My Commencement Address (and the Meaning of Life)

Esteemed faculty, beloved classmates, family and friends, ladies and gentlemen, and Concierge Bill, I come before you today proud, humble, and joyful. That’s how I might begin if I were invited to give a commencement address at my graduation, though it’s tough to predict who will be running the concierge desk when I pick up my sheepskin.

I recently completed coursework for a master of arts degree in counseling psychology. I plan to work as a marriage and family therapist during my “golden years” – that period of life when the plumbing begins to rust, while the heart continues to pump in earnest. Nabbing this degree feels like a significant, positive milestone along my life path. Yet, is my accomplishment really any better than successfully tying my shoes or washing my dishes? Wait, before you answer “of course it is you Zen-spouting weirdo,” hear me out.

I earned my degree from Saybrook University, a nontraditional graduate school that caters to late bloomers like me. At Saybrook, we don’t have dorms or a football team or a mascot. We don’t even have a campus. We gather twice a year at a large hotel on the West Coast for a week-long residential conference (yes, that’s where I met Concierge Bill). Between conferences we work online. We study texts, conduct research, write oh-so-scholarly papers, and, for counseling students, hone our therapeutic skills at our respective practicum sites.

Why do we do it? Why do we incur the exorbitant tuition, steal precious time from our families, and memorize endless lists of therapeutic modalities and psychopharmaceuticals (generic and brand names)? Answers to those questions likely will vary from student to student like breeds at the Westminster. Here are my reasons:

For Credentials. I was raised to revere credentials. “Without credentials,” Mom would say, “you’re just a shyster.” I realize that her syllogism doesn’t quite hold up; people without credentials are not necessarily unscrupulous, any more than people with solid credentials are necessarily competent. But, never underestimate the power of a mother’s pronouncements. Even when I sponsored people in Overeaters Anonymous or voluntarily counseled drug addicts, I always felt a bit like a fraud. In fact, based on my experience to date, I think I would make a terrific life coach. Unfortunately, our economic system is so dependent on credentials, and Mom’s admonition so deeply ingrained, it’s just not worth the effort to buck either. I’d like to get to the business of helping people as quickly as possible. But I’m not willing to spend time defending my competence or selling myself as an exception to the rule, whether or not that rule is valid. I lack confidence, you say? I’m a slave to the Man, you say? Whatevah.

For Recognition. I don’t mean the kind of recognition one might enjoy if one were to be invited to give a commencement address. (Ahem.) Nor do I mean the kind of recognition enjoyed by the many impressive pioneers in the field of psychotherapy about whom we studied during my program. I simply mean enjoying some props for my unique efforts and insights – being validated for who I sometimes believe I am, at least in an educational context. I’ve long struggled with two somewhat discordant ideas: first, that my life is worthwhile only when I’m playing certain roles, one of which is the “good student” (a variation, I suspect, of the “good boy” persona I perfected as a kid); and second, that grades and diplomas represent totems of a destructively competitive educational system of which I want no part. I realize, especially after my recent studies, that neither contention reflects reality. Both my need for constant validation and my avoidance of competition likely stem from early attachment wounds. (See? I was listening.) The interesting point, I think, is the length to which some of us will go just to be noticed. This will be my second master’s degree. I’ve pursued my fickle love affair with higher education for over four decades now. I wonder when I’ll finally learn how to fill my seemingly unfillable hole of inadequacy. Better yet, I wonder when I’ll realize that the hole is an illusion that I needn’t maintain.

For Meaning. I was going to list “meaning” as my first reason, describing my recent activities as an answer to an inner calling. The longer I sat with that idea, however, the hollower it felt. Have I muddled through my extensive coursework and clinical work in search of meaning? Or has the momentum following a recent crisis of conscience (described below) simply carried me to a place of acceptance and congruence, which I interpret as meaningful? There’s no question that I came upon this path via a much more meaningful route than has led me to any other work in my life. I’ve written about my journey before. Here’s the nutshell version:

  • While growing up I often felt lonely and inadequate, which caused me to feel anxious;
  • I developed strategies to soothe my anxiety, including humor, isolating, and compulsive overeating;
  • I got really, really fat;
  • One day, following marriage, kids, divorce, and years of unfulfilling work as a paralegal, I discovered that my soothing strategies, especially my overeating, had hurt and disadvantaged people whom I love dearly;
  • That crisis of conscience gave me the strength to lose a bunch of weight, first for my loved ones and then, quite unexpectedly, for me;
  • As part of my recovery, I began helping others who struggle with disordered eating;
  • Through that service, I discovered an enthusiasm for my work – one that I never before had experienced; and
  • After meeting several therapists during my recovery and thinking, “I could do that,” I Googled “how to be a therapist” and found acceptance and purpose at Saybrook.

Those are my reasons for enduring three additional years of graduate study in my sixties: credentials, recognition, and meaning. Except, on further reflection (I just can’t help it), I realize that meaning was more a byproduct than the achievement of a goal. I wasn’t looking for fulfillment, yet I feel fulfilled. I wasn’t looking for a more enjoyable job, yet I’ve loved every scholastic and clinical minute. I wasn’t looking to take advantage of my particular skill set, yet I find myself particularly comfortable in the therapist’s chair. I wasn’t looking for adventure or more challenging work or more money. Yet I gained all of those (except the money).

Does that mean, then, that seeking meaning is futile? Perhaps “futile” is too strong word. I do think, however, that meaning is a consequence of acceptance – a feeling generated when we surrender to our authentic selves and behave accordingly. Continually bemoaning our lack of meaning leaves little time for positive change – for changing our daily activities so that they align more closely with our deepest selves. I suspect it’s that alignment that generates feelings of meaning and purpose.

I realize that concepts become squishy when we start talking about living in harmony with our authentic selves. That’s because “self” is a squishy notion – an illusion of “I”-dentity that our brains construct in order to coordinate and make some sense of our mental and physical drives and processes.

“The daily experience of the self is so familiar, and yet the brain science shows that this sense of the self is an illusion … We all certainly experience some form of self, but what we experience is a powerful depiction generated by our brains for our own benefit.”

— Bruce Wood

Notwithstanding the illusory nature of self, I nevertheless contend that:

  1. We experience varying degrees of our self illusion ranging from the most transient, mutable social self – the one we might employ when interacting with a stranger – and descending in layers to the deepest, most enduring self – the one that most of us believe is our “true self”;
  2. Our choices can increase or decrease our sense of congruency with our deeper, enduring self; and
  3. Presuming that our brains have crafted a positive, healthy self illusion (a presumption that everyone should take time to explore), a persistent feeling of living in accord with our true self can enhance our wellbeing.

Okay, back to the meaning of life. “Meaning” is one of those words, like “mindfulness”, that often serves as a placeholder for an intangible, just out-of-reach idea. What do people mean when they claim to seek “meaning”? Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and a pioneer of existential psychotherapy (he called it “logotherapy”) had no trouble reconciling our need for meaning with the concept’s ambiguity.

“[T]he meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: ‘Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?’ There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

— Viktor Frankl

Frankl was a sharp and heroic dude. Still, he edges a bit too close to the idea of destiny in that last bit about everyone having a “specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment…” Finding meaning in life is less about discovering a predetermined mission than it is about letting go of the notion that there’s any meaning to discover. I used to bemoan the futility and meaninglessness of my own life. Oddly, I didn’t find a sense of meaning until my need to make amends to my family (and to myself) overrode my need to find meaning.

I realize now that “meaning” is a relatively meaningless, made up concept – often used as a catch-all salve for negative emotions. The statement “my life has no meaning” does not indicate the absence of anything that can be obtained or received. Rather, it suggests a struggle with negative feelings – perhaps feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, grief, or hopelessness.

“Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”

— Jean-Paul Sartre

But am I really choosing to infuse my work with meaning as I transition from dissatisfied paralegal to enthusiastic therapist? It doesn’t feel like a choice. Still, I do choose to begin and complete each task and to show up at each counseling session – to continue taking step after step along my current path. Perhaps the metaphor of a path is itself misleading. Rather than thinking of meaning as a destination, perhaps we should think about choosing to infuse meaning into each task, each encounter, and each breath. In the end, perhaps meaning is found simply by showing up in each moment.

“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”

— Joseph Campbell

In closing, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to express my deepest gratitude for the honor being bestowed upon me today. This simple, meaningless piece of paper symbolizes a significant victory over forces that would bury my joy under piles of self-deprecation and doubt. And that means a lot to me.

Enjoy the coffee and pastries in the lobby.

Go to the Source:

Campbell, J. (2004). Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Frankl, Viktor E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, MA; Beacon Press.

Hood, B. (2012). The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Sartre, J-P (1956). Being and Nothingness. New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp.