NOTE: The following is a Baccalaureate address delivered to the 2012 Graduating Class of Eminence (Kentucky) High School, May 27, 2012.
According to the dictionary, the word baccalaureate refers to a “farewell sermon delivered to a graduating class.” For those of us assigned the task, it is often seen as our last chance to tell you something really important so that you can be sent off well.
Some ministers use the occasion to preach their best evangelical sermon, urging those who do believe to remain vigilant and urging those who do not believe to do so. I will not do that.
Other ministers will use the occasion to tell you what an important role you have ahead of you and to assure you that you have all you need to meet the challenge. I will not do that.
Even others will tell you that the folks who make the biggest contributions to life are those who are selfless, who always put others first. I will not do that.
I’m here tonight to urge you to be selfish. I urge you to use this evening and, perhaps, the next few days before graduation to turn your thoughts inward. I urge you to figure out who you are and to be that person and no one else. Fail to get that right, and you will get little else right.
Did you read William Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Do you recall Polonius’s last piece of advice to his son Laertes?
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.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
It’s sound advice. The only problem is that it is impossible to be true to one’s own self unless one first knows one’s own self. The best education is not one that leaves you with lots of facts, figures, and theories. The best education opens the door of your mind and heart to self-exploration that leads to the discovery of who you are.
. . . who you are apart from school
. . . who you are apart from your parents
. . . who you are!
Did you pay attention as Ms. Dees read the familiar account of David and Goliath? King Saul is so impressed that David is willing to face Goliath, that he offers the young man his own armor. It was quite an honor . . . a sign that David had arrived. I suspect the armor was too large and too heavy, but that is not given as the reason for what happened. David did not face down Goliath wearing the king’s armor. Scripture states that David “tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them.” David couldn’t fight this battle with another man’s armor, with another man’s courage, or in another man’s name. He faced Goliath as David, the David he knew, and with the weapons he had tested and, therefore, knew.
Be true to yourself. Engage the world with the resources you have and know. To be successful, you do not need to be anyone other than who you are; but you must be who you are, not who you pretend to be.
Knowing who you are and being willing to be that person . . . fully to be that person is one of the surest ways to reach a goal that eludes many: to be happy.
Candide wanted above all else to be happy. He sought happiness in places, in people, and in things. It seemed to elude him. Do you know Candide? He’s the main character in Candide by Francois Voltaire. Along with companions, Candide suffers many calamities. Toward the end of the book as these calamities are recounted, Candide asks his companion Martin which member of the group he thinks is the most miserable. Martin responds, “I cannot tell. I would have to be inside your heads to know.” So it is.
One’s happiness is not found in the circumstances of his/her life, but in his/her heart, soul, and mind. Neither circumstances, fortunes, people, nor places can determine one’s state of happiness. Happiness is determined by our response to those things. Our responses are determined by who we have become. Who we have become is determined by that to which we have given ultimate allegiance. We will not find happiness in:
Companions, including spouses.
Jobs no matter how much they pay or how much prestige they bring to us.
Fraternities to which we belong.
Causes we undertake.
It is found in us, or it is not found.
As the book concludes, Candide and all his companions are reunited, living in peace and security. Yet, they bicker . . . because they are bored. An old woman among them asks: “I’d like to know which is worse to be raped a hundred times by . . . pirates, to have one buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet in the Bulgar army, to be whipped and hanged . . . to be dissected, to be a galley slave, in short to suffer all the miseries we’ve all gone through, or to stay here doing nothing.” Candide replies, “That’s a hard question.”
It is a hard question indeed; but to do nothing is the surest way to boredom and to a living death. As human beings, we were not created to be idle. But to do something is not enough. The divine destiny waiting for each of us is to do what we are called to do. To do it, we need to be true to ourselves, to trust, as did David, in the “armor” we have been given and have tested, and it is to be guided by a principle and a higher power than ourselves.
A wise older man, who owns but 20 acres of land from which he provides a living for himself and his four children, tells Candide that it is “our work that keeps us free of three great evils—boredom, vice, and poverty.” The old man had found that for which Candide had searched—happiness; and it came from knowing who he was, what he needed, and what he had to give, and being satisfied.
Perhaps coming to know one’s own self in order to be true to one’s own self . . . perhaps finding the secret to happiness is possible outside of a relationship with God. Perhaps . . . but it has not been my experience. For me, self-knowledge came both from looking inside myself and from looking outside myself to God.
There may be some here who do not believe the Christian faith to be true. I would still commend to you the teachings of Jesus, particularly the Beatitudes as read by Ms. Emily. They reverse almost every modern-day teaching about what it takes to be successful; but I invite you to let the beatitudes become the focus of your meditation and the guide for your living.
I will go further. I will commend Jesus to you. I do so not because the Bible says he is Son of God, Savior, and King. I do so because I’ve tried him and found him worthy of my life. In him, I’ve found the courage to know myself and to be true to who I am. Having done so, I discovered that I belonged in this community, among people like you, your parents, and grandparents, pastoring a small-town church. I found the courage to be the preacher I am, rather than trying to be like some other preacher. I found the freedom to declare what I believe to be true and to acknowledge what I do not know and what quite frankly baffles me about life and faith.
In short by being true to myself, I have found the happiness that comes from being at home with one’s own self. May it be so for you.