Paul S. MacDonald
[Mr. MacDonald, an elder at Pilgrim OPC in Bangor, Maine, delivered this commencement address last year at a public high school, before retiring as an English teacher.Editor]
Let me encourage you graduates to enjoy the attention you are getting at this point in your life. I know it sometimes seems that if, for one more time, you have to explain to some remote relative who has come to gush over your achievements just what your plans are for next fall, you will croak. But be patient with them. As Garrison Keillor says, high school graduation is one of only two times in your life when people will gather to celebrate your achievementsand the other time you yourself are going to miss by about three days. So make the most of this occasion.
In the meantime, though, before that other occasion arises, let me talk for a few minutes about three things. My outline is quite simple. In fact, you graduates are the only ones who may have difficulty following it. That is not an insult. It is just that everybody else can see it on the backdrop behind you. Some of you seniors may also have seen it during your slow march into the hallunless you had to concentrate so hard on when and where to move your feet that you could not lift your eyes to your class motto: Live Today ... Treasure Yesterday ... Dream of Tomorrow.
I'm glad it does not say "Live for today." There's a difference. "Live for today" implies thoughtlessness and irresponsibility. It sounds like hedonismabandoning responsibility in pursuit of the pleasure of the moment. That is not a good philosophy. "Live for today" also implies that this physical, tangible, temporal world is all the world there is. "Live for today" ignores the eternal perspective which you neglect to your peril.
But do live today. Accomplish something. Don't fritter away your time. Remember that if you take a day off, you can never put it back on the calendar. It is gone forever. Do you recall reading Ben Franklin in your Survey of American Literature class?"Poor Richard" said, "Do you love life? Then don't waste time, because time is the stuff that life is made of." (That's a slightly modernized translation for the sake of clarity.)
As you apply yourself, pay attention to detail. Get things right the first time. Have you ever been tempted to do a slipshod job, to piece something together because you didn't have time to do it right? In literature class, you probably got away with copying the answers from someone else's paper instead of reading them in the book, but on the job it won't be so easy. Think about itare you really saving time by doing a halfhearted, patchwork job that will probably have to be done again to get it right? Just rememberif you don't have time now to do it right, where are you going to get the time to do it over? Make good use of your time. Pay attention to detail. The big project is just the accumulation of the little details. Get the details right, and the whole job will come out right.
Live today in another sense. Enjoy and appreciate the world that surrounds you. If I may indulge in a cliché, "Take time to smell the roses." Enjoy the pink and white of the apple blossoms and the fragrance of the lilacs. Appreciate the green and gold colors of the new leaves after the drab gray and brown landscape of the last six months. Store up in your memories the observations and expressions of the poetswhat "oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." Look at the spring maple trees and remember Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay": "Nature's first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold; Her early leaf's a flower, but only so an hour." In the fall, as you come to a fork in the road beneath the autumn leaves, recall "The Road Not Taken": "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not take them both, I looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth." When the first snow-flakes of winter drift down and rattle the dead leaves, think of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening": "Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though. He will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow."
Live today. Don't just drift along unaware and unobservant. Look around you. Wake up. Come alive.
In order to treasure yesterday, you must know what yesterday was. Here is where I would say, "Abolish ignorance!" Many of you have heard me utter one of my favorite exasperations: "Ignorance is a curse." Ignorance on the part of a baggage handler at the airport who could not read the instructions on securing the cargo door permitted the door to open in flight and consigned two hundred passengers to their death. Ignorance of history, ignorance of meteorology, ignorance of literature, ignorance of botany, ignorance of grammar, ignorance of classical and biblical lore, ignorance of agriculture, ignorance of geography, ignorance of artistic and musical traditionsit is all frustration to the point of exasperation. If you aren't tuned in to your past, you are living under a curse.
Resolve now that you are going to abolish as much ignorance in your life as possible. I did what I could for you the past few years. Now it is up to you. Do crossword puzzles. (My wife and I do the puzzles every day now because someone told us doing crossword puzzles staves off what's-his-name's diseaseyou know, the one where you can't remember things!)
Read books. Attend concerts. Visit museums. Talk with old folks. Find out what life was like. Broaden your understanding of yesterday. Life goes on. One way to understand and appreciate the culture you are graduating into is to know what happened in the past to bring it about. Ignorance is a curse. Abolish all of it you can.
Treasure yesterday. I think you are supposed to treasure the memories. But how can you treasure the memories if you don't know what went on? Learn all you can. And keep on learning. Don't think you can stop learning just because you have graduated.
Again, be sure you read that right. "Dream of tomorrow" does not mean "daydream of tomorrow." Don't wish your life away. When I told my wife that you had asked me to speak here today, she said, "Tell them something practicalsomething they'll remember." Then she said she still remembered what her high school graduation speaker had said, "Don't wish your life away." She has remembered that ever since. And now I can pass it on to you. And I hope you will remember it and pass it on to the generations that follow you. Don't wish your life away.
Let me explain what I mean by "Don't wish your life away." Don't concentrate so much on some future milestone that you miss what is going on here and now. Maybe you were tempted to say sometime in the past four years, "Boy, I just can't wait until I graduate." Okay, now that you are graduating, what are you going to do? I hope eagerness to graduate did not blind you to or deprive you of opportunities for enjoyment and satisfaction along the way. If it did, if obsession with the destination kept you from enjoying the trip, don't let that impatience become a habit: "I just can't wait until I finish college! I just can't wait until I get married! I just can't wait to have a family! Then, I just can't wait until the kids grow up! I just can't wait until I can retire from my job."
There you have it! Your life is gone, and all you've done is wait impatiently for the next stage of your life to pass. Well, it passes all right. Don't wish it away. If you do, you may come to the end of it with a very short list of satisfying achievements and good memories.
I have some other advice as you dream of tomorrow, too. Maintain high standards of integrity and morality. Be truthful. Be honest. Be dependable. Be faithful. Honor your commitments. Keep the vows you make. Let your name and your word be worth something.
If your dream of tomorrow includes marriage and family, let me offer two suggestions in this connection. The first is to learn what love is. Love is not getting and having. Love is giving. The greatest example of love is the love of God. And God's love was demonstrated in the giving of his Son to redeem rebellious mankind. Let me offer a quick illustration. Do you know someone who really loves oranges? Now, does he have any concern for the orange? No, he "loves" it because he enjoys all the flavor and sweetness he can get from it. If you think he really loves the orange, check with the discarded pulp! That's not love. It's lustfulness. The good husband is the one who will give himselfeven his life, if need befor his wife. Learn what love is as you dream of tomorrow.
My other suggestion in this connection is that when you have children, love them enough to correct them. Correcting your children is not abuse. Real abuse is not teaching them the limits that every human soul needs to know in order to live with contentment. Permissiveness is easier, but it is not love. Children who are not corrected come to assume that they can have and do anything they want to. Then someday they get to high school and suffer the trauma of encountering the assistant principal and finding out that there is another authority in the world. It is better that they learn that at a younger age.
My final piece of advice as you dream of tomorrow is: don't overlook the manufacturer's handbook. You've all heard the joke, "As a last resort, read the instructions." We are all so proud. We assume that we can successfully assemble a table saw or operate a sewing machine or even take a final exam in Englishjust by looking at it and figuring it out. Instructions and directions are for the cerebrally undercapitalized! Similarly, we assume we can successfully live our lives just by figuring things out on our own. But let me tell you, sooner or later you will encounter a snag. And when you dowhether you possess enough wisdom to seek counsel early, or whether you are so stubborn that you wait until it is a last resortconsult the instructions.
Every manufacturer provides a handbook to describe the successful operation and maintenance of his product. And the manufacturer who created you is no different. I know that some of you regularly consult that handbook now. If you don't use it, keep it in mind. Even if you think you don't need it now, the time will come when it could be very helpful to you. When you experience broken relationships, when ill health strikes you or your family, when sorrow enters your life, when strains develop in your marriage, when your kids frustrate youturn to the operator's manual and seek the wisdom and help and strength you need to cope with all your tomorrows.
Live today. Treasure yesterday. Dream of tomorrow.
Reprinted from New Horizons, June 1998.