I have received a handful of requests for the transcript from my speech on graduation day earlier this week. First, thank you all both for your kind words and for choosing me to speak at SoHi's 2021 commencement. It was an honor that I will never forget.
As I move into the next phase of my life, I will always remember the students that have made my career the best and most important endeavor I could have ever undertaken. Every single one of you gave my life meaning, and continues to do so every day.
Below, please find the speech.
Good evening, families, educators, administrators, supporters, and members of the class of 2021.
In what seems like another life, I was a graduation photographer. I’ve attended hundreds of ceremonies, not unlike this one (social distancing and masking aside), everywhere from UCLA, to Weber University in Utah, to CU Denver’s Medical Campus, to 8th grade schools in LA. Yes, there are full-blown graduations for that in other states. I have heard commencement addresses from incredible people of all walks of life, from the Secretary General of the United Nations (Ban Ki-Moon at the time) to our very own Tai Lepule last year (his lands among my favorites, incidentally). Each shared an important piece of themselves and their worldview.
My message to you today is this: You are a story. Everyone around you is a story. We are all here, sharing a paragraph of our lives together. From this come three key lessons: people are people. Words are powerful. And life is a book.
First: people are people. Anyone who has ever taken my class knows that the central message of any of my courses is that people are people. It sounds stupid sometimes. “Okay, Mr. E., people are people, apples are apples and toast is toast.” But here’s the thing.
As we each work our way through our lives, we come to the understanding that we are the main character in some unfolding story. We think about our friends and family as side characters, our struggles as the main plot, our victories as the successful climax of the hero’s journey. That works for us as we try to make sense of our lives. But if we stop to think for a moment, it can’t be that simple.
Every now and then we each have a moment where we look into another person’s eyes and the complexity of their humanity snaps into focus. They are not the body that they walk in - they are a sum of their experiences, a pool of dreams, a vault of regrets, a history of wounds, and a library of words said and unsaid. This could last an instant - a passing glance in the airport with a stranger or a particularly striking photograph. Perhaps it’s a long moment over dinner with someone you love; a recognition of the long and complicated life of an elder, or the connection to a whirlpool of emotion in someone that holds your heart. What I’m speaking of isn’t a new concept, and you may have heard this referred to as “sonder.”
It’s an emotion, defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” The feeling can be overwhelming. The responsibility and desire to treat others around you as if they were you becomes so much more important. It’s a feeling that we often avoid, because it’s simpler to just pretend everyone else is an extra in our movie.
Don’t do that. Embrace our humanity. Recognize that each person, whether they are from your home or a distant land you’ll never see, is entirely a person. See the value in understanding, in listening, in discussing. They too were dropped on this earth and are trying to make sense of their context, their thoughts, and their feelings. We all want love, acceptance, validation, comfort, and safety. We all want to achieve and do things, and to have experiences that are meaningful.
I have never, ever regretted consciously working to see others this way. It’s hard sometimes, but it’s worth it.
Two. Words are powerful. If I want to, I can put an image into your head for a moment. Purple elephant eating waffles. See? Now you’re thinking about it. A cool breeze on a warm beach as the stars come out. For a moment, in your head, you’re there.
With the written word, an author can take a character like Harry Potter or Elizabeth Bennet or Darth Vader and make them real. It’s a superpower. In the Bible, God created light itself with a handful of words. Captain Picard sparks a journey by saying “engage.” Taylor Swift captures an alarming number of some of your emotions with her lyrics. I can make you lose the game just by mentioning it. I’ve only begun to demonstrate, but I think I don’t need to any more. The point is, our words are far more than noise. They make reality.
Too often we are careless with our words. We’ve all been told “you don’t look so great today,” which stuck with us forever, or “you’re doing a great job, keep it up!”, and that boosted us for days. It isn’t just the hurtful things we say that sting others until they’re very old, it’s the things we should have said that we failed to. Some social anxiety of some sort - will they think I’m silly, or will I look foolish, or is this what they really want to hear, or am I the right person to say this - will stop us from saying helpful uplifting words when we know someone is in need. Sometimes, people share with us their weaknesses because they believe we are strong, and they want our guidance, but instead we share fiery words of judgement when words of support and consolation are needed because we are angry that someone didn’t act the way we wanted them to. Sometimes, we fail to speak to our needs because we are afraid of looking weak, or because we fear that painful words will come our way when what we really need is to know that we are loved.
Choose your words with the care of a museum curator. The words you send out into the world, from your voice or your fingertips, will be stored away in someone else’s personal museum forever, whether they are good, bad or otherwise.
I told a student he was smart today, and he said he'd never heard that before. I’ve been told in the last week that I’ve saved someone’s life with a sentence that I said once. You have the very same power within you. Your words can make or break worlds of imagination or of emotion. Learn to use them well.
Finally: a life is a book.
In times of great pain, loss, and strife, I’ve wondered what the point of it all is. Why do terrible things happen? In times of great success, I’ve wondered, how can I be so fortunate that things came together this way? For answers to these questions, we might reach for faith, philosophy, trusted mentors, or even solitude in nature. But I’ve found something else that works in concert with all of that, and I want to share it with you, because it has helped me through many difficult times.
In times of questioning, I remind myself of today’s central point: each of us is a story. There was a world before we arrived. Someday, the world will continue on without us. All of that is before and after the covers of your book. Your systems of belief answer the question of who is holding the pen (perhaps it’s a collaborative effort), but ultimately, a life made up of chapters and paragraphs, exposition and dialogue, is written on the pages that are bound together to tell the story of your life.
This may sound a little strange after the “people are people” bit before, but bear with me. It seems, in this way, that you are the main character. From this angle, you are. But remember always that your book lives on a shelf, and it is surrounded by many thousands of books like it. Your name appears in other books as a supporting character - perhaps you are the subject of a chapter, or just a sentence. Our stories are interwoven and complex.
Our chapters might begin and end at landmarks like graduation - or graduation might be something relatively small happening within the context of a much larger plot point. Some pages are good pages…. Some are bad. Better ones come. Every story is written for a purpose. But none comes with a table of contents that you can preview before you start reading. We must discover our chapters as they come. The anticipation is part of the adventure. If you knew the contents of every page in a book before it happened, would you bother to finish reading it? If there was no conflict, or struggle, or difficulty, would it be worth the read? Can a story be great without ingredients both wonderful and terrible?
As something of a side note, I have a little story.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with my four year old son. He’s obsessed with sea creatures and regularly wears an octopus costume around the house. One afternoon I told him, “you know, you could be a scientist, and you could go dive into the ocean and explore and meet these things!” To me, this was an opportunity to say, “hey, here’s a passion you have, and here’s something you can do with it.” It’s an instinct. He got sad for a second and said, “No, dad, I don’t want to be a science. I just want to be a little boy.” He just wanted to be fascinated, and here I was trying to help him choose a degree. He just wanted to live in that moment, and there I was, trying to plot out a future because I thought I had a hint of where the road might go.
This was a really powerful moment for me. So often, you are all asked, by others and yourselves, what you plan to do next. How many times have adults asked you what your major is going to be, or what career you’ve chosen, or what branch of the military you’re joining? Every day, what are you gonna do, what are you gonna do, what are you gonna do! Why haven’t you written your next chapter already?! We all want what’s best for you and that’s why we ask - we want to help you get to where you want to go, and we want you to have something on the horizon. We all need that. Goals are critical. Someday it will be the right day to bring up marine biology. But sometimes, it’s okay to just be a little kid and not be in pursuit of something huge. It’s okay to absorb today and to worry about tomorrow when it comes. Have plans to live, but don’t live to have plans. Sometimes plans fall apart and this is how you can survive it. Your future chapters await you, but enjoy the one you’re in. If the future is where you store your happiness, you’ll never get to experience it.
Trust that the book is a good one, or make sure you make it a good one. You’re the one reading it, after all.
Make sure that your appearances on the pages in others’ books are good ones. Make sure that the chapters you write with others end well. Use your words wisely. By the end of your story, be able to say that you learned everything you could, loved everyone you had, and grew as much as your book would let you.
Goodnight, and congratulations, Class of 2021.