Last week, on 17 May 2014, in the Theater at Madison Square Garden, I gave the graduate commencement address and received an honorary doctorate from my alma mater, Iona College. A number of friends have suggested I post the text of the speech, and so here it is.
Thank you, Iona faculty & staff, friends & family. It’s an honor to have this opportunity to speak to you, my fellow Gaels, this afternoon here at Madison Square Garden. I’m still recovering from a recent vocal cord surgical procedure, so please excuse my fragile voice.
Like all of us vulnerable humans who finally finish with formal schooling, at least for now, you are about pursue a post-student life of fear, doubt, ambition, and self-delusion. To assist you as you confront the universe as newly credentialed, highly educated persons, I offer you my address today, which is called
Contentment Is Wealth: The Top Ten Ways to Ultimate Success & Happiness in Life
10. Self-Forgiveness—Learn to forgive yourself, for you know not what you do much of the time, at least if you’re like me. It’s harder than one might think to engage in self-forgiveness. Sometimes it’s actually easier to go with guilt, depression, anxiety, anger, self-loathing— these and other well-established choices are always available to our needy psyches. But shun them. Life is too short, something those of us who are getting up there know better than anyone. And while you’re at it, try even to forgive others. See also: self-acceptance.
9. Anger management—Do not press “send” when you’re pissed off without first having someone you trust read the crazy diatribe you’ve just written. I have learned the wisdom of this directive through ugly & painful firsthand experience.
8. Hygiene—Get your teeth cleaned professionally twice a year. Believe me, you’ll save a lot of money and grief in the end.
7. Accomplishment—If there’s something meaningful you want to accomplish, don’t get overwhelmed. Achievement is most often the result of an accumulation of many minor incremental steps that are really no big deal. Alcoholics Anonymous encourages recovering drinkers to take it one day at a time. The truth in that advice applies to many of life’s struggles. The great novelist & short-story writer Flannery O’Connor wrote in one of her letters, “If you do the same thing every day at the same time for the same length of time, you’ll save yourself from many a sink. Routine is a condition of survival.” Scholars talk of how African-Americans—over centuries of spirit-crushing slavery and its long aftermath—practiced the art of Making a Way Out of No Way, of transcending suffering as much as possible through resilience and creativity. And through that fierce commitment to make a way out of no way, came incredibly rich traditions in music, literature, and other areas of accomplishment, not the least of which were sheer survival and endurance. Never give up.
[left: Flannery O'Connor]
6. Finances—Don’t lend money to poets or fiddle players. Although I must make clear that poets and fiddlers occupy a place of high status in my own worldview. I am also very fond of button-accordion players, to whose ranks I belong. I started playing music as a kid, but I never really had much by way of instruction, so I wound up a musical illiterate, which sometimes drives my son Michael, who is a very accomplished musician, a little crazy. I like to say that I’m self-taught, and that I had a really bad teacher. But here, let me say something about perfection: perfection is another thing to shy away from. During my years at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in DC, I helped produce many publications, and among the first of them was a book on Navajo blankets. I learned that it was and is the practice of Navajo master weavers to always introduce something they call “the spirit line,” a little flaw woven into the pattern of the rug, so as not to compete with, and thus offend, the Creator, the Great Spirit. Imperfection, in any case, makes life more interesting. Oh, and let me retract what I said at the start of this number: If you want to be favorably immortalized by poets or have musicians compose a tune in your honor, always lend them money, or, even better, save yourself the trouble & just give them the damn cash.
5. Have Mercy—I love the sound of the word mercy. A one-word poem. I want some mercy. For me. For everybody. Forgiveness implies a wrong erased, but mercy is more the simple bestowing of benevolence. Visit people in the hospital or the nursing home even though you, along with the rest of us, hate hospitals and nursing homes. Significant intangible power is generated when mercy is released into the atmosphere.
4. Critical Thinking—Don’t respect your elders or people in authority unless they have actually earned that respect. Let me here recommend a piece of writing that I first read as an undergraduate at Iona & that has stayed with me since, and that is George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” written in 1946. Orwell [photo left], who once memorably assailed what he called “all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls,” was a prophetic writer, as his novels 1984 and Animal Farm clearly show. Orwell will help you de-construct all the intellectual malware infecting our political discourse. For me, critical thinking involves inventing your own definitions by thinking about what any concept really means to you. People today often say, for example, they are “spiritual” but not necessarily religious, and I felt I needed to define spirituality for myself, which I decided means having an inner life, interior life, the life of the mind, the examined life. It means to go deeper into yourself. Likewise I define “critical thinking” as intellectual wakefulness, mindful attentiveness to whatever you encounter. Not always easy to do. Let me also salute William Blake [right], the great visionary & eccentric 19th-century English poet, who said: “Without Contraries Is No progression,” and “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind. “ Those are among a number of Blake’s proverbs I memorized when I was an Iona undergraduate & they’ve stayed with me all my life. And they seem as true to me today as they did in the 1960s.
3. Fake It—Sometimes you will have to fake it, you will have to make it up out of nothing, you will have to just go on your nerve, as the great poet Frank O’Hara once prescribed, and those are often the times when you break through to a sense of clarity & insight about yourself. O’Hara also wrote, in one of his poems, that
the only thing to do is simply continue
is that simple
yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do
can you do it
yes, you can because it is the only thing to do
I have always found great comfort in those lines, in their wonderful assertion of spirit & tenacity. And speaking of faking it, don’t forget the Imposter Syndrome, that sense we have that we’re all just pretending to be something we’re not. It’s okay, it’s all part of faking it. Let it go. Live with it. We are all imposters. Forgive yourself (see #10).
2. Risk Taking—Never get the extended warranty. And always buy the raffle ticket—I’ve won the raffle at least 3 times in my life; if you want to be an opera singer, or work with chimpanzees, or start your own detective agency, don’t wait till you’re an old person. On the other hand, don’t drive blindfolded.
1. The last & most important of the top 10 ways to ultimate success & happiness in life—The Moll Niland Principle. My mother was a farmgirl named Bridie Flynn from Loughrea in county Galway in Ireland. She was one of 11 children, and she died in 1962 when I was 16 and still in high school, and I still miss her, 52 years later. Out of those 11 in her family, only 3, my mother and 2 of her brothers, came to the U.S. So I have many relatives back in Ireland, including cousins in Ballyvaughan, county Clare, on my father’s side. And in 1980 I went over there with my band—the one, true, authentic Celtic Thunder (not to be confused with that slick PBS tv program that, shall we say, borrowed my group’s name)—and asked my then-girlfriend Susan, whom I married the following year, to come with us.
During that trip, we had many adventures, but the highlight for me was when I took Susan to meet my Auntie Moll, the eldest of my mother’s siblings, amazingly still alive & going strong in 1980 at age 96.
She lived in a very humble, thatched-roof cottage in the countryside, where she still cooked on an open hearth turf fire. She had these beautiful, big eyes and a benevolent aura about her. Recalling her now, remembering the richness of her spirit, brings to my mind the title of a well-known traditional Irish tune called “Contentment Is Wealth.” Susan and I sat next to each other, Auntie Moll facing us. We chatted for a bit, but then at one point she took hold of our hands, grabbed them firmly, and looked us both in the eye and said, “Are ye enjoying life?” We thought for a moment because it felt like the most important question we’d ever been asked, & then said yes we were. She squeezed our hands happily and said, “That’s good. Enjoy life.” I know—it’s not a complex or arcane idea, but coming from this extraordinary old woman who had lived so long & knew so much, it felt to us like the most profound and profoundly simple & necessary lesson of human existence:
Thank you, and congratulations to all of you.
Terence & Jesse Winch with Auntie Moll (Niland), Ireland, 1980
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