This was my graduation address at today’s graduation ceremony for INVST, the peace and social justice leadership certificate program where I teach at the University of Colorado. I hope you will find it thought provoking and inspiring.
It is a daunting time to be graduating! The problems we collectively face are immense and intense. But it’s also one of the most important and exciting times to be alive! While I have had to spend most of my adult life working to help people see how dysfunctional and toxic our society is, the last 2 years have made that fact quite apparent to a broader segment of the population than perhaps any other time in history. The rigidity and relentlessness of “normal” has been quite broken down, so you all are incredibly poised to powerfully shape what our future “normal” will look like. That is exciting and makes me feel quite hopeful.
So today is a day of celebration—a pinnacle of achievement, a moment of relief, a time to acknowledge all of your hard work, your growth, your mastery. You have survived years of non-stop challenges and have emerged victorious! Congratulations! Graduation can also be a day of sadness as you reminisce about your memories of this place, say goodbye to friends with whom you are accustomed to sharing your everyday life, and bring to a close a chapter of your life that has likely been one of the most significant periods of your entire existence. And graduation can also be a day of anxiety, even terror, as you begin to move from this validation of success into whatever’s next—the great unknown! Every “graduation” in life, scholarly or not, represents both an ending and a beginning, a movement from the comfort of mastery to the vulnerable place of starting anew as a beginner.
But the gift of any liminal period—when you are between what has been and what will be—is that it offers time and space for reflection, in this instance contemplation of who you are and who you wish to become, how you understand success, and what constitutes a meaningful life. And these are questions that we must ask ourselves collectively as well as individually: who are we as a society and who do we wish to become, how do we understand success, and what constitutes a meaningful existence. In my consideration of these questions, two writers have been particularly salient and inspiring: first, Black poet and activist, Audre Lorde, in particular her piece “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” and second, trans legal scholar and activist Dean Spade, in particular his book Normal Life.
In describing what she means by “the erotic,” Lorde refers to the “internal requirement toward excellence.” But this excellence is not the same kind of excellence generally celebrated on college campuses—grades and academic awards, sporting victories, college rankings. Instead she explains that excellence is “not a question only of what we do…[but] a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”—in other words, our degree of presence and of passion. And, she writes, “once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.” She calls this a “grave responsibility…not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.” I would say this is the essence of Radical Self Love.
As you leave college, you will be bombarded with expectations and advice—from well-meaning relatives, teachers, friends, the media—all trying to tell you who you should be, what you should care about, what success and happiness should look like, including what social justice looks like and how it can be accomplished. Through your time with INVST you have developed a healthy skepticism about what our culture teaches about happiness and success, while cultivating the courage and resilience and creativity to forge your own path in life, regardless of consequences.
But it can be tempting when leaving college—a place where idealism and self-exploration are frequently encouraged—to think “ok, now I have to join the ‘real world’” and slowly let go of those things that set your heart on fire, that resonate with your own sense of integrity, in order to find your place in a system that, as Audre Lorde reminds us, “defines good in terms of profit and conformity rather than in terms of human well-being.”
Though it might be tempting to take the highest paying job, the most conventionally attractive spouse, the highest ranking grad school, the opportunities that look great on paper, I promise you that what will be most rewarding and satisfying is to choose those things that are the best match for you, regardless of how they look on paper. That is where you will find your joy, something that no amount of money or societal acceptance or worldly success or material comfort can provide.
In our collective life, we have created an unstable human community whereby the majority are dehumanized and burdened with unbearable suffering while a tiny percentage of its members are swollen with greed and an inflated sense of self-importance, bringing our entire planet to the verge of collapse. Our primary framework for power is power over—dominance and control—and even our models for social justice are often based on militarized notions of winning.
Rather than seeking inclusion into such systems, Dean Spade argues that “What we need instead is a critical and discerning politics that rejects invitations to inclusion in systems, institutions, and arrangements that are deadly and monstrous.” Instead we must build alternatives to the systems that exist, to build a world that we actually want. To do this, he says that we must create new ways of working together, “practicing how we want the world to be right now: democratic, collaborative, horizontal, care-based, not competitive, hierarchical, or cutthroat.”
As you graduate, you will be invited to participate in and justify and legitimize those societal systems Dean Spade has identified as deadly and monstrous. Maybe that will seem like the only option. I had my first midlife crisis when I graduated from college, as I looked out in the world to find my place and, much like my experience of gender, found that none of the available options suited me. But what I’ve found since then is that if you need something that does not exist in the world, it’s because you are meant to create it. That’s how my chorus–Phoenix, Colorado’s Trans Community Choir–came into being.
So what is your vision? What is your gift, your passion, your unique contribution? As John Cabot Zinn says, “Regardless of how absurd our inner calling might seem, it’s authentically ours and doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else.” I believe that success is simply honoring your unique life path, and happiness more often comes from taking a risk than being comfortable. Our dignity derives not from our claims of respectability and normalcy, but from standing in our truth and integrity and refusing to believe that our humanity can be dampened by other peoples’ fears and judgments.
Although we are taught to seek the “destination” (whether that be the ideal job, the perfect relationship, financial security, societal acceptance) where we can just kick back and be comfortable, we are meant to be always expanding and evolving, seeking out new discoveries in ourselves and in our worlds, being transformed and surprised by life. We are meant to individuate, to move beyond our conditioning, beyond the limits of our parents, our teachers, our culture into new territory, to follow our own inner directives to create our best, most exciting, most authentic lives. I can’t wait to see what you all create. Congratulations and my sincerest best wishes for your glorious futures.