Graduation-photo-2011-webIt's been one of the most emotional weeks of my life, as I described here.

An anchoring moment, the chance to catch my breath in service to others, came at Village Academy, a lovely gem of a independent school. They were nice enough to invite me to deliver this year's commencement address and being there was a chance for me to relax and recenter myself.

This might sound odd to you.
Many people would be made more anxious to have to write and deliver a speech. 

For me, especially during an emotional week, is was a welcome moment of flow. Surfers surf — and that looks scary to me, but they are focused and reinvigorated. Speaking is my surfing.

Here's what I said to the graduates.
A disclaimer, first: it borrows heavily from and expands on a commencement address I gave two years ago to Laurel School.  I did what I could to improve the presentation. I customized it for this wonderful school. But I couldn't imagine a better topic for the day. 

Perhaps it is the right topic for you, too, today?

Here it is…

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

Presented to Village Academy
At the Fifteenth Commencement Exercises
Thursday, June 9, 2011
Powell, Ohio 

Thank you, Board President Dymerski, Head of School Lasley (Miss Susie), Mr. Fitchko, Miss Hohe, members of the board of trustees, esteemed faculty, proud parents, loving siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. 

And to the class of 2011, thank you.

You have been mutually supportive in a real community of genuine people, indulging each other with encouragement, using your power for good. You are a model for other classes to follow. And they will. 

I don't know how your tradition describes heaven.
Perhaps it is white robes, halos and carpeting made of clouds.  

My tradition is vague on the notion. I kind of think that it is a place of learning, where fabulous people encourage each other. Village Academy might be heaven. I hope you're happy.  

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

Thank you, also — to everyone in this gymnasium — for bringing these young people to this moment, this recognition of achievement, this launching into the bright and challenging future. That is an accomplishment. You have created active learners — well, as the school's rallying cry says: Small school. BIG results. 


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

No one here today knows these students less than I do. Perhaps that's why I am the speaker. I'm probably the only one here who can talk today, because everyone must surely be feeling emotionally fragile.

I don't even know you and I'm feeling it. It's because: you — the way you have lived, what you have meant to each other — you are the reason we build schools.


I feel like a speed bump. 
You all are moving very fast. I can imagine your lives throughout the day. A frenzy of hustle-bustle. Getting ready for a big ceremony. Families are in town. Our child 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? You're not wearing those shoes, are you? But it's under a robe!

In your homes today, things were moving so fast. C'mon, find some proper 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 today. With the exception of everyone in Ronnie Hohe's family. [Miss Hohe delivered a wonderful Valedictory Address.]

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 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! You are? 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 have 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. Small school. BIG results.

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 understand the power of small in the creation of BIG.

Small school. BIG results. 

Slow is like small. Slow produces BIG results. 

But that tagline didn't work as well: Slow school. BIG results.

Though we might consider: Slow Internet. BIG results.

You know the power of small. I want to advocate for the power of slow.

So let's get slow. 
We could all stand for a little traffic calming.

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.

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. 

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.   

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 Commencement Exercise 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 evening — and then there are 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.

But this is the summer of moving on. 
The prospect of freedom and opportunity both elates and intimidates. When I arrived at college, the then new college president 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.) [Bart Giamatti wrote my favorite essay of all time.]

As you sit here this evening, 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 — What's with the tassels on these silly hats? Do we really 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.

So writes Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard professor who 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 in the future.

It's important to plan ahead. Village Academy has prepared you for the future. But, beyond looking to the future, it was also always critical that you were living good lives, in the here and now, day by day.


The Buddhist 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 real money. 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 that poem.
(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. Like the Buddha's. A smile that says, "I know something. Perhaps it is just that I know I am breathing." 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 are a lot less likely to use drugs and alcohol to spice up your life or — as we see nationally among college students — or 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 Powell. 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. 

[1] The first thought: 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. 

For example, we are breathing the same air that Mozart breathed. We don't breath the air. It breathes us. We are like the flowers in the field. 

[2] Here's the second thought: You might be the first generation in your family to breathe. 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 breath? 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 begin choosing which attributes you will inherit from your parents. 

So, you might pause this summer 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 breath, you can.

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

Village Academy 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." 

When I hear someone say, "I'm not creative." I wonder: how hard are you trying?

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.

And, I hope, when you cross a speed bump this summer, you are reminded that the speed bump is a message, a message designed to return you to the present moment, to where you are. Right here. Right now.

We are about to bestow on you the ultimate in senior privileges.
You have earned this. You are allowed to leave the school. In fact, it is required. 

But you will return to visit. You must visit. It is an obligation. And whenever you do, please bring with you: iced tea for Jenny Harris. Is that so much to ask?

Bring on the diplomas. 

[Deep breath.] 

[Deliver as a blessing to the students with arms gently raised:] May you have a life of beauty, love, satisfaction, peace, health, and happiness. May you be surrounded by people who love you. May you enjoy a sense of completeness in life, a sense of shalom. May your increasing skills be matched with increasing challenges.