You are not special.

A reader sent me a link to an interesting High School Commencement address… which sounds like a contradiction in terms.

It occurred at a school in Massachusetts. Have a quick read without worrying about the local references. The point will be clear and you should enjoy it.

I wonder how the little darlings received this news?


[C]ommencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! [Editor’s upgrade: Or The Swellesley Report!] And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.

The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you. Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching sixty-eight hundred yous go running by. And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although that hair is quite a phenomenon.

“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!” And I don’t disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality [Augustine, as I never tire of reminding you, called the fear of death our “daily winter”.] — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?” As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Soler says:

    The speaker is (unreasonably?) implying that the students thought they were “special” before hearing his speech, and that it is only through his words of wisdom that they now realise their own insignificance. To an outsider, his remarks seem condescending and unnecessary—but then again, I am not familiar with American high-school culture or with the life of the modern American youth.

  2. ContraMundum says:

    Am I supposed to think that this speech was special?

    As for local references, my experience with graduation ceremonies — and I have to attend at least one every year — is that the students are NOT all dressed alike. This is certainly not the case at the university level, where there are cords and stoles to indicate the clubs joined and distinctions earned, or even, apparently, just to show that the wearer is black, as though we could not see that already. It’s been decades since I have been to a high school graduation, but I have no doubt these same things have crept down there, too — except, perhaps, at this “special” school with its “special” speaker.

  3. ContraMundum says:


    To an outsider, his remarks seem condescending ….

    Precisely. Commencement speakers often make the mistake of thinking that the ceremony is about them — because they are special. It’s not. It’s about the kids and for the families.

    If Fr. Z were to conduct a poll asking, “Do you remember the speech delivered by the commencement speaker at your graduation?” or even “If you have a child who has graduated, do you remember the speech delivered by the commencement speaker?” I’m betting not more than 10%, probably far fewer, could honestly answer yes. I couldn’t tell you what was said in the speech at the graduation I attended only one month ago — though I can tell you the female rabbi’s “invocation” was not really a prayer (surprise!) and that the sound system was abysmal. If there is one thought common to those in the auditorium, it is not the thought the speaker is trying to share, it is, “How long is he going to go on? We have x students who are going to have to walk across the stage! This is going to take forever!”

  4. Imrahil says:

    Well this is horrible, from begin to end. So much about enjoying.

    I guess even if this would be affect about weak people only, it is advisable even for the sake of the common material good, not to mention higher motives, not to put them into despair. After all, for those who are not the best (and the best are, by common understanding, ratified in the address, very few, at any rate less than say 5 % of the population) what then remains – what remains for a car manufacturer, a salesman, an unemployed, a little schoolteacher, or even an assistant professor having lived past any chances to have an ordinariate – but beer, drugs, or suicide? (On an aside, it is significant for the still-active strength of Christianity in our civilization that the youth, by masses, goes for beer, among these possibilities.)

    Oh yes, there is religion still, for those who are religious, or happy enough to enjoy conversion. But even so, it is a general rule that nature when fought down (even in favor of grace) revenges itself.

    As it were, the parts of the address not reprinted here are the better ones, especially the things about icecream (and wisdom too). But still, the orator fails to say – and what he does attempt in this regard is too strict – what does constitute the extraordinary life he speaks about. What are the rules that must be hold to that a man may say his life was extraordinary, or – which seems equivalent for the orator – after all had some sense in it. I, for one, would prefer to go not for extraordinariness, but for the notion that an ordinary life in itself has some sense in it; but that’s just me.

    The carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people. Great joy does not gather the rosebuds while it may; nor is fixed in a very uncertain hope of a thing it in all probability never may achieve, as even the Inspired Words say that stalling hope makes the hard sick, but a yearning fulfilled is a tree of life (Proverbs, somewhere); its eyes are fixed on the immortal rose which Dante saw. (Chesterton, with a most humble addition of mine).

  5. Imrahil says:

    makes the *heart* sick, of course

  6. Mrs. O says:

    I liked it. I especially liked it since in just our few years in public/Catholic schools, our children got more trophies for paying their dues on the team and showing up than my whole family got who were into sports and some who actually were talented. Many are taught to be self centered and that supposedly gives the a healthy self esteem. Bleh.
    My favorite:
    “Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. “

  7. APX says:

    Who gave this speech? Was it an adult or was it a member of their graduating class? This sounds more like something I would have written in the school newspaper during my Emo days.

  8. Scott W. says:

    So a high school address you could imagine being given by Dr. Gregory House. Not surprising consider the number of TV shows now featuring an intellectual Übermensch: someone so much brighter and talented than the mere mortals around him that he can’t be bothered with triffles like common courtesy, propiety, or fair-play. I believe Chesterton had a comment about people who supposedly “tell it like it is”.

  9. Legisperitus says:

    The speaker is one of their teachers, David McCullough (possibly the son of THAT David McCullough, who lives in Boston).

  10. robtbrown says:

    The address was given by a member of the faculty at the same high school, Wellesley (cf. the link provided by Fr Z).

    A friend and I had a conversation on this very topic a few weeks ago. My brother, coming off triple coronary artery bypass surgery (100% blockage in two of the four main branches, 60% in another), had said that he couldn’t believe it could happen to him. That, despite being 100 lbs overweight, heavy drinking and eating, and doing nothing to relieve stress (see the aforesaid heavy and eating).

    The friend and I agreed that any notion we had of being special was quickly abused by the Army.

  11. Magpie says:

    This guy should have been booed off the stage. Whilst much is true, it’s also quite nasty.

  12. wmeyer says:

    “The speaker is one of their teachers…”

    Of course it was. The same teachers who have worked so hard to ensure that their self-esteem is bolstered by giving prizes to winners and losers alike. Now, as they prepare to go out into the world, knock out even that frail prop. Well done, teach.

  13. Banjo pickin girl says:

    The commenters here are right. This is all about the modern problem of “I have center stage now therefore I have license to be rude and insulting.” I suppose they thought they were being funny or even profound.

  14. ContraMundum says:

    It’s one thing to say that you should not expect life to be easy, you should expect to work hard and still suffer setbacks; it’s another to imply that you have to be the best in the world at … well, apparently some standards set idiosyncratically by the speaker.

    Oddly enough, I think he’s bass ackwards as far as that goes — at least for many students. Many teachers don’t really understand science and fear it, and they can easily give the impression that nothing very interesting can be done unless you’re a modern-day Einstein. I have no doubt that this discourages students from studying science, and by the way we need more scientists if America is going to rebound. But it’s not at all true that scientists have to be Einsteins. The frontier of science is much wider than most people recognize, and with hard work and a reasonable amount of talent it’s actually pretty easy to find a spot on that frontier where you are the world expert.

  15. Marion Ancilla Mariae says:

    “The friend and I agreed that any notion we had of being special was quickly abused by the Army.”

    That remark makes me think of the typical family size in which most of today’s young people grow up. Growing up in a family with lots of children fairly close in age, parents are able to make each youngster feel special and important, but only up to a point. There’s simply not enough hours in the day for parents to coddle, cosset, and coo over each youngster and to celebrate each tiny one of their achievements. I think children in big families learn very early to derive their sense of importance from helping to make life run smoothly and enjoyably for themselves, as well as for the rest of the family, especially for the younger ones.

    At the time of my eighth birthday, my mother was recovering from a difficult delivery of twin babies, and was confined to bed. She and I agreed that my father and I would make my birthday party and I could have five girls over. In those days, store-bought cakes weren’t as customary as they are today; Mom said there was no reason why I couldn’t make my own from scratch. So while Dad went out to buy ice cream and balloons, I brought Mom the recipe book into her bedroom, and then she told me step by step, ingredient by ingredient, how to mix and bake my birthday cake from scratch, as I ran back and forth to hear and then to execute each step in the kitchen.

    The cake turned out great, as did the party.

    The sense of specialness came from having no choice but to make your own way, and to help your parents make life good for the whole family.

  16. Mrs. O says:

    I am scratching my head and wondering if we all read the same thing because he ends with this:
    “And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

    Because everyone is.

    Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.”

    He called them to not be self-centered! He challenged them. He is rare among the adults today that think pampering and showering our children is going to build true character! When in fact, it usually causes them to be spoiled brats who feel entitled to everything because they are “special”! I would like to hear more of these. Better yet, I would like to see the end results and that would be children who can mature into adults!

  17. Jbuntin says:

    I guess I don’t understand what everyones problem is with this speech. I thought it was great. Self esteem is a sickness in America. My grandma used to say “too many Chiefs and not enough indians” nothing wrong with being a worker bee and not the queen.

  18. inara says:

    The speech as a whole was really good, I thought. Taking the portion posted here by itself makes it sound much snarkier than it was. I absolutely agree with the point he made in this bit, though ~ kids are so used to getting awards, certificates, candy, etc. *just for doing what they should be doing anyway* that they head out into the real world thinking they are truly AllThat&ABago’Chips. My husband complains about it constantly at work ~ he gets freshies from college on his team & they start whining when they don’t get raises or 5 star reviews, when they were simply performing at the general expectations of their job description. The fact that they might have to put in extra effort or show initiative in order to be recognized as exceptional is completely foreign to them.

    This starts in Kindergarten now. My elementary kids say they get to go to the “prize box” after they get 10 good behavior stickers (which are given every day, as long as you didn’t MISbehave). They brought home a flyer for the Y summer camps that says “Everybody Plays, Everybody Wins”…bleck. Their (quarterly!) award assemblies take 2 hours because not only do they award the “all A honor roll” students, but also the “A&B honor roll” students AND the “BUG (brought up a grade in at least one subject)” students. Not only do they give “perfect attendance” awards, but also “almost perfect attendance” awards. And then there’s the Positive Behavior Awards (aka “I didn’t get sent to the Principal or Guidance Counselor this quarter” award).

    If everybody’s awesome, then nobody is. They’re just lazy & whiny & have never experienced the joy & satisfaction of a job well done. But they do have a lot of sparkly certificates.

  19. Mrs. O says:

    Oh, how I wish I were not locked in “moderation”. If I knew how to get on the “approved” list so I can actually comment in real time. Sigh.

  20. wmeyer says:

    If everybody’s awesome, then nobody is.

    Absolutely correct. However, the teachers are a primary source of the malaise, and commencement is hardly the time or the place.

  21. jarhead462 says:

    Jbuntin- Hear, Hear! I liked it as well.
    wmeyer- while you are correct, I think you passed judgement on this teacher, without knowing him- perhaps he is one of those who swim upstream against the malaise.

    Semper Fi!

  22. Blue Henn says:

    Well, I thought it was good, though I have yet to read the whole thing because the link wouldn’t load. Growing up, Mum always said that if everyone is special, then no one is special. Some of you seem to be in the boat of “not all truths need to be told” concerning this speech, but I think someone has to say it, and good for him for doing so. The hard truths need to be told, seemingly more so today than ever, and oftentimes it can be an act of charity to do so. Chances are, it is a new and shocking message for many of those kids to hear, but it is a necessary one I think, especially considering today’s predominant culture of entitlement. And this is coming from a 24 year old woman who probably interacts more with people of this generation than “older folks” do, and sees the effects of the “do you know who I am” attitude more first hand.

  23. padredana says:

    I thought this speech was a breath of fresh air.

  24. ContraMundum says:

    If everybody’s awesome, then nobody is.

    So, how many not-special saints are there? Is there a Saint Bubba the Mediocre? Saint Zack the Slacker? Maybe you have Saint Dismas in mind — after all, what did he achieve other than being executed as he deserved (by his own admission) for his own crimes and having the Son of God say to him, “Amen I say to thee: This day thou shalt be with me in paradise.”

    IF we believe that everyone can become a saint, does that not mean that everyone can be (not is guaranteed to be) awesome? Conversely, if we believe that not everyone can be awesome, it is impossible for some people to become saints?

  25. Scott W. says:

    Sorry guys, rants are not for serious public events–they’re for bog comboxes. :D

  26. Scott W. says:

    Blog comboxes I meant to say. Bog? Freudian slip maybe?

  27. Mrs. O says:

    In our understanding of the dignity of the human person, that specialness is because we are made in the image and likeness of God, not because of our talents. That should cause us to respect all people and to grow into a selflessness, other centered. There is no guarantee how God is going to bestow his gifts on us as that is entirely up to him. How we use those gifts, and develop them, is entirely up to our own free will. It is evident that some bury their gifts. To have someone call the youth out of self-contentedness should be applauded IMO, not booed.

  28. wmeyer says:

    Scott W: I agree, rants are not for such occasions. My step-daughter recently graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and although I am not a fan of Janet Napolitano, I must give kudos to her for making her entire speech about the graduating students and the roles they will soon play.

  29. Banjo pickin girl says:

    contramundum, what you say about science is correct. i was discouraged from going into science because “girls don’t do science” and “you have to be a genius to do that.” i did it anyway and while i am not a Big Deal i am having something resembling a career and feel i am helping humanity in my own small way. i do not bring drugs to market or teach in a research institution but the company for which i work helps those who do.

    Mrs. O, me too. we are held in a holding pen for a while. someone on here called it “in pectore.” i thought that was funny.

  30. Moro says:

    What an important message to hear, especially if you are privileged enough to grow up in a town likely Wellesley (I live nearby and grew up in a similiar town down south). It’s also a message parents need to here. They think their little boy or girl is the best thing ever. I’ll never forget the mother of my track team captain being shocked that her son, the fastest runner and arguably the brightest student at my high school, was not the smartest compared to some of his classmates at Princeton! We all need a healthy dose of humility and I think the speaker did a great service in doing just that.

  31. cjcanniff says:

    Wellesley is one of the wealthiest town in Massachusetts (in the top ten, I believe). Perhaps the speaker’s concluding statement, therefore, which was a call to humility and selflessness, was something these financially privileged teens benefited from hearing.

  32. At the HS graduation I went to yesterday 12 valedictorians…I liked the speech

  33. Torpedo1 says:

    I think what is missing, and that what some are pointing out here is this. It isn’t we ourselves, who make us special, but God. Yes, we all have the ability to become saints and God, the one who loves us above all things, shows us that we are the most precious and special beings to him, because we are created in his image and that’s why too, parents most often believe that their child is the best, the most special. The problem with entitled kids today and the entire self-esteme movement is that it declairs someone special, for no reason and that is the speaker’s point. Children need to be told they are loved, need to be told that they are beautiful gifts from
    god, but they need to understand humility and selflessness as well. They aren’t the best at everything that they do and guess what kids… that’s all right too. You have no idea how many times I was told how amazing I was as a kid, just for being blind and crossing the street. I always hated it, because I never understood why they would say something like that. I understand it now, but it still bothers me. My parents raised me to think of my disability as something to work with and not something that put me above the rest of the kids. This is what frightens me to no end about the slective abortions due to disability in this country. Abortion is evil all by itself, but to do it because your kid isn’t perfect erases the possibility to learn something from that child. If we want everyone to be perfectly healthy, perfectly formed and all of that, we lose someone who could teach us more about how we should behaive, about how we should treat others.

  34. FrJLP says:

    Fantastic! I’d like to use this at my seminary commencements, too, where the young men have been lead to believe that they are the saviors of Church and Tradition, and that they, soon, will be the next bishops and popes… But, I agree with other readers…one must read the WHOLE address, otherwise it does come off a bit snarky… Great address (especially after working in a rich Catholic high school)!

  35. lucy says:

    Mrs. O and jarhead – you both hit the nail on the head!

  36. Widukind says:

    I had no problem with the message of the speech. It was about reality – about how the world should be – and that it must begin with individuals – with them, the students. I also do not
    think that the message in any way dampens the call to sainthood. If you do not start with basic humility, then no one becomes a saint. It is just a wake-up call – “be humble – life is not about you, dumb-a-s!”

  37. ContraMundum says:



    Also, we really DO want kids to set high goals for themselves, for exactly the same reason we should aim for Heaven, not Purgatory. Reach for the trapeze, don’t just hope the net will catch you.

    Because, temporally speaking, the net will not be there for their generation.

  38. ContraMundum says:

    Here’s what I think people are wishing he had said.

    Am I a soldier of the cross,
    A follower of the Lamb?
    And shall I fear to own His cause
    Or blush to speak His name?

    Must I be carried to the skies
    On flowery beds of ease?
    While others fought to win the prize,
    And sailed through bloody seas?

    Are there no foes for me to face?
    Must I not stem the flood?
    Is this vile world a friend to grace,
    To help me on to God?

    Sure I must fight, if I would reign
    Increase my courage, Lord!
    I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
    Supported by Thy word.

    Thy saints, in all this glorious war,
    Shall conquer, though they die;
    They view the triumph from afar,
    And seize it with their eye.

    When that illustrious day shall rise,
    And all Thy armies shine
    In robes of victory through the skies,
    The glory shall be Thine.

    — Isaac Watts

  39. HyacinthClare says:

    This comment box is more interesting than the speech. Of course he’s competing with all the “You’re so SPECIAL” business that kids get. Parents and teachers learned somewhere that unless kids hear that they are special every minute, are never criticized, and never have to actually DO anything to BECOME special (works righteousness, anyone?) that they will be warped and miserable. What they are is miserable if they never learned that self-esteem comes with accomplishment, not just existence, which they share with millipedes and dust bunnies. HUMAN NATURE is special… and we share it with every other good human being. (I may just shoot down my premise here to comment that Torpedo1 sounds ESPECIALLY human today. :-))

  40. wmeyer says:

    Again, it’s not that he’s in error in the message. The horse is out of the barn. Those kids needed to hear this long before commencement.

  41. Hidden One says:

    I recently sat through a couple graduation speeches – for me, and not high school – and I have no problem with the quotations from this graduation speech whatsoever.

  42. ContraMundum says:

    The problem is that some people are hearing, “You’re not special,” as meaning, “You will have to work hard to make yourself a worthwhile person.” I can assure you, many will understand it as meaning, “Hard work ain’t gonna cut it, kiddo. You’re mediocre, tops. Why try hard when failure is guaranteed?”

    This is why it was a crappy speech. It could have been a clear call for noncomplacency, rather than mere defeatism. It wasn’t.

  43. Spaniard says:

    Weel, I thought the speech was hoorible and lacks any Christian values: all right, we are dust and to dust we shall return, but for Heaven’s sake, we are Sons of God: if that is not being special, at least to the eyes of the Lord (I don’t care much for anyone else’s opinion), I don’t know what is.

  44. acardnal says:

    Allright, who wants a medal for their comment?

  45. FrJLP says:

    Um….it seems to me that many of you, including @Spaniard and @ContraMundum, are not reading the whole speech at the link provided. The orator goes on to talk about selfless service and how to live authentically “extraordinary” lives. The speech nicely reflects, for example, the notions of “freedom of indifference vs. freedom for excellence” as highlighted in the moral works of Servais Pinkaers, O.P. I am sending this to all of my students!

    This false “specialism” and entitlement that pervades modern education is an epidemic and causes much harm.

  46. Soler says:

    @Blue Henn

    The hard truths need to be told…
    Chances are, it is a new and shocking message for many of those kids to hear…

    My point was that it is not a hard truth, it is a bleeding obvious truth, and that the speaker is insulting the students’ intelligence by assuming they have not already grasped it. I could be wrong, however.

  47. Johnno says:

    Good speech. I like it. It’s true that it opens harshly, but it’s all good if it make a good point and ends well and offers worthy encouragement. Sometimes we need a little of this. One of my favorite teachers was always seen as a hard-ass. And many didn’t like him. But I appreciated him, because he cared. In fact, many of those same students who didn’t like him, now look back and respect him for how he did things. The Church could use men like him. All this mollycoddling we’ve been doing for years has brought us to where we are today. And for what? All to hide from saying what should be ‘obvious’! You’d be surprised how the ‘obvious’ is lost on many people. Well, rather not lost, just not acknowledged and wished to be kept far away. So sometimes you need just this sort of speech to drag one back to reality to realize what they’ve known all along but psychologically distanced themselves from to their detriment.

    Catholic High Schools here in Ontario have lost the bid and can now be forced to adopt Gay-Straight Alliances. And all because their arguments to fight against it refused to state the screamingly obvious… that Catholics do not want Gay-Straight Alliances in their schools because it is obviously a force that seeks to promote immoral sexuality! But you didn’t hear any of this from the bishop or teachers mouths and they kept quiet and let the liberals bash them on television. Not one of them spoke up about how homosexuality is obviously against natural law and immoral and that by having these clubs forced upon them is a tactic by the liberals to undermine Catholic teachings on homosexuality. Not ONE! Well, that sure worked out fine as we all can see!

  48. ContraMundum says:

    Allright, who wants a medal for their comment?

    I’m not in it for the medals or fame. I’m in it for the endorsement deals.

    Nike should be calling any minute now….

  49. mike cliffson says:

    There must be another , better ,way to remind youngsters they are NOT Almighty God.

  50. Imrahil says:

    Some observations…

    First, it has been said rightly that the remainder of the address is better and puts it a bit into perspective. But even the remainder of the address, while containing beautiful phrases such as the one cited by @Mrs. O (which however is not directly the end), still it does contain rather explicitly the thought that “you are morally obliged to live an extraordinary life”. Which rather reinforces the thought that comes anyway, as @Contramundum observed: “You will have to work hard to make yourself a worthwhile person.” And no, that is not Christian. (It is Christian to say: “You have to do a decent amount of work – and no shirking! – because you are already a worthwhile person.”)

    Second, if everybody is awesome, nobody is seems logical, but as it were it rather seems to be false. Of course, however, awesomeness is not something somebody is by decree, for quite particular, we’d best say: personal, reasons, beginning with existence but please, please not stopping at that. I cannot really describe this feeling, but I think practically any person could quite well be invited to a birthday party (the eleventyfirst, for instance) and greeted by: I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve, as – please take no offense, I only put in the quote for completeness – Tolkien had Bilbo commence his speech in the Lord of the Rings I.

    Third, maybe that’s America. I mean the constant appraisal.

    Fourth, the address should address the graduates, not rebuke their parents. As to the graduates, if they themselves think they are kings of the world, they are either very rare exceptions, or the cultural gap I mentioned is far bigger that I could possibly think of.

    Fifth, there seems to be this idea around that truth is always hard, or is hard in all interesting cases. There are also soft truths. Besides, as I observe, He Who called Himself the Truth did not come hard upon those He told some truth, save sometimes as a last resort to convert some people who needed the medicine, all of whom had previously committed quite definitive acts of wrongdoing (yes, the Pharisees too; they are rebuked for lack of justice in Mt 23,23).

    Sixth (@ContraMundum), there’s Saints and Saints, and if we believe that everybody can be a saint, be ought to distinguish which Saint. Do we mean “a person in heaven”? Or do we mean “a martyr, or hero proposed to us by the Church for veneration”?
    A fulfilled Christian life ends in Heaven (no offence to the Poor Souls, though); it’d be counterproductive overburdening to expect from Mr. Peter Q. Catholic, lifelong inhabitant of the same suburb, postman, father to three children, to make it to the second.

  51. Charivari Rob says:

    Wow! I didn’t think it would stir up such a hornets’ nest.

    I don’t know how many others may have sent it to Father Z., so he may not ever have seen my message, but I commented to him that I thought it mildly amusing, thought-provoking, and possessing some kernels of truth.

    I thought it was (mostly) quite good and definitely memorable. It seemed to let some of the air out of the self-esteem, grade inflation, helicopter-parenting hyper(bole)baric chamber. A couple of great shots about why we do things.

    There doesn’t seem to be much reaction here in local media. No articles about him having ruined anybody’s special day, etc…

    I don’t know anything about this teacher, but the story makes me suspect that he teaches something like that. I’m sure that whoever suggested/requested him as a speaker, and whoever in the administration signed off on it, knew exactly what they were getting. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the graduating students had nominated him.

    It sounds as though he is a challenging, engaging, memorable teacher who knows and loves his subject and his students. Thinking back on some teachers I’ve had who could be so described, I would not be surprised if the students wanted a “last lecture” experience.

    I think Spaniard had the most important observation – about the speech lacking any Christian value. There was so much more that could have been said in the speech about the questions and answers being raised. There was a hole. I don’t know if it’s because of the personal beliefs of the man or because of how far he could (not) take it in that forum.

  52. ContraMundum says:

    Sixth (@ContraMundum), there’s Saints and Saints, and if we believe that everybody can be a saint, be ought to distinguish which Saint. Do we mean “a person in heaven”? Or do we mean “a martyr, or hero proposed to us by the Church for veneration”?

    In the end, there’s not as much difference as you might think. Hopefully no one is silly enough to think that the most heroic saints are those who found yet another religious order, but look at those whose causes get pushed through to beatitude and canonization: they are disproportionately founders of religious orders, because they have a community highly motivated to see the process through. Such is rarely the case for the laity, no matter how saintly, unless they end their lives in a dramatic and well-known martyrdom. The Church is aware of these biases, and that is the reason for All Saints Day.

    I mentioned St. Dismas. He *is* held up by the Church for veneration, but by the standards of just about any commencement speaker he was a dismal failure. Even St. Therese was “not special” by secular or temporal standards.

    For see your vocation, brethren, that there are not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble. But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise: and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong. And the base things of the world and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen: and things that are not, that he might bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his sight.

  53. xsosdid says:

    Is “Churchillian” an adjective? It should be, because this was.

  54. Marion Ancilla Mariae says:

    Is not each and every one of us special and awesome because we are created in the Image and Likeness of God? C.S. Lewis wrote that if we were capable of seeing the beauty and the majesty of one single ordinary human soul, we would be tempted to fall down and worship before it.

    To the extent that a human soul directs itself and unites itself toward the Creator, that human soul fulfills its destiny and becomes, in a sense, like unto God, for we grow like whom we love. Therefore all human souls are majestic creations, but those united by love with God are splendid in their glory, even here on Earth.

    None of us – not even the saints – is special and awesome in ourselves, but we are so in God in whom we live, move, and have our being.

  55. Lucas says:

    I loved it. I’ve known to many HS seniors who think they are God’s gift to the world. This should be a good slap of reality to them.

  56. ContraMundum says:

    When you were a HS senior, did you hang on ever word of the speaker? Can you in fact remember ANYTHING he or she said?

    If not, it’s a slap that missed and connected with nothing … except, apparently, this blog.

  57. NoTambourines says:

    Seems like people either love this or loathe it. The full address is well worth reading for context.

    I work in academia, and the address does touch on a lot of issues that have been evolving for a long time with incoming students. There has long been concern that new students are less academically and emotionally prepared for college than in previous generations, often coupled with a sense of entitlement egged on by grade inflation, “helicopter parents,” (or absentee parents) social promotion, and, many will also argue, the influence of various trends in psychology on education in the latter half of the last century (again, I recommend this interview with the repentant William Coulson:

    In the background of all of this is the fact that many students are navigating this sea without reference to any kind of religious upbringing, and also the deeper sense of self worth that comes with it, which goes deeper than simple pride. For that matter, where did I really, really learn to be able to sit down, pay attention, and be serious? Church. I think many students are poorer for not having that experience.

  58. I largely agree with Jbuntin, with the exception that I would assert that

    narcissism is a sickness in America

    rather than that

    Self esteem is a sickness in America.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  59. ContraMundum says:

    ANY graduation speech that requires more than 3 paragraphs to express its main point is a bad speech.

  60. pm125 says:

    Imagine that the graduates listened to the speech because it was about them and their life experience so far in a way that was thought provoking. How to think, what to think, a challenge to think are exercises they crave.
    They were treated to a perspective that could bring pause to considering their place in “the world out there” before splashdown.

  61. FrJLP says:

    @ContraMundum: Perhaps any combox observations that require more than three posts is not the best observation….

  62. ContraMundum says:


    It did not require more than 3 comments to make my point, and it does not seem that any number will be sufficient to convince the obstinate.

    But your comment is merely snarky. Even when I stated that a commencement speech that takes more than 3 paragraphs to make its point is a bad speech, it was not merely snarky. You do not have to read my comments, but the whole auditorium has to sit and listen to the speech. If the speaker takes too long getting to the point, he will have lost their attention (if he ever had it) and they will just become annoyed that he is still talking. I’ve been on both sides of the podium too often to think otherwise.

    The rule I was taught is “Tell them what you’re going to say, then tell them what you have to say, then tell them what you said.” Punch lines may work for jokes and Paul Harvey, but for the rest of us we had best make it clear where we’re going from the beginning — especially when speaking to a mixed audience.

  63. jflare says:

    Weeelll…. In the interest of charity, I’ll hope that the culturual, social, and political context of Wellesley, MA, would make this speech be less..abusive..than the way it appears to me.
    Many of his remarks address genuine problems. Seems to me these might be better handled in meetings with parents and/or the school board.
    In this situation, he simply sounds like a crank that everyone ignores.

    I can hope it’ll have a positive impact, buy I’m not precisely placing bets….

  64. Imrahil says:

    Dear @ContraMundum,

    The Church is aware of these biases, and that is the reason for All Saints Day.

    That is true to an extent. But still, the ordinary (^^) canonized Saint is canonized for being exceptional. And that’s good in itself; there ought to be exceptional heroes, and thank God there are. St. Dismas is the exception that proves the rule; he is a sign of hope for conversion. (Besides, we cannot not venerate him; the Lord canonized him Himself.) But still, the beatification process of the Servant of God Joseph Fesch is being put into question for precisely this reason. And one point of concern in canonization is the reputation of sainthood, or even the popular previous veneration. Such things actually exist; and we might presume that they are about a real thing. But they are not about “this person has, in life, fulfilled her Christian duties, and by all probability, is in Heaven”, because this is a different attitude people have about much more deceased brethren than the former. (Taking especially into account that the Church is generous with her indulgences especially in articulo mortis; and, coming to think of it, it is in fact still some custom around here to note in obituaries, “provided with the Holy Sacraments of Dying”, i. e. Penance, Extreme Unction and Viaticum, plus the Papal blessing.)

    Now given the fact that normally the Saints are exceptional heroes, I cannot bring myself to think that the universal call for sainthood means sainthood in this sense. (Even if it is about “doing ordinary things extraordinarily well” – as if that were any kind of comfort that this, obviously harder, way to being extraordinary is indeed a way to being extraordinary, which never anybody has doubted.) Hilaire Belloc said about Capitalism, (unexact quote): “It is often said, truly, that anybody can succeed in Capitalism. The forgotten other half of this truth is that not everybody can.”
    The Saints (in the popular sense) cannot be the happy few who has reached to be a Christian, while we others depend on God’s mercy on a side-way, if we are saved at all. They are the ones that have merits worthy of exceptional praise, whom to praise will be a subsidiary joy of our own sainthood. We’re obviously not equal in Heaven, nor would – even now in our imperfect state, when we really think of it – want to be, but we can – if Google translator rightly helped me with the idiom – hold a candle to them.

  65. randomcatholic says:

    I am not impressed by this speech at all. It strikes me as simultaneously narcissistic and wrong-headed.

    It is narcissistic because the speaker is taking on the role of the great all knowing corrector, addressing every child as if they were a spoiled brat with a huge self-esteem. This is, most definitely, NOT the case.

    It is wrong headed because we are human beings, not human doings, and we created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore the statement: “If everyone is special, no one is” may hold true for the atheist, or the secularist, but I wouldn’t think it would hold true for the Christian, for the Christian would understand that each human person has a role to play in salvation history, and that all of us are loved by God.

    So. I think this graduation speech is narcissistic, wrong-headed, and as a result probably a little abusive. I shudder for those kids in those pews who are NOT, like the writer, arrogant individuals with exaggerated self-esteems, but are rather struggling with an absence of self-worth, hearing this could easily lead to despair.

    No. I didn’t “enjoy” this at all. I question why anyone would.

  66. randomcatholic says:

    I just went and read the whole thing. The section Fr. Z quoted, taken out of context, on it’s own, was pretty terrible. HOWEVER, the whole speech is actually quite inspiring. The best parts are the last lines, where the speaker pulls it all together, and in a way corrects the error he or she proposed earlier in the speech:

    “The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

    Because everyone is.

    Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.”

  67. BLB Oregon says:

    I’m not much impressed by it. It doesn’t take much to say, “I’m not special, and neither are you. Or you. Or you. Or you.” Besides, if none of us are anything to write home about, then the Almighty Creator of the Universe needs an exam to figure out what all the trouble with the Incarnation and all of that fuss.

    It is far more difficult to impress this upon a person: “Do smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet? Well, that is fine. You are special, and Heaven made you to be an object of love. Do you have the wisdom to realize that those who are entirely forgotten in this world are every bit as special and worthy of love as you are? Do you know that even more than an object of love, you are meant to be a conduit of love?”

    Yes, you’re special, but you’ve not been made special for yourself. You’ve been made special in order to be a unique reflection of the glory of God to another human being for whom God became a man and died. That is what you are, that is why you are, that is the deepest desire of your heart, the thing you long for. If you live like you’re nothing special and no one else is, you’ve missed the whole point of your existence….and that’s a pretty big point to miss. Think about that.

  68. MouseTemplar says:

    I’d like to invite the speaker to give the Kindergarden Commencement Speech at my son’s school.

    If my 6 year old comes home with another “I’m SPECIAL” award from the Catholic Kindergarden he attends– I. Will. Scream. He gets them for bringing a water bottle. For picking up the toys. For not shoving anyone. When I get him home in the evening and have him do his regular tasks–yes he already has some things expected of him–he sulks and begins to move in slow motion unless we jump about like clowns and clap for him. He now claps for himself since we do not, having taught him it is regularly expected that he don his own pajamas without pomp and circumstance.

    It’s as if any intrinsic motivation, even any normal pride in a job well done is being removed and he’s becoming a rat in a Skinner box waiting for a peanut. We expect him to behave as a member of the family, not the rock star–and find our efforts are being undermined by this “Everyone’s a Winner” mentality. For the pricey private school tuition, I hadn’t expected they’d train him to be satisfied with mediocrity. ..

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