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Do This, Not That

Pomp and circumstance and advice for post-graduation life, from Elie Weisel to Susan Sontag and Andy Samberg

Jonathan Zalman
May 16, 2016

May means it’s over—school, that is, for college seniors. The only thing left to do now it pay too much to dress in a colorful robe and funny, flat hat, listen to important people talk from a stage, walk across said stage, take photos with your family, then go out to eat with them. Part of the attraction of these ceremonies, at least for some, is a billing of some celebrity or politician, who uses the pulpit to proffer truths and advice about living life for captive, sponge-minded audiences who, ideally, are eager to soak it up.

Commencement speeches.

I’ll never forget two things about my graduation ceremony: my hangover, which, at the time, I idiotically wore like a badge of honor; and the address of Phylicia Rashad (of Clair Huxtable fame) about which I don’t recall much because a) my hangover, and b) it was just awful. Awful. (Sorry, Phylicia).

Over the weekend, a couple graduation speeches made it through Internet algorithms that mathematically prompted them to plop themselves into my line of vision, earning my “click.” One was from President Obama, who took indirect pot-shots during his address at Rutgers University at Donald Trump by talking out against building walls. The other was by 26-year-old Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who made fun of his Super Bowl XLIX interception, which I’m just going to put right here for you to relive, y’know, for fun.

I imagine that Wilson’s ability to bring some levity to what was one of the most—if not the most—bone-headed play calls in professional sports history, was intended to teach the graduating class at the University of Washington about humility, and what it takes to forgive oneself and move on from failure. That’s a fine message. So, in the spirit of graduation season, below are some memorable speeches from the past (thanks NPR) from fellow Members of the Tribe. Their life lessons? Consider them, then take it or leave it.

Susan Sontag, Wellesley, 1983

All counsels of courage usually contain, at the end, a counsel of prudence. In Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, Book III, there is a place called the Castle of Busyrane, on whose outer gate is written BE BOLD, and on the second gate, BE BOLD, BE BOLD, and on the inner iron door, BE NOT TOO BOLD.

This is not the advice I am giving. I would urge you to be as imprudent as you dare. BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BE BOLD. Keep on reading. (Poetry. And novels from 1700 to 1940.) Lay off the television. And, remember when you hear yourself saying one day that you don’t have time any more to read- or listen to music, or look at painting, or go to the movies, or do whatever feeds you head now- then you’re getting old. That means they got to you, after all.

I wish you Love. Courage. And Fantasy.

Jimmy Iovine, USC, 2013

Fear, at times, makes us protect and defend what we think we already know. But sometimes in life, you need to learn a new lesson. And between you and me, in my experience, the most intelligent people that I meet are the ones who can best articulate what they don’t know.

Jon Stewart, College of William and Mary, 2004

Don’t let party labels blind you. No party has a monopoly on truth, or God on its side. I should know. I was a Democrat before I was a Republican before I became an independent and I never changed my principles.
Brandeis reached for his dreams and, through his dreams; he assumed immense responsibilities on the highest court of this land.But Brandeis also had a dream for his people, the Jews. Like Herzl, Brandeis believed that the Jews should have an independent state in Palestine. Zionism reflected the same dream that Brandeis had for America. “It is democracy that Zionism represents,” he declared. “It is social justice… ” And just as Irish Americans were obligated to support Home Rule for Ireland, so, too, did Brandeis hold that patriotic American Jews were duty-bound to back the Zionist cause.

A dreamer but also a pragmatist, Brandeis focused on building the social and economic institutions of the future Jewish state—laying the foundations on which the citizens of that state could someday bear their sovereign responsibilities.

That vision provided a life-changing example for sixty young Americans, some of them your age, from around the United States—from Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Chicago—who dreamt of moving to Palestine and establishing one of those communal farms, a kibbutz. The year was 1937, the height of the Great Depression, a time hardly conducive to dreams. Worse, Palestine was in the throes of an Arab revolt that claimed thousands of casualties on both sides. Yet, these young Americans bought a plot of land near the Carmel Mountain range. They dreamt and they leapt at the chance to put those dreams into action.

Andy Samberg, Harvard University, 2012

My memory, though rooted in the darkness of the abyss, has taught me the imperative of solidarity and friendship.
Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character. You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance—and since you’re walking into the middle of a presidential election, it’s worth mentioning that you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.