of commencing; beginning,” says my dictionary.
The A.A. goal is to treat each day as an opportunity and to regard every successful opportunity as a graduation of sorts. A.A. members graduate when they stand up and say that they are alcoholics and it has been so many days/weeks/months/years since their last drink. They pass their tests every time they turn away from the temptation of another drink, and for anyone who has ever had an addiction, to booze or any other chemical substance, those tests are as tough as they come.
Most of us manage to avoid a life of addiction, at least of the more devastating variety. Still, we are tested regularly. Some of these tests are imposed on us by outside events. (I refer here to the “acts of God” that seem to be randomly dispensed without rhyme or reason, and they can be devastating beyond all reason.) But many others are the tests we impose on ourselves, and they too can be far more difficult than any academic exam. “Life is hard,” I tell my law students. “Law school is optional.”
Life is hard. Personal fulfillment is optional. We can choose to drift, feeling content to survive and avoiding the stress that self-imposed goals or needs create. But to live life fully, goals (however paltry they may seem to others) are essential. And we set them for ourselves because, innately, we understand the need to push ourselves, in one way or another.
In this regard, retirement without any plan to pursue something unique to oneself is probably the quickest way to one’s grave. Only in striving for something yet to be achieved do we find the kind of meaning that makes life special.
And so we graduate. Every day in the struggle to survive brings new challenges. Every year in the journey of life brings new tests. Each passage contains its own risks and its own rewards. True, no one will play “Pomp and Circumstance” for us. No one will cheer our name as we cross a stage. But the stage is still there, and the pomp and circumstance of life compel us to move forward, seeking always to climb every mountain and to reach the unreachable star.