David McCollough Jr. got into some hot water when people misunderstood his commencement speech at Wellesley High School a few weeks ago when he told the graduates that they weren’t “special.” What an uproar ensued! It was even featured a couple of times on the national evening news. Humph! How could anyone tell graduates that they’re not special? Well, because the second part of his message was: “because everyone is.” He went on to encourage the young to do things for their own sake, rather than for the glory of it. “Nice work if you can get it,” as the song goes.
I also read a piece in the NYTimes Magazine yesterday in which someone said, “everyone has had a bad boyfriend,” “everyone has fantasized about a different life than the one they’ve led” and I realized then and there that we aren’t special about the bad things that happen to us either. In fact, Isabel Gillies’s memoir about her husband leaving her for a colleague who was more his style is called, “Happens All the Time.” [Later, Gillies married a second husband who shared her values and was apparently more her style.]
So, we’re not special in being good because everyone is special in their unique way. And we’re also not special in the bad things that happen to us or in the stupid ways that we sometimes fool ourselves. Isn’t it a relief, actually? To drop the notion that somehow we’re singled out either for trying too hard or by not trying hard enough? Why not stop trying and just DO, as Yoda was famous for saying? Or even better, just BE?
The one caveat McCollough encouraged the young to be was to become readers and to keep on reading. Because that is where you learn. I’ll buy that.