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The Commencement Address No One Asked Me to Deliver

I love commencement addresses. They’re a parent’s dream because they involve two vital elements of parenthood: Practical wisdom and a captive audience.
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June 5, 2024
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I love commencement addresses. They’re a parent’s dream because they involve two vital elements of parenthood: Practical wisdom and a captive audience.

I have never been invited to deliver a commencement address, and that’s good, because I haven’t merited the kinds of achievements that result in being asked to serve as a graduation speaker. Still, I thought it was time to write a commencement address that no one asked me to deliver.

Dear Graduates,

Congratulations! While it may seem that I am merely congratulating you on the culmination of years of hard work, I am, in fact, congratulating you on sitting in a chair for the past 25 minutes without having pulled out your smartphones. Incidentally, “smartphones” is the word that my generation, born in the 1980s, uses because we still recall a time when there were landlines, flip phones and eventually, smartphones. We also leave voicemails in which we repeat our phone numbers slowly and clearly because we still forget that our number is on display on our recipient’s screen.

Yes, congratulations on sitting still for nearly half an hour without resorting to scrolling your phones or worse, filming this ceremony from your seat, when every single one of your family members, including your six-year-old sister, is already filming it from their seats!

Take a deep breath. I want you to enjoy this freedom while it lasts, because you won’t experience it again until you board an airplane and are subjected to Wi-Fi inaccessibility for the first 90 unbearable seconds of a flight that is taking off or landing.

I am slightly older than you and, to be honest, everything hurts. That probably explains why today, I enjoy my greatest taste of phone-free solace when I am all-but-strapped to a dentist’s chair, inside a loud MRI tube or best of all, heavily sedated during surgery.

In truth, I blame my generation for all of this, because we gave the world the internet and smartphones, and then unwisely unleashed social media upon humanity. It was like sending a lamb chop to put out a grease fire.

I cannot predict what technology will offer your future children at a time when grown men today wear smart glasses to raise more interesting topics of conversation on dates. I can only remind you that anytime you meet someone who still calls a hashtag by its previous name, “pound,” ask them for life advice, and then offer to hold their bags and help them cross the street. I meet so many nice, young people that way.

As I said, I cannot predict much, but I do believe that your generation will most likely be the last to experience the totality of the human experience — with all the fantastic inconveniences, impracticalities, wonderful mistakes and imperfect human connections that it entails. The rest of us still remember what it was like to sit in a bathroom and read a magazine.

You are the first generation in human history for whom everything, from a photograph to a cover letter, can be utterly perfected, whether through a filter or an exceptional, AI-generated piece of text. I am here to tell you: Never settle for perfection.

Do you know which photos I treasure most from my childhood in 1990s America? They are the ones in which there is something lovably imperfect about everyone’s face: My sister’s eyes are closed; I am looking away from the camera (presumably at a hot dog stand); and there wasn’t a filter strong enough to mask my 10-year-old cousin’s impressive mustache and chest hair. I probably should have started my address by informing you that I hail from the Middle East.

No one looked perfect in those photos, least of all my father, whose head, for some reason, never even made it into the shot because my mother’s thumb always managed to cover the top left quadrant of the lens as she was taking the photograph. I have so many beloved childhood pictures that end with my father’s neck.

I cherish those images because they captured the glorious imperfection of reality (and there were only a few of them, as opposed to the tens of thousands of images we store aimlessly today). I also cherish them because once I hurriedly ripped open the envelope at the drugstore to see if any of the pictures were ruined (we used actual film back then), I could never go back and recreate the moment in that photo. It was an exercise in frustration tolerance, at its best. As I have learned from many first graders, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”

No, never settle for perfection. It is the most boring and least human of all traits. And while you’re at it, try not to dream too much about the best fantasy moments of your best, fantasy future. It’s so much easier to dream about being a rock star than to visualize being turned down at an audition. But dream about losing that audition anyway. You can be brave, or you can be perfect.

This is precisely why you should dream about having one or two (or many more) doors slammed in your face: Unfulfilled dreams are also a little-known, but wonderful way to build up frustration tolerance. You should be careful not to succumb to resignation and pessimism, but you should daydream a little about those closed doors and failures, because when they occur (and they will occur), you already will have faced them in your mind and, without catastrophizing things, you will be better suited to measure their gravity and seriousness.

As you leave this campus and enter that nebulous future known as “the real world,” remember to retain your humanity and your morality. Bashing someone publicly on social media is easy, but it’s not moral. Choosing to scroll your phone, rather than spending those same 15 minutes going for a walk with someone you love, is even easier. But it’s not the human way.

Experience the utter lousiness of a menial summer job. Mop that frozen yogurt-stained floor and wear that apron and that hat with a pretzel on it with unadulterated pride. And please don’t confuse being busy with being accomplished. You are a human, not a hamster.

Experience the utter lousiness of a menial summer job. Mop that frozen yogurt-stained floor and wear that apron and that hat with a pretzel on it with unadulterated pride. And please don’t confuse being busy with being accomplished. You are a human, not a hamster.

With a few changes in habit, you can soon declare that autocorrect is not your brain; Google Maps is not your brain. And AI, which I predict will be the cause of and solution to most of our future woes, has an “Off” button. At least for now.

As you move forward, you will be inundated with messages from seemingly every corner that deviously whisper in your ear that you need to be more, do more, buy more and say more. So relish today.

Today, you have done enough. You have been enough. You have bought enough. And you do not always need to speak or add your two cents to every conversation or hot-button issue. Save those pennies for a rainy day. Whether on social media, in a group text or at a Thanksgiving dinner, don’t talk with so much certainty. Heed the words of my favorite humorist, Mark Twain, who reminded us that “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

As a hopelessly anxious person who feels she has never accomplished enough, I leave you and your proud parents and relatives with a Nahuatl translation of a Shamanic blessing: “I release my partner from the obligation to complete me. I release my parents from the feeling they failed with me. I release my children from the need to bring me pride. I don’t lack anything.”

Congratulations on your tireless work, discipline and all the times you read the book without first watching the movie. Now that is old school.


Tabby Refael is an award-winning writer, speaker and weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow her on X and Instagram @TabbyRefael.

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