Farewell & Onward: Of Commencements & Conclusions

Harvard Kennedy School

People who comprehend the weight of an ending know the respect it merits. Of course, I so often fail to recognize an ending when I see one that it’s helpful to have someone else throw me a party (a ceremony, if you will) to affirm, in no uncertain terms, that this phase in my life has concluded. Commencements do us the kindness of granting a finality we are so rarely allowed.

As I re-enter the job market and once again join the fray, I find myself looking for the kind of work that might justify the years I spent building my résumé and stacking one degree atop another. There’s more freedom (and ergo uncertainty) that comes with a policy degree, but still – the next stop better make all this time, effort and money worth it – amirite? I’ll content myself with the fact that there’s probably no cha-ching at the end of this rainbow, but surely I’ve inched closer to the life I want to have.

Except that if we measure our experiences by where we land next, then maybe graduation isn’t about honoring an end, but about rushing to the open window before accepting that a door has closed. We call it “commencement” because it’s easier to celebrate a commencement than it is to mull over a conclusion. Every year, without fail, graduation speeches heroically build us up for the next big thing – what they don’t mention is that all future becomes past, and the real question is, if we’re so busy looking ahead and waving behind, at what point are we simply here? Let’s not conflate the weight of an ending with the lightness of new beginnings. It muddles the platitude to which we all subscribe: Be present. Be here. Live now.

I was twenty-one years old when my good friend taught me to ride a bike. As I circled the basketball court at an elementary school, my friend told me to alternate between looking down at the pavement and looking ahead at the scenery. The trick was to not fixate on any one available perspective, because it might distort the experience and create avoidable blind spots. So I looked up, looked down, and (very occasionally) threw a glance to the side and back. What I learned in those late-blooming days was that a simple ride comprised of many different purposes – so often we focus on the destination that we forget the breeze and the zipping gears and even the simple fact that a twenty-one-year-old could finally do something she never thought she would. Minutia make up the meaning in every experience.

So, take a moment. Before we commence and after we conclude – sit, for a moment, in that limbo. And be okay with the fact that what comes next doesn’t define what came before. Don’t let the chase dampen your cheer. The choices you have made and experiences you have lived through are worth a great deal, even if they don’t land you where you’d hoped to go next. Even if they don’t seem affirmed by a succession of exciting prospects. By all means, pursue happiness. But – dare I suggest – maybe you are happy today, even facing an unknowable tomorrow. Delusions of security notwithstanding, we are always facing an unknowable tomorrow. Might as well enjoy today.

Please take that moment. And then consider the following:

Every generation has had to define what mattered to them in the context of what was possible. Some take risks (big and small) to try out what they thought they wanted. The real lesson of these narratives is not to say that dreams don’t change, nor to say that what we want matches the journey we’re meant to have. Foresight is not a fact of life.

An exhilarating fact of life, however, is that you can try. You can play, the way children mold sand and dream a dream. You can test and reshape your notion of how life ought to be lived. Know that the 25-year-old who wants a penthouse and five girlfriends may not always lead to the 40-year-old who has – or wants – exactly that. Which is not such a bad thing. Dreams often change, and even when they come true, all things in life look rough in high definition. (Especially celebrities.)

Maybe the start-up doesn’t work out and you never write the great American novel. Maybe. But if you put yourself on the playground and participate, these kinds of losses are not necessarily failures. They shift our world, but they don’t define it. We define it – by taking it with us, and moving forward. Perhaps it’s too convenient to say that all disappointments are meant to be, but in the absence of kismet, consider how liberated you are to search for the next inspiration. Yes, this is meant to coax us away from cynicism, but who says comfort can’t also ring true?

The next big thing will come, and will end. And we will keep moving, peeking around the next corner and the corner after that, letting way lead onto way and glancing back every so often to ask, “Was it all worth it? Did I make the right decisions? How can my past inform my future?” These questions may (or may not) be answered in good time. I urge us not to be so cautious about life beyond this present moment. If we take the time to accept that we are happy and that this – regardless of what follows – has been worthwhile, it relieves the pressure we place on the future to define what is valuable about the past. It lessens the weight we place on the destination, and redistributes it across every part of the experience. Look up, look down, and occasionally look to the side and back. Isn’t the breeze lovely? And isn’t it great that you’ve finally accomplished something you could never have known that you would?

Farewell. We’re ready. Onward.


4 thoughts on “Farewell & Onward: Of Commencements & Conclusions

  1. Your writing shows your skills will get you wherever you will want. I urge you to work in the most impactual and heartfelt work for loving work is a key part of a better life. Best of luck.

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