by Walter Harding
State University College at Geneseo
President Jakubauskas, members of the College Council, colleagues on the faculty, parents and friends, and above all members of the graduating class of 1984.
First, my hearty congratulations to you parents. I know exactly how you feel today because I too have a son graduating from this platform this morning.
Next, my equally hearty congratulations to you of the Class of 1984. I know exactly how proud you feel for I too am receiving a degree today.
When I was chosen to give this commencement speech today, I trust the committee realized that it was inevitable that I would have something to say about Henry Thoreau for I have been a monomaniac about Henry Thoreau for nearly fifty years. I shall not disappoint them on that score. Thoreau, I have found, has something pertinent (or as he would say impertinent) to say on many appropriate subjects.
Thoreau, by the way, for any of you who are not familiar with his name, lived in Concord, Massachusetts, from 1817 to 1862, was a close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, went to Walden Pond just outside of Concord to life in a cabin of his own making and then wrote his masterpiece, Walden, about that experiment; he also went to jail to protest against slavery, and then wrote his essay “Civil Disobedience” about the experience, an essay that through its adoption by such people as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King has helped change the history of the world for the better. Thoreau is a man who has given meaning to many of our lives.
Although he himself was an honor graduate of Harvard, Class of 1837, I must confess that he did not have a particularly high opinion of colleges in general or in particular. When his friend Emerson once boasted that Harvard taught all the branches of learning, Thoreau quickly replied, “Yes, but none of the roots.” When Harvard, as was their strange practice then, offered him a master’s degree, five years after graduation, for the mere payment of a five dollar diploma fee, he refused it, saying, “Let every sheep keep its own skin.” He thought colleges had too many professors of philosophy and too few real philosophers. And he said he got more from his association with cultivated companions on the college campus than he did from his classes. (An idea with which, incidentally, I strongly agree.)
But enough of Thoreau’s thoughts about colleges. Let me get down to the business of the day. One of Thoreau’s strongest beliefs was that we each should live our own lives, live them as fully as possible. As he said about his move out to Walden Pond in 1845, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
He knew he had but one life to live and he wanted to make the most of it. He wanted to be certain that when he reached the end of that life that he had not wasted it, for, as he said, “Life is so dear.”
He went ahead and lived the life he thought best for him, despite the remonstrances of his friends and neighbors who wished he would live a more conventional life. And believed it so successfully that only a few weeks before his death he was able to say that he regretted nothing.
Thoreau was also completely convinced that each one of us could live completely satisfying lives if we only had the courage to do it. “The mass of men,” he said, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” But there is no need for them to if they would only direct their own lives rather than doing what they thought others expect of them. “Live your own lives,” he says, in essence, over and over again.
Now don’t get the idea I am suggesting that you each go out into the woods and build a cabin there. That’s not the idea at all. Thoreau says very specifically in Walden, “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account (for) I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; (and) I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.” Thoreau was saying that if we wish to live satisfying lives, we must live our own lives, not someone else’s life.
Today’s ceremony is called “Commencement”. You may wonder why “Commencement” comes at the end of your college career rather that at the beginning. But while it may be at the end of your college days, it is the beginning of your adult life. This is the first day of the rest of your life, and it is a day filled with vitally important decisions. You are setting a pattern today for your whole life. Let me say once more, “Live your own life. Be true to yourself.”
As you set out on your career today, remember that it is your life and no one else’s. Only you can live your own life. No one else can do it for you. And no one else should try to do it for you. I’m not saying you should not listen to advice from others. Of course you should listen. But remember the final decision should be yours. The buck stops with you.
If you are about to embark on a career today—and I don’t care what that career is—only (and I stress that word only—only reason, then don’t do it. You may be told fantastic tales of big bucks ahead, or of great prestige and great power. But the only fantastic thing about most of the fashionable careers is really how often, and how quickly, these professions of the day turn out to be but fads and get filled up to overflowing and leave those who embarked on those fashionable careers stranded where they neither wanted nor want to be. On the other hand, if what happens to be the fashionable career of the moment is what deep down inside you you really want to do, not because it is fashionable, but because you know it is “your thing”, don’t let me or anyone else discourage you. Go do your thing. There’s always room at the top for the good man.
If you are about to embark on your career only (and again I stress only) only because it is your father’s or your grandfather’s or your uncle’s business, whether it’s selling cars or selling houses or whatever, when really deep down underneath you would rather be doing something else, don’t join the family business even if it promised the greatest of sinecures and all sorts of wealth and security. What your father, grandfather or uncle enjoys may simply not be your thing and could lead you into one of those “lives of quiet desperation” and of boredom. On the other hand, once again, if the family business really suits you to a “T”, go to it and consider yourself remarkably lucky.
If you are about to embark on a career only—again—only because it has been a tradition in your family for generations that the eldest son be a farmer or a physician or whatever, when your heart lies elsewhere, forget the tradition. Your progenitors had their lives to live; you have your own. It is your life you are living, not theirs. Live it to the hilt in your own way.
If you are about to embark on a career only because your mother always wanted to have a clergyman in the family or because your father has always wanted to be a lawyer and felt he didn’t have a chance, don’t do it. As harsh as it may sound, remind them that they have had their lives to live and you have yours. Live your own life to the fullest.
Now, let us consider another matter. What if you embark on a career, even the career which you yourself ardently wanted, and then discover to your amazement and disappointment that it is not the career you thought it to be, what then? And let me assure you that it is perfectly possible for that to happen. What then? Or what if after a number of perfectly satisfying years in one career, you find another more enticing? What then?
My advice—and Henry David Thoreau’s advice—is to have the courage to quit and change your career. If you do not find yourself greeting each new day with joy; if you find yourself watching the clock and waiting for the final bell to ring; if you find yourself thinking of Monday as “blue Monday” and saying of Friday “TGIF”—Thank God, it’s Friday; if you find yourself yearning all year for vacation and when vacation is over, hating to go back to work, then it is time for a change, and make that change. Thoreau, you will recall, spent only a little over two years at Walden Pond and then he realized that he “had several more lives to live,” and so left the pond for other ways. It’s never too late to start over. And it is far better to start over than to waste your life in a rut that you do not want to be in. Remember, again, you have but one life to live. Get out and live it.
The pattern of life I am urging you to follow is not one that all will encourage you in. I am sure there are some of your loved ones up in the balcony here today who are horrified by what I have been saying. They will urge you not to listen to me. Really what I have been saying is not to listen even to me, but to listen rather to yourself. Listen to yourself. Trust yourself. Live your own life and live it to the fullest.
Can I promise success? Frankly, no, if you think of success in the popular terms of money and prestige and power. You may achieve them, but I can’t guarantee it. But if you look at success in a different way—in what I firmly believe is a much more satisfying way, then I think I can guarantee it. As Thoreau tells us at the end of Walden, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours…..If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that’s where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
And what will that success be like: Again I take Thoreau’s words from Walden: “If day and night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal—that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself.” You may not become a millionaire or the President of the United States if you take your own way, but you will have a satisfying life, a life without regrets. That I can promise you. Now, go to it. Live your own life.
A Note on the Text:
Source: Reproduced from a typescript in The Walter Harding Collection in the Thoreau Society Collections