Jane Ahlin column: Advice is the lubricant of graduation's rituals
Seeing graduates bright, hopeful, and excruciatingly young, adults (particularly parents) want to say or do something meaningful, something to be remembered. And our human tendency seems to be to give advice. In fact, advice is graduation's lubri...
Seeing graduates bright, hopeful, and excruciatingly young, adults (particularly parents) want to say or do something meaningful, something to be remembered. And our human tendency seems to be to give advice. In fact, advice is graduation's lubricant. Liberally sprinkled throughout greeting cards and commencement speeches, advice oils the wheels of transition for students by way of tried and true maxims "Look at your graduation not as an end, but as a beginning ... never forsake your ideals ... live every day to its fullest ... view failure and success as two sides of the same coin."
We convince ourselves that somehow advice "smooths" things along, even though we know that human beings of all ages have a greater willingness to give advice than to take it.
Early in the Shakespeare's tragic play Hamlet, the character Polonius gives his son Laertes some advice as Laertes departs Denmark for France:
This above all, to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Before I'd read the play, I thought the quotation was downright wonderful. Taken alone, it still impresses me; however, there's a problem. In a play, words don't stand alone; they are spoken in situations that advance the plot and are influenced by the virtues and vices of the characters doing the speaking. In Hamlet, Polonius is not a great guy. He serves as chief minister to the corrupt king, and he spies on everyone, including his own children. Then, too, those words about being true to oneself comprise the eighth piece of advice Polonius gives his son in one speech: advice upon advice upon advice. The result is that the words as heard in the play have less impact than they do when taken out of context.
What brings all that to mind and makes it amusing is that Polonius's harangue strikes me every bit as typical for parents in 2003 as it must have been when Shakespeare wrote the play in 1600. Before Laertes can get on his horse and head off to France, he has to listen to his father advising him about the way to behave when speaking, dealing with friends, quarrelling, exercising judgment, choosing clothes, and handling money. It is only after setting him straight on all those subjects that Polonius adds the "biggie" about being true to himself. By that time, it isn't clear whether Laertes is still listening or whether he's thinking an Elizabethan version of "yada, yada, yada; blah, blah, blah."
No matter how good the advice, graduating seniors probably aren't going to embrace possibility and live joyfully because we old (wise?) adults tell them to. Better they see us treating idealism and high-minded resolve as contemporary issues of importance, rather than axioms we prefer to consider through the rear view mirror.
A good friend recently brought a poem to my attention called "Living in Faith" from the collection "Passages Toward the Dark" by North Dakota's native son, the late Tom McGrath. The last lines of the poem seem right for this year's graduates and all the rest of us, too:
Meanwhile this rock and that bird don't seem to care
About statistical statements of destiny.
Flying or falling they have about them an air
That's jaunty with faith: the world is what comes next,
They seem to say. And I, who'd be debonair,
Swim up out of these depths inspired
To take a deep breath of whatever's out there.
Ahlin teaches English as an adjunct faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and is a regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org