DSCF0077 In Praise of Speed Bumps
(or "A Summer Breath")

For the Laurel School Class of 2009
on the joyous occasion of their commencement
on June 11, 2009, 10 a.m.,
at Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio.

Thank you, Anne Juster, chair of the Board of Trustees, members of the board of trustees, esteemed faculty, the venerable abbott, Miss Orlando, proud parents, loving siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Thank you, Ann Klotz, my college classmate, my teacher, my friend.

And to the class of 2009, in all your wonderful fabulousness, thank you.

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. I am very grateful.

DSCF0068 Thank you, also — to everyone in this hall — for bringing these girls to this moment, this recognition of achievement, this launching into the bright and challenging future. That is an accomplishment. You have created active learners who — in the school's rallying cry — Dare. Dream. Do.

So let me start by thanking all of you here, especially the parents, the faculty and the girls. The world needs more educated people, more educated women. Thank you all for rising to this challenge.

No one here in this magnificent hall knows these girls less than I do. That's not fair. I want to know them better, and yet here I am, speaking to them, but not really facing them. So I'm going to set up this little mirror. [Arrange mirror on downstage podium to see girls upstage.] There you are!


I feel like a speed bump.

You all are moving very fast. I can imagine your homes this morning. A frenzy of hustle-bustle. Getting ready for a big day. Families are in town. Our girl is growing up. You must have a proper breakfast. This is the day we've known was coming for many years. Where's Uncle Louie? Where are my white shoes?

Speaking of white shoes, my late father had an expression. You see, we live in a backwater called Columbus. Sure, it is the state capital, but it has none of the sophistication of cosmopolitan Cleveland. (As far as you know.)

My father's expression was "Full Cleveland." That's what my father would say whenever he saw someone wearing a white belt and white shoes. As in, "See that fellow? Full Cleveland."

Either he thought that such fancy people must have come from Cleveland. Or maybe they were from Columbus, but had gotten dressed up to go to Cleveland. I don't know.

"Half Cleveland" meant a white belt or white shoes.

I'm glad to be here today in Cleveland. I'd like to meet anyone who is in Full Cleveland. You know who you are. Come say "hi" at the reception.

Well, anyway, back in your homes this morning, things were moving so fast. C'mon, find your shoes, we have to get going. We're going to be late. We don't want to be late. We can't be late for graduation. C'mon. C'mon. C'mon. We don’t want to miss the graduation speaker.

"We don't want to miss the graduation speaker?"

I know that none of you said that at breakfast today.

You have been looking forward to everything about this day — everything except this speech. You are on a fast-paced journey and are forced to pause for this speech. The very idea of a graduation speech: it's designed to slow everything down.

So, here I am, the speed bump on your race for diplomas. I'm going to play the role to its fullest. Let's slow down.

Let us ponder the lowly speed bump.
According to Wikipedia:

A speed bump — in British English, a "speed hump," "road hump" or "sleeping policeman" — a velocity-reducing feature of road design to slow traffic or reduce through traffic. A speed bump is a bump in a roadway with heights typically ranging between 3 and 4 inches. The length of speed bumps are typically less than or near to 1 foot; whereas speed humps are longer and are typically 10 to 14 feet in length.

Say, is anyone here a transportation engineer? Yes! Isn't this the best graduation speech you have ever heard?

Speed bumps are also known as a "traffic calming device." I like that phrase: traffic calming.

Our lives are spent driving through traffic. Especially since you all got your driver's licenses.

But our lives are spent driving more than cars. We drive ourselves. We are ambitious, so we are driven to achieve. We drive hard through our to-do lists. We drive hard in every aspect of our lives. We are driven.

Some days are so fast-paced that it isn't until night, as you rest your head on your pillow, when you finally think, "What did I do today? Did I do all that today?"

We spend our days as highly functional people, doing many things — doing doing doing — we are humans doing. Dare. Dream. Do!

How do we balance our lives as humans doing with the simple but elusive joy of being human beings? That is, how do we engage in the simple act of being human?

I study creative people. And I find that the most creative, healthiest people understand how to find a moment of calm amid the madness and frenzy of the day.

They Dare. Dream. Do. Be.

We could all stand for a little traffic calming.

So, as today's ceremonial speed bump, I am going to teach you a lesson in calming.


To be calm, one must catch one's breath.
Today, that's a challenge.

This moment is breathtaking. And you are all so breathtaking.

We are all trying to capture this moment as it speeds past. Modern, affluent people try to capture the moment with video cameras. Whenever I see someone holding one, I see a person trying to hold onto time.

Let me offer another way to capture the moment.

Psthichnhathanhlrg It comes from the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. He's a Buddhist monk, an exile from Vietnam. He now lives in a community he created in France called "Plum Village." He travels the world to teach people — among other things — how to capture time by living in the present.

DSCF0016 I know what you're thinking: it's not even noon and you've already come across two Buddhists. What is it? Are they suddenly everywhere? [Look all around, the podium, as if looking for yet another Buddhist.] Here's one! Here's one!

Let me clarify that I am not a Buddhist. (I think, technically, I am a "Jew-bu.") But I do think the Buddhists are very smart and I would like to teach you one small thing that I do know about the tradition.

Before I do, let me add that I'm not recruiting Buddhists. I think of Buddhism like I think of Topeka, Kansas. You want to live there? Go. I don't think it will conflict with your current religion, or your current lack of religion. Unless you are Amish, which might make Topeka the wrong place to settle down. I don't know. 

Anyway, here is most of what I know about Buddhism.
First of all, let's recognize that you are distracted. Yes, you are sitting here in this fancy hall on this important day and there is this goofy guy in a bow tie talking to you. That's what's happening now.

But you are also thinking about another moment — in the very near future, just minutes away — when diplomas will be granted.

And you are also thinking about another moment — a little later — when we will process out of here into this fine day — and then there are luncheons and then parties and then summer — and then packing for college and moving on.

There is much to distract you.

Even I am distracted by this moment in your lives.

BartGiamattiBut this is the summer of moving on.
The prospect of freedom and opportunity both elates and intimidates. When Ms. Klotz and I arrived at college, the then new president of Yale, Bart Giamatti, greeted us with a speech describing the summer before college. He said this, which I remember vividly: "The worm of apprehension bit deep in the bud of anticipation." (He was a scholar of Dante, so he was allowed to talk that way.)

As you sit here today, all of you are filled with apprehension and anticipation. They distract you from my words, from this very moment. The future calls, and you are tempted to live in the future — When will we move the tassels on these silly hats? When will we throw them in the air? Will I dance all night tonight? Will I like college?

Capturing the moment is a challenge for more than right now. It will be a challenge all summer. How can I keep the summer from simply flying by? How can I leap into it? How can I remember this swim in cold water, this icy glass of lemonade, this moment with my friends?

But a person cannot live in the present, the past and the future all at once.

And our very happiness may be at stake.
Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard professor, teaches on happiness. (Imagine that: he teaches happiness at Harvard. I do hope he is happy.) In Gilbert's book, Stumbling On Happiness, he says that much happiness is lost because we are always deferring it. We eat broccoli now, so we might be healthy later. Then, it finally is later, and we again defer our happiness yet farther into the future.

It's important to plan ahead. Laurel has prepared you for the future. At Laurel, your achievements have been celebrated. But it has also always been critical that you be living good lives, in the here and now, day by day.

The strategy for happy living is to constantly return ourselves to the present moment, so that even this one, right now, is a happy one.

The Buddhists are very good at living in the present.

They teach: Rather than being distracted by anything and everything, choose a single distraction: choose your breath.

That is, all the time, even as I am speaking now, think about your breath. You might think, silently, "inhale… exhale… inhale… exhale…" with your breath. Or "in, out, in, out."

This sounds odd, almost like a medical exam. And it seems like I am suggesting you become distracted by your breath.

I am.

But it makes sense.
Because, after all, we already agreed that we are distracted by the clamor of the day. It's hard to concentrate on the present when the worm of apprehension is biting deep in the bud of anticipation.

So, since we are all to be distracted by one thing or another, we can choose our breath to be the distraction. As a distraction, it's not all that fascinating really, so it remains secondary in our minds. Primary in our mind is whatever we are doing right now. In the present. Like enjoying this moment.

Focusing on my breath to live in the present. It seems very simple, but it is also the most difficult thing I do all day.

Do you want to play the home version of today's game?
Let me teach you a little poem by Thich Nhat Hahn. It works especially well when you are driving.

And, frankly, tuition was expensive. Why not take one more lesson in this last moment of school? It's nice that your final lesson comes as a poem on breathing.

Here it is. (It doesn't rhyme. It's not that kind of poem.) Four short lines:

Breathing in, I relax my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
This is a wonderful moment.

Like much poetry, it is deceptively simple. Let's break it down.

Breathing in, I relax my body.

That's easy enough. Let's do it together.

Breathing in, I relax my body.
Breathing out, I smile.

It's not one of those broad smiles. It's a smile like Mona Lisa's. A smile that is enough to make your body think you are happy about something.

Let's try. Smile.

The last two lines are more conceptual:

Dwelling in the present moment,
This is a wonderful moment.

This just states that life is lived in the present. And this moment is a wonderful moment.

That's easy to agree with right now, during a grand ceremony. But it is also true when washing dishes or sitting with a friend.

As you learn to find simple meaning and enjoyment in mundane moments, like washing dishes, then you become a lot less likely to use drugs and alcohol to spice up your life or — as we see nationally among college students — to use Ritalin or Adderall off label to increase your cognitive alertness.

Oh, I'm all for more cognitive alertness. I've seen how you all drive here in Cleveland. You could stand to turn down the radio and be more mindful about your breath.

Breathing in, I relax my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
This is a wonderful moment.

Two more thoughts about our breath.
The air around us is the same air that has always been around. We have certainly thrown up some ash and soot, but it is the same air.

10543__prideandprejudice_l For example, we are breathing the same air that Mozart breathed. Or Jane Austen! "Mrs. Darcy." "Mrs. Darcy." "Mrs. Darcy."

Here's the second thought: You might be the first generation in your family to breathe. (Your parent's generation didn't even inhale.) Truly, I sometimes feel that it's Friday dinner before I take what seems like the first full breath of the week.

Do your parents breathe? Or do they seem like they are constantly holding their breaths? I don't raise this in order to criticize anyone's parents. I raise this to remind you that — as you receive your diploma — you are also expected to choose which attributes you will inherit from your parents.

So, you might pause right now to take a good look at them: and commit yourself to adopting their best attributes. And avoiding the attributes you do not want.

Even if they don't breathe, you can.

You can breathe to become more creative.
To regain your childlike grasp on the present.

Laurel has taught you so many ways to strengthen your creativity. I've added one more. I believe the single greatest thing you can do to increase your creativity and your quality of life is to breathe more mindfully. It's like a creativity workout.

Which reminds me of one more thought.

We understand working out. To be more fit, we must work out. To be more creative, we must breathe — to live in the present. It's funny to me how people will work out to be fit, but do nothing to make themselves more creative — and just say, "Oh, I'm not creative."

Doing nothing to consciously strengthen your creativity, yet waiting for a spontaneous moment of creativity, is like not working out, but hoping for a spontaneous moment of fitness.


All right. You've passed the final speed bump.

Bring on the diplomas.

[Deep breath.]

[Deliver as a blessing to the girls with arms gently raised:] May you have a life of beauty, love, satisfaction, peace, health, and happiness.


Photo credits (Severance Hall): David Shoenfelt

P.S. Read this.