A post from 2011, reworked and reposted a couple of times.

I can appreciate how difficult it must be to craft a good baccalaureate or commencement address. The need to avoid well-worn pieties while also offering something meaningful and true. The desire to be funny but not flip, Image result for graduation celebrationsufficiently serious but not heavy-handed, memorable but not (too) controversial. And the fear of being boring–that you’ll look out over the sea of faces and, oh my god, are they texting while I’m talking? 22-year-olds can be a tough audience; I don’t envy those who stand in front of them every graduation season and do their best to challenge and inspire.

But maybe we could retire that most tiresome of commencement clichés–the one which, in some form or another and with varying degrees of finesse and facility, will be dispensed to most members of the class of 2019, whether they’re graduating from community college or the Ivy League. The one that exhorts them to go forth and “change the world.”

Could we maybe set our sights a little lower?  What if we encouraged humility and tenderness, instead of the disguised workaholism we tend to ask of them?

What if we relieved graduates of the burden to go out and do “great things” and asked them instead to be attentive and useful, merciful and generous, wherever it is they find themselves? And not to stress about where they find themselves because sometimes when you find yourself in the place you least expected to be, you find yourself.

My hunch is that college graduates would be grateful to hear that their task is not to change the world. I think they know how deeply cynical, if well-meaning, this advice is. I remember one of my young Facebook friends posting: “Graduated yesterday. Today I save the world.”

A few years ago I had a student–a senior at the time–who, after reading Living Gently in a Violent World for our class, realized that all her academic work and life experiences had been preparing her for a vocation she hadn’t been able to name: to live in a L’Arche community where she would spend hours at a time feeding or bathing or otherwise caring for persons with profound disabilities. She understood that this would not be an exercise in charity or self-congratulatory do-goodism but would be damn hard work–yet purposeful work, transformative work. Work, that as the book’s subtitle suggests, reveals the “prophetic power of weakness.”

I think about Nicole at every graduation, as the considerable accomplishments of our school’s exceptional students are highlighted (and kudos to those bright and talented young people). But let’s face it, graduating from college to go forth and spend your days wiping someone’s dirty chin or butt doesn’t register any kind of social prestige. We might admire the selflessness of it but we hardly know how to claim it as a worthy way to spend one’s “career” after all the toil (and expense) of four years of college.

Change the world? If we can start with changing a diaper or changing our mind about what success is or how to measure happiness or what matters most in life we might have something to say to the students who are listening, who–despite being a little hungover or momentarily preoccupied with a text message–long to hear a word of grace for the uncertain world that awaits them.