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One of the joys of being a college professor is watching students come more and more into their own—understanding their intelligence and their gifts, growing in grace and truth, finding ever more confidence. It’s a delight when graduation season comes, highlighting one last time, in large ways and small, the miraculous students with whom we’ve been entrusted. This year was no exception. One example: Eleanor Lee has been the Senior Hudson-Townsend Student Fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, which I co-direct with Jane Zwart. Eleanor has been stalwart in her leadership and service to the CCFW, exemplary as a student, and just an all around excellent person. I was moved and inspired by her speech at our Honors Convocation, where she had been selected by her fellow honors graduates as speaker. I thought it might bless you, too. Happy graduation to all in the Class of 2023! JLH
Thank you all for being here—you Honors and Collegiate scholars, you professors, you friends and family and administrators. It’s not insignificant that we’re sitting here, about to celebrate graduating from Calvin with Honors. It’s taken us a lot of hard work and late nights, curiosity and passion…and a whole lot of memes to bring us to this point—and all of those things are very worth celebrating.
In our last few hours here as Calvin students, I’d like to recall one weirdly vivid memory I have from our first few days as Calvin students. We were in Honors 101, and Professor Klatt was giving us his opening spiel. And he said something like, “You know, a lot of people get to college—or to a new city, or a new job—and they’re like, ‘Whew. I’m finally past the problems of my old life. Everything that was holding me back? I’ve left it behind. And now that I’m here, life is going to be so much better.’”
But then he said, “What people don’t realize in these instances is that sometimes the problem isn’t your surroundings; it’s in yourself. And no matter where you go, you can’t move away from yourself.” And in front of me, my friend Jamison was like, “Whoa.” And secretly I was like, “Whoa,” too.
This probably seems like a depressing angle for a graduation speech that’s supposed to be celebratory. And I promise that I won’t stay in, like, the whole “Anti-Hero” territory for too long.
But one thing that I have learned while at Calvin is the fact that I am my own worst problem sometimes. I’m a perfectionist, who can’t leave “good enough” alone. I’m an overachiever, and I often think what I can get done is way more important than who I’m becoming.
And you know, maybe being a perfectionist and an overachiever sounds pretty good, right? But here’s the thing: I can get so obsessed with my performance, I start to think it’s the only part of me that really matters. And then I start to worry that if I’m not excelling in every way I can, the people around me won’t love me as much. And that, my friends, is a very easy way to get way too tired and way too stressed, spending all your nights and your free time and your energy on things that still won’t make you feel like enough.
I don’t know if y’all ever fall into those same patterns. But in a room full of talented, high-performing students, I’m willing to bet some of you have felt this way. At the very least, I imagine that in our time at Calvin, we’ve all had to realize that there are ways we aren’t perfect. That there are things we can’t get right. Things we can’t control. And the more we try to pretend that isn’t the case, the more anxiety and loneliness we can cause for ourselves.
I’ve learned that the best way to stop being my own problem is to admit when I am my own problem—to myself, and to others. Because those moments when I’m honest with a friend about my shortcomings—when I make decisions I regret, or feel feelings I don’t like, or come up against issues I can’t conquer—when a friend hears all those things and says, “I feel that way too,” or “I made the same mistake,” or even “I’m so proud of you for trying, and I love you anyway”…these are the moments when I remember God’s grace. These are the moments when I feel a little less alone, a little less like a problem.
Very soon, we’re going to move out of Calvin and move on to what’s next. And chances are, when we leave, we’ll take some of our problems with us, too. But we’ll also take the ways we’ve grown—the challenges we faced that we didn’t think we’d survive, the friends we made who we didn’t know could love us that much—and, perhaps, the faith in a God whose grace sustains us beyond all imagining.
It’s that grace that I pray we’ll imitate, in facing each other and facing ourselves. Thank you all.
Eleanor Lee is a recent Calvin University graduate with degrees in Writing and Computer Science. She grew up in Charleston, South Carolina but currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Eleanor’s writing has also appeared in Calvin’s Chimes, Dialogue, and Spark.