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Advice Season

My fellow academics sometimes complain about having to attend commencement ceremonies every spring, but I don’t mind sitting through them. I appreciate the opportunity to feel melancholy and ponder the passage of time, and I enjoy watching the graduates and their parents quaff a brew of nostalgia and joy—all quaffing remaining merely metaphorical on my campus, of course. Also, I look quite jaunty in my regalia.

One does have to endure the commencement address, however. This piece of theater registers on the bore-o-meter somewhere above the plangent phrases of “Pomp and Circumstance,” which qualifies as the most boring element of the ceremony, and somewhere below the tossing of the caps, which is easily the most exciting. I’ve heard some good speeches over the years, though naturally I can’t remember anything about them. This is because the commencement address is a tough gig, almost as difficult as a wedding sermon. In both cases, everyone’s mind is on other, more urgent matters, and whatever you say, no matter how substantial, evaporates within moments like a bubbly froth.

Or it would, if it weren’t for the internet. Thanks to the web, commencement speeches are now recorded and posted, so that they might be enjoyed, mocked, considered, and compared. We can study and anatomize the genre in its natural habitat, noting, for example, that commencement speakers almost universally include two main elements in their talk: jokes and advice.

The jokes I understand, but why advice? Good advice should be carefully tailored to the individual and situation in question, yet we have somehow made it conventional for an invited stranger to dispense advice to hundreds of young people, whose brains are biochemically resistant to wisdom. Naturally, in this situation, speakers resort to the ritual dispensing of fluff.

After exploring a few commencement-address-aggregator websites (yup, that’s a thing), I can neatly summarize about ninety-five percent of the advice dispensed to graduates. In fact, anyone could probably come up with this list without doing any research:

Do what you love. Have big dreams and follow them. Live life to the fullest (or, carpe diem, or, live in the moment). Believe in yourself. Take risks. Work hard.

With all the jokes boiled off, that is your graduation advice reduction sauce, your essence of cultural platitude. Sickly sweet, isn’t it? It makes me want to devise a hard-core Calvinist retort: “Believe in yourself? Are you kidding? You’re a five-foot worm! Believe in Almighty God and bow down in obedience!” No doubt this would dampen the day’s high spirits. On the other hand, embedded in gratitude and praise and served up much more gently, that’s the pith of most Calvin College commencement addresses, and I am glad for it.

I guess what I find annoying about ordinary (i.e., non-Calvinist) graduation advice is that it’s so vague and general and far too easy. The speaker lays down these wise-sounding words and then waltzes off, carefree, to the banquet luncheon. He or she doesn’t have to do the hard work of discerning what you love or making sacrifices for your dream or paying the cost for whatever risks you take that don’t pan out.

Although I don’t blame commencement speakers for dispensing the fluff they are contractually obliged to dispense, I have been thinking about advice I have heard and actually heeded over the years, and under what circumstances advice gets delivered so that it sticks. I don’t mean the kind of deep wisdom which gives meaning and order to our lives, on the level of “Seek the Lord while the Lord may be found” or “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Nothing that grand. I mean the sort of practical advice that helps navigate tricky situations or work out a decision. 

So here’s a modest gallery of advice I have found useful, a greatest hits for your enjoyment, complete with attributions. Feel free to add your own. (Note: Not recommended for inclusion in commencement addresses.)

If people like you, they will find ways to give you money. (John Brosky)
I worked for Brosky years ago as a freelance writer. He had many colorful things to say, but this one stuck with me most. He meant that making a good impression and making connections leads to opportunities, and I have found this to be true with professional associates, grant foundations, and relatives. 

Never be a waitress. (My mother)
One of my mom’s better ones, at least for me. I know many people make good money in the “food service industry,” but it’s a tough, thankless world, and I’m happy to stay on the dining table side of things and avoid the kitchen.

If you’re going to err, err on the side of kindness. (Mary Ann Walters)
Mary Ann, a retired colleague, didn’t come up with this one; I’ve heard different versions of it elsewhere. But I have thought of her words often when I am trying to figure out how to handle a challenging student or how to treat people whose moral choices I do not know how to measure. I like Mary Ann’s version of this idea because it seems to accept the inevitability that either way, you will err. So give up on being sure you’re right.  

Never assume the bathroom stall is empty. (Learned the hard way)
Be careful what you say aloud in a public restroom. You can learn this from movies or from the amusement on the face of the groom when he emerges from the stall after you’ve just given your son a clever rundown of the important people at the wedding, placing the groom dead last. (This happened to my husband, not me—I was not in the men’s room, I promise.)

Resistance is futile. (The Borg)
I think the cyborg enemies of the Enterprise crew meant this more as a policy statement than as advice, but Ron and I applied this mantra often when our children were tiny and prone to temper tantrums. It reminded us to hold strong and weather the storm without emotion, gently maintaining our own policy: You will comply.

Do your research. (Aunt Janelle)
My sister-in-law, one of the wisest people I know and a savvy life-hacker, offered this as her primary word of advice to my daughter on her thirteenth birthday. It was a women-only occasion and the rest of us were riffing on “you’re a woman now, so…” but I think Janelle’s advice was the most useful overall, regardless of gender. Navigating the modern world requires loads of research for everything from college admission to mortgage rates to which running shoes to buy. It doesn’t hurt to research that cute boy’s family and church background, either.

You only know what you know when you know it. (Figured out over the long haul)
This one helps with big decisions. It has reminded me—and I have reminded many students over the years—that we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed in decision-making for lack of information about how we will feel or how the world will be in ten or twenty years. Nor is there any point in regretting what we didn’t know years ago. We have to base decisions on what we know in the moment. As it turns out, knowing what we know in the moment is difficult enough.

Now I’ll toss in a couple of useful advice nuggets that I culled from a graduation-speech site but could well have derived from my own experience.

Life is short, but actually might go on for a long time, so you had better become good at something.
This is so much more specific and practical than “follow your dream.” Learning a difficult skill, the kind that one can never master completely, not even in a lifetime, is a satisfaction that keeps one engaged as the years pass.

Fall in love with the process and the results will follow.
True of writing, music, acting, all the arts, scholarly research, any complex skill, as well as relationships. As long as “results” for you doesn’t mean “untold riches.” Also notice that the word “immediate” is not anywhere in sight.

And finally,

Don’t miss an opportunity to go to a funeral. (John Witvliet)
This one reminds us that our presence is appreciated by the grieving family, but it also acknowledges that we need regular reminders of our mortality. A good Christian funeral is a potent antidote to all the tiresome commencement addresses one may have to sit through. Nothing clarifies one’s priorities and commitments like watching an ordinary saint be surrendered to a final rest in God. This is what matters, when all the achievements and dreams and risks and worries are at last stripped away: I am not my own…


Note: My vote for the best commencement address ever: J. K. Rowling’s 2008 address at Harvard. This one is the real deal: substantial, hard-won wisdom presented with elegance and compassion.


Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

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