This is the season of commencement speeches. High school seniors are electric with the anticipation of new environs, and even newer freedoms. Young men and women launched from colleges and universities big and small are filled with possibility as they stand poised to enter that colossal unknown—the real world.
So many young souls are right now sitting elbow to elbow on their hard folding chairs, listening as college presidents, business moguls, rappers, and television personalities exhort them to “spread your wings and reach for those highest stars,” “imagine limitless possibilities,” or “make a true and lasting difference in the world.”
These speeches undoubtedly stir us. They kindle our conviction that amazing things will happen and dreams do come true. They tell us greatness is within our grasp. And for some fortunate few, this is indeed the trajectory our lives will follow. Fame and good fortune will be twin blessings bestowed upon those listeners.
But there are others of today’s graduate who will know a very different reality. Some will find their calling in the sterile quiet of the laboratory, the noisy wide-open of the office cubicle, or in the front of overcrowded and underfunded classrooms across this country. Some will never find their calling. They will work simply for the paycheck that supports a loved family.
Others will be at home caring for children or aging parents, where they can expect no paycheck at all.
I know for sure that when I sat at my Wellesley College commencement almost twenty-five years ago, I could not have predicted that illness and subsequent surgeries, premature babies, parents that became frail too soon, and a husband whose career became all-encompassing would alter, reshape, and transfigure the life I had planned.
Since then, there have been so many blessings and a great deal of hard work. But much of what has happened, and a lot of what was accomplished, took place in the hectic bustle of the backstage. As George Eliot famously wrote at the end of “Middlemarch”: “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.”
Life has a way of unfolding in ways that are unknown and unknowing. The path that might seem so clear right now will meander. And we learn in time this truth: we cannot all be stars. We are not all destined for the blazing brightness of the spotlight. Some of us, most of us, will only ever be simply ordinary. And that is enough.
Like E.B. White’s crafty she-spider, Charlotte, we quietly and tenaciously weave our best efforts in the toughest of gossamer threads. We do our best and most intentional work out of the spotlight. Our handiwork brings recognition to others. Or to no one at all. And that is just fine.
To the class of 2017, whatever school you’re graduating from: the speeches you’ll hear in the coming days will be filled with gusto and promise. And so is life. But this will mean very different things to different people. During this season of commencement speeches, it’s important to remember we cannot all be the crashing wave.
We can be content knowing we are simply the ripple that launched it.