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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Topeka High School Commencement Speech MAY 17, 2008

Thank you. Hello. Greetings. Well, well, well…the class of 2008…hello.

So, this has been hard. I’ve been working on this speech on and off the last month. I honestly thought it’d be easier. I thought, “Ah yeah. I’m an actor, I know what to do in front of audiences. Make a speech? OK. That’s what I DO! Topeka High, You just made a real smart call.” I thought, “Sheez. I got PLENTY to say! I’ve got mad wisdom to drop on these kids. They’re gonna go home and journal about me.” Then as I started to write… it hit me. “Ohhhhhhh, Wait a minute, I’m good in front of audiences with other people’s words. I’m good at being a vessel for other people’s mad wisdom.” So I just wrote this shotgun blast of a speech…just like fifteen pages of madness…just word vomit everywhere and I started to read it and I thought, “Oh man, I don’t even understand this speech and I WROTE IT! I’m in trouble.” So the last few days I’ve felt like a student again, scrambling to finish a final paper…and I haven’t written a paper in ten years. But finally, about five minutes ago, I got it into a shape that I feel pretty good about. So let’s see what happens, shall we?

Well I figured the best place to start with a high school commencement speech is to put myself in your shoes. I’m trying to remember where I was when I graduated from Topeka High. I mean, I remember where I was physically. I was on the field at Moore Bowl over at Washburn with my class. I remember that. On one side of me was my high school girlfriend Jennifer Segrest, now Jennifer Thompson, and on my other side was my best friend Ryan Hunter, now Ryan Hunter. But where was I really? I mean, who was I? What was I thinking about? Well, I can tell you pretty clearly what I wasn’t thinking about…the commencement speaker. I have NO idea who gave it, what was said. No clue… And I mean, that’s no insult. It might have been great, I don’t know. You know, it just hit me. My commencement speaker may very well be here today. If my commencement speaker happens to be here today, “Sorry. I just wasn’t interested. I was thinking about other stuff.” I was probably thinking about Jennifer moving to Texas, Ryan and I getting an apartment in Lawrence and the party that I was throwing at my house right after because commencement was also my 18th birthday. So there’s a comfort in that. Because if sixteen years from now, most of you won’t remember this speech…it kind of takes the pressure off, right?

So maybe you’re in the same headspace I was. OK…by a round of applause, screaming, and general mayhem…how many Trojans here are going to tear it up tonight?…. Seriously? Is that it? Let me hear the Trojans that are getting on board the crazy train tonight! (ALTERNATIVE: Wow. I wasn’t exactly expecting that response. You’re a very contemplative class huh? Well, that’s good for me. Maybe you’ll remember this speech after all. Oh no, the pressure’s back on!)
OK, very nice….Now by shyly coughing into your hand, how many people are psyched to watch “America’s Most Wanted” with mom and dad while eating vanilla ice cream tonight? OK, so I’m getting the feeling the majority of you are planning to rip it up. Cool.


OK, now that I’ve confirmed that, I imagine that you’re in very similar mental space to where I was when I commenced. NOT CARING ABOUT THE SPEAKER. So, if you take nothing else from this speech, maybe you’ll look back and remember that Carson Elrod, at the very least, met you for a moment where you actually were mentally and simply wished you a warm, strike that, a red HOT “CONGRATULATIONS CLASS of 2008!!! HOY HOY MIGHTY TROY! Hoy Hoy might troy! SENIORS! SENIORS!!!”

All right. No, I’m not done yet. I just wanted to do that. I just wanted to get you all excited. You guys sound awesome. That’s a good mental space to be in. I’m with you. I’m excited too. Thanks for letting me part of this. But mental space aside, your physical space is pretty cool too when you think about it. I mean look at us. We’re all wearing Medieval church clothes. That’s where these things came from. You’re at the focal point of a really big and really old ritual right now. Commencement. You’re commencing… which literally means, “to make a new beginning.” So that’s what’s actually happening right now. You’re surrounded by your friends, your family, your faculty, …and your high school has flown in a complete stranger to give an “important speech” about what it all means. The village is here to celebrate your new beginning. If we were in an Aboriginal village in Australia, this would be the point in the ceremony where I would yell, “NOW!” and the adult men of the village, tattooed in their own blood, would come running in and haul you off into the forest to circumcise you with a sharp rock. Different society, very different ritual…but with the same point really. Namely, to convey to you in no uncertain terms that you are not who you were…you are not a child anymore…you are beginning a new life…as an adult member of the village.

So that’s what all of this is really all about. All the songs… “Thank you Mr. Eubank.” All the pomp and circumstance, the outfits, the degree itself….sure it’s a celebration of what you’ve done, what’s come before. But more than anything, it is a commencement…a new beginning.

So what’s beginning? Well, like I said earlier, the ritual is overtly about beginning your life as an adult in the “real world”. Now for some of you, that’s fairly appropriate. Some of you are super-stoked to be done with school, anxious to start working or serving, making money, and raising a family. To you I say, “Welcome. Jump on in, the water’s warm…and it’s only getting warmer.” For others of you, you’re off to college for the next four, five, or ten years. There you’ll live in the safe, yet incredibly fun womb of the university. Real societal “adulthood” in the sense of having to support yourself, may still a distant blip on the horizon. Either way, what I’d like to invite you to begin today is to understand that your happiness, like most everything else about your life, is up to you. If you remember nothing else I say today, remember this…the only thing in this life that you have any real control over is your own interpretation of the events of your life. You see what you look for and your greatest power in this life is your perspective.

So, one perspective on what’s beginning today is that you’re moving out of the realm of the known into a great mythic adventure called “your life”, starring you as the main character. I’m an actor, so I gravitate towards thinking about life in terms of stories and characters. I certainly think of myself as the lead character in my own life and of myself as in the middle of a great adventure right now. I have no idea how it ends so I really don’t know what kind of story it is yet. There’s no way to know yet. But no matter how it ends, I’ve chosen to look at my life this way. This perspective gives more flavor to my life. “Adventure” what a cool word. This is what I’m talking about when I say that your power is your perspective. Even taking out the trash takes on a new resonance if you endow it with the adventure context. “Sure, I’m taking out the trash now. But one day. ONE DAY….I will rule this land!” Thinking about your life as an adventure raises the bar for what you think of yourself as being able to accomplish in life. Now, if you’re particularly ambitious, you could think of today as the beginning of the great adventure of the rest of your life with yourself as not only the main character, but the Hero of that adventure.

Now, this is big, because not everyone can be a hero. Most people aren’t. Whether your life is an adventure or just a boring short story, you’re the lead character either way. But even if your life were an adventure, you still might not be the hero. You might be the guy who chooses the wrong path in the maze and gets eaten by a giant spider. And if you’re life’s a boring short story you might…well, why go into it; It’s boring. Who cares? But a hero? The world needs heroes. Especially now. The hero, by definition, goes through a pretty universal process. It’s basically just a three step path. You’ve seen it a hundred times in the movies, in books, in the worlds myths…it goes something like this.

Step one. The Call To Adventure. The hero-to be is just minding his or her own business, you know, chillin’… livin’ life when all of a sudden a white rabbit runs across their yard… or they plant some magic beans and a beanstalk grows into the sky, a magical letter or a thousand arrives from Hogwarts, or a dude named Morpheus offers them a red pill… or they feel a spotlight hit their face and realize for the first time that they’re an actor. Something happens and they’re called…asked by the universe to commence into the realm of the unknown. You like how I did that? With the “commence”? Oh I got more.

Step two. The next step is an Initiation. The “Initiation” is the phase in which the hero, goes into the realm of the unknown, whether it be Narnia, Mordor, The desert, or college.
So into the realm of the new and unknown they go, where they have to survive a series of temptations, trials, traps, tribulations, and tons of other words that start with “TR”…TR Knight from Gray’s Anatomy…they have to fight him…everything …they fight through them to attain some incredible treasure and then the final step, step three, is a return to society with the cool prize they got. Now, sometimes society is totally psyched for the treasure. Sometimes the village is really thirsty and the hero brings back a magical fountain that sprays crystal clear water all over everybody and everybody’s drinking it and lovin’ it and everybody’s clothes are sticking to them and they all do a sexy wet-clothes dance and go “Oh Oh Ohohoh! Magic fountain tastes so good! Oh Oh OOOH!” Sometimes that happens. And on the other hand, sometimes society misunderstands the treasure when the hero brings it back. They were expecting the hero to return with an actual magical fountain that sprays actual crystal clear water everywhere and when the hero returns, beaten and bruised from his or her adventure, they say, “Yes! Yes, the treasure is a magical fountain…of the mind! Get it!? It’s a metaphor. The magic fountain represents a new crystal clear way of looking at the world!!” And the thirsty people go… “Oh no he didn’t just say it was a magical fountain of the mind!”…then they freak out, get pissed, and kill the confused hero. Most people aren’t heroes. Most people are just doing their best to get by day to day. But I think the reason more people aren’t heroes, aside from the whole “society misunderstanding the prize and killing them” thing, is that they’ve never considered the power of their perspective to look at their lives as heroic adventures and they’ve never heard a call to an adventure before…or they heard it but they thought it was just a camp out or a political rally or a rock concert.

Your life itself, whether you choose to adopt the “hero” mantle or not, already has an heroic mythic structure. The call to adventure; you were Born. You didn’t ask for it, but one of millions of sperm hit an egg and boom, here you are. Living. Then you face the initiation and road of trials and the quest for the prize…happiness, peace, contentment, love …your initiation is Life itself. Finally, there’s no escaping that great return; Death. The earth that called you forth to adventure now asks you to complete the ultimate end of every adventure, to die.…But even then it’s not over…none of the world’s myths are content to have death be the end of anything. And why should they?…your body turns into food for a baby worm and then the worm’s adventure starts! Yes. It’s the worm’s great adventure. The worm is born in the gooey dead tissue of your cheek and then it has to live…it seeks its own form of worm happiness somehow, trying to live, find another worm, settle down, find another dead body,… wait a minute, …Oh no, a bird just swept in and ate the worm, and off the bird flies back to its nest …and now that worm is a baby bird’s breakfast and the adventure continues… Holy Cow! …the person fuels the worm, the worm fuels the bird, and now the little bird has to learn how to fly!!! You see what I mean about perspective? Once you start looking not just at your life, but life itself as an adventure, you see it all over the place and life takes on this exciting and epic quality. Life is still the same, but the way you see it has changed…and that’s the real prize.
And once you start looking at the world this way you can totally get where Ani Difranco was when she wrote, “We can’t afford to do anyone harm, we owe them our lives. Each breath is recycled from someone else’s lungs, our enemies are the very air in disguise.”


OK, now just because your life automatically has this structure, that doesn’t mean you automatically have hero status. What really distinguishes the hero from the pack is that he or she musters up tremendous courage to fight for a treasure that will save the world. Now, I don’t feel like I’m giving anything away by telling you what the prize is. I mean I’ve kind of been talking about it this whole time. The prize is an item that the hero finds that possesses magical power to heal or save the world. It can be the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece, the genie’s lamp, the fountain of youth, The “One Ring”, the Crystal Skull, A Platinum Record, Excalibur; Sword of Power, or Iron Man’s suit. But the treasure in all of these stories is always a metaphor for something bigger. The prize, no matter what physical shape it takes, represents an eternal truth that the trials and tribulations of the initiation have taught the hero. The second you travel into the unknown, you have to change…and every temptation, obstacle, and challenge along the way forces you to think differently than you did before. And throughout the myths and adventures, that truth is about truly experiencing a new beginning…commencing from one way of looking at the world…to another. The prize is that “power of perspective” I’m talking about. That’s it. That’s the boon, the prize, the Holy Grail. You have the choice to see the world as black and white, good and evil, us and them…or you can choose to think that “We’re all in it together.” It’s as simple as that. “We’re all in it together.” …Life. Every single person here was born, is living, and will die. We all feel pain, happiness, confusion, fear, desire, and the thousand other feelings all people feel. Everyone was born into a strange family. Everyone tries to figure out how to fit in with one group or another. Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants to feel loved. Everyone wants to feel part of something. Everyone wants to find a way to reconcile themselves to the hard truths of life like natural disasters, wars, disease, loss, birth, life, and death. That’s why you can listen to a song that feels like you wrote it. Because that artist has felt exactly what you have. The hero learns that we can save the world by choosing to look at ourselves as one with the whole world, all in this life together, united as human beings trying to survive on this small spinning planet in an infinite universe.

And with this prize, this new perspective, the Hero lives a new life. You know, a heroic life…helping the helpless, defending the defenseless, enlightening the ignorant, and fighting against tyranny and oppression. The hero lives with a new point of view that empowers her to love deeper, help a stranger, transcend the petty crap that divides us and be better neighbors, friends, and global citizens. I mean think about it. All the heroic acts are selfless ones. The hero throws himself in front the bullet meant for his friend. The hero fights to free a people. The hero stops the subway from shooting off the tracks into the street. Why? Why are any of them more important than he is? If the hero has incredible strength, insight, and power, why don’t they just use it to make themselves rich and powerful? Because the hero understands that we’re all in this together and that if they did that, they wouldn’t be a hero at all, they’d be a jerk. It really does take a hero to look beyond your race, class, religion, and region to see the Earth from a distance and see all human beings as just that…human beings…sharing this breath, this moment, and this adventure of being alive together. Today, as a graduating class, you’re all from different life circumstances, headed into the world from four hundred different directions. But you’re all headed into that wild world togetherYour path will be your own and it has to be. And even though I’ve speechifying up here about these great big important lessons, you won’t learn them from me today. You’ll learn them on your own, from your own experience. No one’s walked your path before. It’ll be a dark forest full of danger…but just know that everyone’s walked a dark and dangerous path before. Do you see what I mean? We’re all in it together…alone and together. And hey, you’re only at the beginning!



Now for you, I don’t know where or when the call to adventure will or won’t happen. I’m pretty sure there’s one of you out there who knows what I’m talking about. You’ve already felt it. You know there’s a path to your own happiness out there and you’re already following it. And you should. A vital life vitalizes every life it touches. That’s where leaders and heroes come from…For somebody else out there…and this is tough…you haven’t heard the call yet…and you might not….ever. And here’s the really scary part. You might never see your life as an adventure. You may never be able to wrap your mind around the idea that you and I share this breath with almost seven billion other people. You might not only not be a hero, you might be a villain. You might live your whole life thinking what you’ve always thought, buying everything you’re told to buy, looking out for number one, saying “no” a lot, being afraid of anyone who doesn’t think or look like you, never changing, never growing, never traveling, never expanding the definition of yourself, and finding a sick satisfaction in being in the way. Check in with yourself. Is this you? Am I talking to you? Are you the one who’s going to miss out more love, more happiness, and more fun because you never heard the call to adventure. Well, my friend, consider yourself called. I’m calling you. I mean, like I said before, from my perspective, you’re already on an adventure whether you like it or not. But today is your commencement. You choose what’s beginning. The world only spins forward. You don’t have to be what you’ve always been. I’m telling you today that you can say, “No more” to ignorance. You can say “no more” to fear. You can say “no more” to what supposedly divides you from this person or that person. You can say, “No more” to hate. You can say, “No more” to the parts of yourself that you know get in your way of sharing a euphoric experience of being alive with other people. And if you don’t… if you’re listening to me and thinking, “No. Life is about my one true way that I’ve got all figured out. I’m right. Everyone else is wrong. Absolutely. Definitively. Life is about me and mine. My family. My group. My truth.” Well… the world needs you too. Where would Indiana Jones be without the Nazis? Where would Batman be without The Joker? Where would God be without Satan? There always seems be “bad guys” and if you’re one them at this point in your life, so be it. We’re all in it together and those of us who know that will be there to help you when we can and maybe our love and compassion will help you change your perspective one day. But I hope I’m talking to a room full of heroes-to-be today. I really do. I hope I’m talking to a crowd full of newly adult villagers, ready to hear their own call to adventure, in whatever form it takes, and who will summon their courage, their strength, and their humanity to answer it, …and will bravely fight the eternal and universal fight…in courtrooms, on stages, in union halls, in bars, in classrooms, in offices, in neighborhoods, in homes, and in your hearts… …and that you all win the prize one day…the sublime awe of understanding that you’re capable of changing how you experience this life and that there’s a profound happiness, peace, and contentment that comes with choosing to love and help each other….because we are all in this life together…all on our own adventures...fighting the fight against our own limitations, ignorance, and fears; trying to make sense of it all, pursuing happiness…on our own… together. We can become better people. We can become better friends. We can become better sons and daughters. And today, we can let a ritual about a new beginning give us permission to actually have a new begging. No matter what you choose, good luck, God speed, and I’ll see you out there.

Thank you.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Killer. Totally killer. Loved this.