“First of all, good folks – I was going to say ‘ladies and gentlemen’, but I fear that about half of you would reject assignment to either of these, and if I listed all the identities that would be needed to meet the case acceptably, my time would be up – let me say how remarkable, not to mention astonishing, I find it that Baits College has asked me, a microscopic protozoon, to address your 150th Commencement.
“Ever since receiving the invitation, Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba has wondered what words of counsel and good cheer the leaders of this College would wish me to offer. What words would induce you, the members of the Baits College Class of 2019, to make best use of the privileges and connections you brought to this campus, and the networks you built here in your parties and clubs – your classes, of course, being of no particular significance – so as to make your marks in, or on, the world, leading by example, encouraging the next generation to follow in your fee-paying footsteps, and thereby achieving that coveted acclaim, that highest level of alumni recognition: the Master Baitser. (An academic exercise if ever there was one.)
“Knowing, as they should if they have paid any attention whatsoever to the protozoon’s life and works, that Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba would offer no such words, no such exhortations.
“Who am I to do this? I look at you all from this podium, I see a sea of faces, I know by rote that faces are what I see. But your faces are faceless. I know none of you. I do not know your names, your journeys, your prejudices, your aspirations, your allergies. I do not know – I have no hope of knowing – what tale of mine would change the life of any one of you, or even deflect its course in any direction. And would that be in a good direction, or a bad?
“All I know is what I have seen and done, for good and ill – I, and those with whom I have shared fair chunks of my life, none of whom are seated in this sea of faceless faces. I can talk about some of that … but would that then be about you, or about me trying to convince myself, through you, that I really am as smart as I say I am? Whose party is this, anyway? I am not graduating today. You are!
“Hey. Maybe I can say something that will distract you, however momentarily, from those miserably uncomfortable chairs you’re sitting in. That would be about you. Maybe that’s how come we’ve got hundreds, nay thousands, of people every year trying to sound as smart as they say they are to graduating classes. And some of them say the dumbest things, trying to get you to forget that cramp in your butt! Even if they’re not in the White House or trying to get in there! (Do you vote for people who tell you what you need to know, even if it sounds ugly, and have the ability to do something about that? Or do you vote for people who tell you what you want to hear? Hmmmm?)
“Here’s one of those dumb things. Maybe you’ve heard it already, it’s been popular enough with commencement speakers and and self-help guru retail outlets lately. ‘SELF-DOUBT!‘, they scream. ‘Don’t let this happen to you! You will never succeed in business or life until you slay this beast!!!!’
“Go on, say it. ‘That’s not dumb, that’s ringing self-affirmation!’ Aye. I will overcome, and I will gladly pay the fees of any persons or groups, on top of the fees I am already paying to my dear alma mater, and will be for the next thirty years, who promise to help me realize this. It sounds good, it feels good. And it’s not new to this generation. Hell no. it’s a time-honored piece of advice.
“Straight out of the pages of Mein Kampf.
“Adolf Hitler had no self-doubt, and he and his were not about to let you, or anyone else, do any doubting for him. Or of him. And he achieved. Did he ever. Arbeit macht frei, oy.
“So you want to be known for the attempted massacre of an entire human race? (Um … there aren’t any representatives of North American First Peoples in this audience, are there?)
“Mark Twain once imagined what it would be like to eliminate his self-doubt – what he called his conscience, one of those obsolete relics of paternalism that you might have had to write a report on during your time at Baits. The title he gave to this imagining? The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut.
“‘Slay the beast of self-doubt?’ Here I stand to tell you, even though I know nothing about you, nothing about your habits or motivations, that you murder this animal at your peril and the peril of those around you. For without it, what’s going to tell your ‘sacred I’ that it’s going off the rails and over the cliff? Facebook?!?
“Your task, I argue, is not to kill the creature but to tame it, and by taming it transforming it from your stumbling block to your best and most loyal, if perhaps not your most comfortable, friend.
“‘I can’t do this.’ The untamed beast says this, and you crawl under a rock. Until some Führer comes along and tells you to follow instead, off the rails and over the cliff. To the tamed beast, you say ‘Why not?’
“‘I’m scared’, it replies. ‘Of what?’, you ask.
“Perhaps it says, ‘Because the job involves testing the effectiveness of antibiotics, and I’m allergic to penicillin.’ OK, good answer, let’s not go here, yeah?
“Or perhaps it says, ‘I don’t know, I just am.’ Hm, that’s vague, new stuff can be scary, I get it, but we could be missing an opportunity here, can we get some more specifics please?
“Or perhaps it says, ‘Because I’m oppressed by boogeybooger over there.’ Right. The world is full – conveniently full – of buggers to blame. Is this one standing over you with a rifle? Or holding a mirror in front of your face?
“Some of you here today will be headed into your next phase with Greek letters attached to your names and credentials, tokens of your suitability for membership in clubs that will likely prove more important to your future than your degree. Alas that you probably know no more about Greek and Greece than those letters. For the ancient Greeks knew all about this self-doubt stuff. And they had a word that they used to describe those who cast off all self-doubt. Hubris. The ones who were the proud possessors of hubris usually prospered for awhile, Adolf. And then, they didn’t.
“Hubris asks, ‘Am I being served?’, and grants permission to ensure that you do your utmost to get served. Your new BFF, self-doubt, asks instead, ‘Am I serving others – and not just using ‘service’ as an excuse for not doing my all?’ So you can achieve your personal goals and still have folk to celebrate them with you – instead of folk that are watching for you to stumble so they can pounce on you, cut you to ribbons, and walk off with the stuff you worked for.
“OK, I’m done. You can get out of those miserable chairs now. Live long – long enough to pay off your student loans, if you can. And prosper. Despite those loan payments. Somehow.”