Duff had the honor of giving the commencement address at her son Jack’s graduation. The text is below.
Good Morning, thank you for this honor.
Hello Class of 2022,
You come from a long line of survivors. You are the latest link in an unbroken chain of ancestors. The Latin root for “survive” is “supervivere,” meaning to live beyond, live longer, and continue in existence. You are the descendant of people who lived through natural and man-made cataclysms of all kinds. You are a super-liver.
You are humanity’s greatest upgrade.
You are a miracle, a wonder. You are forty trillion cells thrumming with life force. There is an original, radiant, and unrepeatable brilliance within you. This is the raw material from which you shape your lives.
Imagine you could watch a film of your life, from birth to death. What would it take for you to jump out of your chair, start pumping your fists in the air, and shout, “Yes, this is it! This is a good life! This is a life well lived!”?
How do you live a good life? By defining a philosophy for living. A philosophy is nothing more than some simple rules for yourself. If you have a grasp on how the world works and have a sense of how to behave toward others, you have a philosophy of life. It is a framework, a backbone, a set of principles or guidelines that give your life direction and prevent drift.
Every day is an opportunity to examine your life, to be inspired, to take small actions, and make improvements and corrections that will steer you toward the goal of being a good person. The simplicity of the philosopher Epictetus’s quote, “If you make beautiful choices, you will make a beautiful life.’ this reverberated through me like a firecracker in a cymbal factory.
Your life is a perishable good. Squeeze what you can out of every day. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nothing great in life was ever accomplished without enthusiasm.”
Life is magnificent, then just okay, then amazing, then it is hard and it sucks a bit. But in between the awesome and the suck is the daily duty of living. Marvel at the awesome, and don’t give up when it is hard. When it stinks, find a way to laugh. It will help you figure out how to make it suck less. This is your life, challenging, funny, and ordinary. The more it sucks, the more you need to suck in the amazing moments. Inhale, take it in. THIS MOMENT IS ONE OF THEM!
Honor your forty trillion cells that make you you. You are buzzing with life force, but we all need help in navigating the complexities of being a human. Sometimes, the best lessons on the business of being a human being are found in the animal kingdom.
I know that you all are aware of the dumpster diving bear population on the hilltop. So, Here’s a bear story.
The Romany community of Bulgaria has trained bears to dance for hundreds of years. It is a medieval tradition that lived on as a modern vestige of the Dark Ages. The bears lived in captivity with their owner’s family. These were brown bears, ursus arctos, known in North America as the fierce grizzly bear. The trained bears traveled throughout the region, entertaining Bulgarians wherever they went. The bears were taught to imitate celebrities, give massages to humans, dance to a tambourine, and even play ice hockey. But I bet our Salisbury Knights would have beaten them.
In 2007, Bulgaria was admitted to the European Union. Part of the price of admission was banning all dancing bear acts; treatment of the bears was rightfully deemed cruel and inhumane. Finally the bears had a chance to be free.
Animal behavioral specialists retrained the bears, teaching them how to hibernate, how to hunt. Food was hidden around the sanctuary to reawaken the foraging instinct that had been trained out of them. The Dancing Bear Park became an ursine experiment in freedom. The bears had to relearn their independence one paw at a time.
Freedom was stressful and strenuous. The sanctuary staff has had great success, but there are times when the bears still struggle with the chaos of free will.
The difficulty of making their own choices causes pain. At these times the bears revert to the exact behavior that the rehabilitation staff were trying to get them to unlearn: when the bears see a human, they get up on their hind legs and dance a jig.
We all have a key to our own cages. Reading and educating yourself is a way to pick the lock. The only person standing between you and freedom is you. There is no one tethering you or muzzling you or making you dance the tarantella. It is up to you to make the most out of life, and that’s why you need a philosophy for living.
Your philosophy for life is your operating manual. It will guide you through concrete questions, such as, What should I study in college? Is this the person I want to marry? How do I apologize after I screw up? What can I do to be of service? and How much should I duke the waiter? (At the very least 20 percent. In all things, be generous.) Answering these questions will help you answer the bigger ones, like, How can I be a good person? And how can I live a meaningful life? These two questions are the central tenets of Stoic philosophy.
Philosophy in Greek means “love of wisdom.” Wisdom is the ability to thrive in a complex world and make thoughtful, generous, and insightful decisions. The choices you make in everyday life are guided by your philosophy.
Epictetus was a renowned Stoic philosopher, and one of the wisest and wittiest teachers who has ever drawn a breath. He observed that everyone faces challenges and that a good life is within the grasp of all of us. He was born a slave, was savagely beaten by his master, and endured chronic pain and disability. I feel a deep connection to his wisdom. The simplicity and clarity of his ideology is transcendent: “If your choices are beautiful, you will make a beautiful life.” This is the thesis for my life. If I were the sort of person who writes ideas on my body with needles and permanent ink, that thought would be my tramp stamp. Make good choices and you will make a good life.
There’s a difference between a little-s stoic and capital-S Stoic philosophy. Little-s stoic means enduring hardships without complaining. Capital-S Stoicism isn’t about keeping a stiff upper lip; it is about living a good and moral life. It’s a classical Greek philosophy devised two millennia ago, but it reads as if the ink were still wet. Stoic philosophy is a simple, clear road map to living a joyful, expressive life. It’s shooting for the highest vir- tues, not suffering in silence. Stoicism isn’t just for philosophers in an ivory tower, it’s for everybody.
Happiness is a very Stoic emotion. Seneca advised, “We should take a lighter view of things and bear them with an easy spirit, for it is more human to laugh than lament it.” For me, Stoicism means do good, have fun, and try not to hurt anyone.
There is a spiritual equation that proposes that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond. You are not what has happened to you; you are what you have decided to become. Your habits, your attitude, and your choices, these decide your future. Every choice you make is a vote cast for the kind of person you will be.
As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “When you arise in the morning, think about what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love… ‘I am rising to do the work of a human being.’”
And every day that you don’t get up on your hind legs and dance like a Bulgarian bear is a win.
Your first dwelling was a nine-month sublet, three trimesters in utero. Fellas, your mother was your first home. Your body grew from a single cell into a fully formed human. When that lease was up, you were evicted, literally kicking and screaming on the day of your birth.
The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you figure out why you were born. Your life philosophy will help you figure out your why.
Your first three trimesters were shaped by the genes your parents gave you. This period of life– this is your 4th trimester. Your fourth trimester is propelled by the wisdom shared by your family, your teachers, coaches, advisors. And most of all, your brothers here at Salisbury. You appreciated the strengths and virtues that you found in your brothers. Gratitude is the noblest of all virtues, it is the parent of all others. Gratitude makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well. Please find a moment on this beautiful day to express your gratitude.
Seneca said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” You’re at the end of high school and at the beginning of something new: Let’s embrace and celebrate this beginning.
Einstein said “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Today, let’s choose everything!
Shine on beautiful lads. Let your light shine. Congratulations to the class of 2022. Esse quam videri! Thank you.