What It Means to Graduate

Mazel Tov, Young Graduates!

You’ve done it! Your hard work has paid off. We put hoop after hoop in front you, and you jumped through them like a champ. There were tedious nights, times when your energy briefly flagged, but here you stand at the end of your studies. It’s not true of course, you are not done, but that’s what people will tell you, and for a moment it might even seem true.

I want to give it to you straight and in doing so recover what it means to ‘graduate’ and also a deep Jewish truth. Think of the word ‘gradual’ – a slow progression. To ‘graduate’ means ‘to arrange in series or according to a scale’, like a graduated tax or a ‘graduated cup’ (a measuring cup). For some reason when using this word regarding people it has come to mean a person at the end of his or her studies. Dear ‘Graduate’, today is indeed a milestone, but it’s hardly the end of the road, instead it is a step arranged in a series of many many more greater steps.

Graduate, I am sorry that we have let you believe that you are now done; yet you knew that there had to be a catch. There has always been a catch. You graduated from pre-school, and we surprised you with elementary school. You graduated from elementary school and we sent you to middle school. When you graduated from there it was high school, and after that there is college, and perhaps another hoop, and then there will be a series of jobs, and then then ‘real life’ begins and middle age will be around the corner, and then… And then what?

imgresAlong the stereotypical school road, we have trained you to delay your gratification for some achievement in the future, always a little bit further in the future. In his book Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar describes this a the rat race. Think of that big paper you had to write. How did you feel when you turned it in? Happy? For a moment sure, but that is because all the hoops you’ve been jumping through have caused you to confuse ‘relief’ with ‘joy’.

On the occasion of reaching this graduated step towards a meaningful life, I want to encourage you to see your accomplishment not as a graduation from something, but as a graduation, a step toward something that gives you meaning, something you want to accomplish in the world.

What Ben-Shahar suggests in his book is that Happier-ness comes with a balance of joy along the way towards meaningful accomplishments.

In the Jewish calendar we are all in a period of graduation. During the Omer, the counting of days between Passover and the Holiday of Shavuot, we count each day, 49 days from one festival to then next. On Passover we commemorate our freedom from Egypt and on Shavuot we reenact our collective moment at Sinai where the Ten Commandments were given to us. When we left Egypt there were some who only thought of crossing the sea as a graduation from slavery. They were quickly disillusioned. Sure they sang as they marched across on dry land, but they mistook their relief for joy. Soon they complained, “Moses have you led us here to die? Where there no graves in Egypt?” Today we count each day from the start of Passover, we graduate our way towards an even grander moment.

Dear Graduate, make this day count. Shift your focus from what you have done to what you can now accomplish because you are graduating. See today as a wonderful step toward finding your own unique path towards a lasting and positive contribution to humankind. Life is a wonderful journey of many graduations – resist looking back as if on a plateau because if you do, you’ll be disappointed that there is still so much to climb. Instead, look up and past this moment, far past it if you can, and you will see far ahead of you. Look around. Enjoy the view. When you do that you’ll see that there is so much to experience, that today is a wonderful and necessary step toward greater sights and greater heights. You’ll also see that there is so much farther to go that the sprint from one graduation will be exhausting. That annoying advise to slow down and enjoy the journey will make all the difference in the world. Enjoy today and the graduations that each day offers you.

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