This week President Obama braved the culture wars to give the commencement address at Notre Dame University in Indiana. You’ve got to admit the guy doesn’t shy away from controversy, nor in the case of abortion rights and stem-cell research, from the lion’s den of a pre-eminent Catholic school. (The Former Occupant, you’ll recall, almost never spoke outside a closed military base lest he expose himself to ridicule, or hurled shoes.)
Mr. Obama rose to the occasion, walked an elegant rhetorical tightrope that promoted humility, doubt, and curiosity, and warned against self-righteousness. By all accounts, the student audience appreciated his inclusiveness, his respect for both faith and choice.
Graduation speeches are tough. It’s a tough crowd, one that mostly just wants to party, to revel in the barely comprehended truth that you did actually stagger through to a degree. Wisdom from the dais on a hot May day might as well be wind whistling by your mortarboard.
If I were invited to address a graduating class I’d say, Good for you, now make like Huck Finn and “light out for the territory ahead.” I don’t mean career-path territory. I mean the physical/emotional territory of places and spaces you’ve never been.
Break the chain of expectation. Go pick cherries in Paonia. Turn your grad money into a good wetsuit and go surfing in Scotland, or Chile. Volunteer backstage at the Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon. Hitchhike. Ride the rails. End up somewhere where you don’t speak the language.
Both of my girls saw the wisdom in a break. Cloe braved malaria and Malagasy in Madagascar. Then she took a year before med school to race mountain bikes. Cecily dropped out of college in her junior year, taught snowboarding, traveled around Australia after working the 2002 Sydney Olympics, studied massage in the sovereign state of Boulder—and then went back to finish her degree.
Me, I went to the Big Apple after I graduated. Got a job as a research librarian on the 42nd floor of the Time/Life building. It was a dead-end job, and when I asked my boss when I would get to do something interesting, like write for Sports Illustrated instead of just playing on their Central Park softball team, she gave me the best career advice I ever got. Get out of here, she said. Have adventures. Go live your life. And if in five years you still want to write for S.I., come back and do it.
So I moved to Colorado, learned to ski by teaching skiing, met my wife, and eventually started writing about what I knew and loved. But I reminded myself then, and continue to remind myself, that I almost blew the chance to go out and have adventures, to live my life.
I almost ruined my chance even to go to college when in the summer after high school my girlfriend and I got pregnant. What a moron. No excuse to say we didn’t have sex ed at school in those days, or that I was a naïf in his first sexual relationship.
We might have been stuck, mired, married at 18. I discussed with my father the possibility of joining the Navy. My mother, bless her, saved me, saved us. (This girl and I were not destined to stay together.) Through friends of friends she arranged an abortion, strictly illegal in 1967. I still feel guilt about it, but I know it saved both of us to pursue our separate paths.
Mr. Obama has tried to reframe what he admits may be an insoluble cultural debate. Let’s not demonize anyone, he said at Notre Dame. And let’s be clear: no one is pro abortion. Everyone would like to see a reduction in unwanted pregnancies, and better support for women (and men) who decide to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term. Let’s not fight over when life begins or what may or may not be God’s will.
A simple condom that summer of love could have spared me and my girlfriend and my parents a lot of heartache. Spared us from having to dart furtively into a willing doctor’s back door on a brittle empty Sunday.
Now Roe v. Wade has at least ameliorated that dangerous embarrassment. I’m pro Roe. And pro life. My life. The man’s life and the woman’s. Freedom at this stage in your life, real freedom to move and see and grow—that’s something for which to fling your mortarboards with enthusiasm.