Pyle: An honest commencement address
George Pyle is out of state this weekend attending a commencement ceremony. The following column was first published last May.
Congratulations to the Class of [Year].
Now that you have [fought/earned/coasted] your way out of [college/high school/obedience training] you have earned more than a diploma, a funny hat and surprised parents.
You have attained the requisite level of maturity to be given the ultimate secret of life, the universe and everything.
Are you ready? Are you sure? OK. Lock the doors. Shut the windows. And double-dog pinkie promise never to tell anybody the secret of adulthood:
We. Have. No. Idea. What. We. Are. Doing.
Not one sorry clue.
I know that most of you have suspected that for a long time. We grown-ups have demonstrated time and again a fumbling behavior that suggests that, for many of us, senile dementia starts setting in at about age 30.
Wherever you live, you can find examples. In Utah, it's lawmakers who try to kill any real sex education programs, who pretend that the only reason they can't properly fund your overcrowded schools is that the mean old federal government won't let them strip-mine Kane County and who trust everyone with guns but not with liquor.
But the tradition of humankind, generation after generation, has been for adults to pretend, at least when the kids were within earshot, that we have everything under control. That our institutions, our governments, our religious orders, our extended families, operate on secure and settled ideas.
It is a fiction that, like most stories, serves a purpose. In this case, the purpose being to fool ourselves by fooling you, and to hope that neither your generation nor ours will give up in despair.
And you should not give up in despair.
Because, when I say that we do not know what we are doing, I do not mean to imply that there are not highly competent adults who do, indeed, know everything one needs to know to perform successful open heart surgery. To pilot a jetliner, even one with two dead engines, to a safe landing.
To build houses that don't fall down. To catch bad guys. To tell stories. To navigate whitewater rapids. To get a decent newspaper out 365 days a year. To keep this school open for another term.
But almost everything we claim as knowledge is different from what passed for wisdom before, in some cases only a few years ago. What we don't know, what we will never know, is what the finished product is supposed to look like.
As Albert Einstein put it, "If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research."
Or, as an academic contemporary of his, Henry Jones Jr., Ph.D., was heard to utter, "I don't know. I'm making this up as I go."
We are all making this up as we go. Our almost constant pretense otherwise is intended not only to keep you from guessing just how clueless we are, but also to allow us to stop, gather our wits, take some kind of navigational reckoning by the stars of whatever ideals and principles motivate us, and then set out again to feel our way into the unknown and the unknowable.
You should not hold these noble lies against us. The only time they are really harmful to anyone is when those who favor one set of comforting fairly tales tries to force that set of rationalizations onto a different tribe.
You will be confused. You will get lost. You will take wrong turns and have deep regrets. It will be hard sometimes.
So cling to one thing that you can believe.
We love you. More than you can know.
Now, get out of here, and start making your own mistakes.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, has no memory of anything that was said at his commencement ceremonies.
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