June 4, 2013

On convocation: Take your own advice

Hindsight provides a premise for advice-giving, but serves more for our own reconciliation than others’.

As I barrel toward my college graduation, everyone has a little bit of good advice to offer me. Older people wish me well and impart that vital gem of wisdom they wish they had heard at my age. The good folks of LinkedIn barrage me with e-mails full of “Amazing Career Advice For College Grads!” My Facebook newsfeed brims with YouTube clips of commencement addresses—some powerful, some eloquent, some unusual—delivered by all manner of leaders and celebrities.

And then there are the valedictorians, class presidents, and other young speakers around the country who will bravely take to the stage, proudly flaunting their funny hats and robes, seeking to make students laugh and parents cry. A few of my classmates will have their turns at the podium in a few weeks’ time. Giving a graduation speech is no easy task, and I wish them luck.

It’s the time of year when solutions abound. Everyone—Michelle Obama, David Bowie, my fellow 20-somethings nationwide—knows exactly what problems I face and how to solve them.

And I should too, surely. After all, I graduate in just two weeks. As a wise and wizened fourth year, I should have valuable lessons to teach everyone. I should be offering my fellow graduates a refreshing new way to think about our education and what comes next. I should at least be telling you younger students not to worry, to roll with the punches, to let the sunshine in, to make sure you smell the roses—because college is short, kid, and you’re gonna miss it one day.

Plus, as a columnist, I’m expected to spout solutions. In previous columns, I’ve never hesitated to tell you how to act. I’ve asked you to change the way you protest, change the way you talk to others, change the way you stereotype our school, and change the way you look at social problems. This column has been my little megaphone to UChicago, and you are right to expect that I use these last few inches to articulate my life philosophy, or impart some final wisdom for the benefit of this community.

But I cannot do that.

Truth is, I’m 21 years old and I don’t know what to make of it. Any advice I might give you would be insincere and self-serving. As Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich once put it, “Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.” Advice, then, is given for the giver’s sake. To give advice is to offer the version of my history that I want to have been true.

When you seek advice, you don’t really want a reminder that you will be OK. Rather, you want to know that I can look back on my mess of a college career and say, “Yes, it was all worth it.” You want to see me forging bravely into what lies ahead so that you can think to yourself, “Yes, the future is bright.” You want me to encapsulate my last four years with a beautiful sentence or idea so that we can all agree, “Yes, that’s what it meant.” You want me to tell you what the hell we’re all doing here.

This is a perfectly reasonable thing to want. We all need desperately to feel comforted. In two short weeks, I myself will listen to a handful of earnest speakers adorned in funny hats and robes tell me what it means to graduate, so that I can feel a little more optimistic about the future, and a little less alone. My parents and sister will sit through an endless litany of names they don’t know so that they can spend six seconds cheering with pride when Dean Boyer evenly proclaims, “Jacob Jerome Smith, Political Science.” These traditions are lovely, and they comfort us.

But I can’t give you that kind of comfort: I don’t yet know what to make of it myself. I know that I cannot paint over the ugly parts of my past, because my time at UChicago has been too much all at once. I’ve built incredible relationships, and I’ve seen them topple. I’ve had fun, I’ve had too much fun, and I’ve had no fun at all. I’ve been wildly successful, and I’ve experienced mortifying failure. What’s worse, everything’s been in the wrong order; a good share of horrifying and humiliating failure has taken place in the last few months, a time when, surely, I should have known better.

I cannot yet establish a cohesive idea of this place for myself, and I certainly cannot establish one for you to cling to. It would be whitewashed and disingenuous.

Advice requires us to look back on our lives selectively. It’s the comforting narrative that we want our listeners to believe—because we need to believe it as well. It’s the idealized story we want to set in stone. Whatever we find ourselves telling people—well, that’s the story that we want to be true. So imagine yourself penning a column like this one. Imagine yourself onstage in the funny hat and robes, microphone inches from your face. What do you tell your audience? How do you want to make them feel? Whatever you end up saying, that’s the advice that you want to hear—that you need to hear—right now.

What’s my advice to you? Whatever you want it to be. The advice we want to give is the advice we need most.

Jake Smith is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.