Joe Dellosa


Remarks I gave at my high school graduation

Notes & Context

This is the speech I gave during my high school graduation; although it's intended to be more about ephemerality than just death, I guess it's pretty morbid. It was also kind of a compromise between a single-topic speech and something like the sunscreen song.

I don't know whether or not the speech really "worked" (if you're thinking it's a little over-written, you won't hear an argument from me), but I do remember, after the ceremony, a stranger — the mom of a graduate whom I didn't know, it turned out — gave me a hug outside the ceremony and said, "Thank you for what you said." It made me aww.

Also, Apple CEO Steve Jobs talked about death in a commencement speech in 2005. I hadn't read it before delivering my own, but I kind of wish I had, if not for any other reason than to point to it when my friends asked why the hell I was talking about death at graduation.

I'm honored to address you all this evening, and I appreciate everybody taking the time to be a part of our graduation.

I've got an announcement to make: Within the next 150 years, I'm going to be dead.

I don't know how exactly—personally, I'm imagining some sort of scenario involving a bottle of Levitra and a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos—but I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that it's going to happen.

I'm not a particularly morbid person, nor do I ruminate over things like the inevitability of death very often. My planning has a tendency to extend no further than a week; any consternation I have over the ephemeral nature of life is usually assuaged by eating a gallon of gummi bears while watching Saved by the Bell reruns on TBS.

Still, though, I thought a lot about it while trying to decide what to say for this speech.

I wanted to talk about friendship, because it means a lot to me. I'm more than a little dismayed that friendships can be broken in moments because of a misunderstood comment or a badly timed joke, or because somebody's pissed they're not in someone else's top eight. I'm disappointed when the alacrity to fix a broken friendship isn't there; it's a harsh reminder that the strength of a friendship isn't measured by how happy two people are when things are going well, but how hard they work to understand each other when things aren't. And when one does break, the swiftness to condemn it is disturbing; it seems kind of silly to malign a friendship that probably had more peaks than troughs just because it ended in a trough.

I wanted to talk about what love means, because people say I'm cynical about it, but I'm not. I just don't believe it's merely a fuzzy feeling of nervous, jittery excitement—that's what origami fortune tellers call crushes, psychologists call limerence, and the jaded call horniness. I don't believe it's a mysterious force that stings, and burns, and maddens—although penicillin can take care of that. I do think, however, that real love is observable, and it's expressible. I think it's the product of respect, understanding, and admiration. I think it's a determination to say "I love you" without saying "I love you if." And I know that it's nothing short of an agreement that says "I'll be okay without you, and you'll be okay without me, but I really think that I can make you happy, and I think you make me want to make others happy, too."

I wanted to talk about courage, because, though we've all decided to revere it, we haven't come to a consensus about what it is. Some people label everything as courageous: Chugging a three-liter bottle of Shasta Cola is "courageous"; turning down $100,000 because Howie Mandel convinced you to say No Deal is "courageous." Then there are those who say that anything less than taking a bullet for someone isn't courage. Courage isn't everywhere, but it's not nowhere, either. Not too many of us will get the opportunity to demonstrate the highest forms of courage like taking bullets, or rescuing people from a fire, or eating at Arby's. Even fewer will actually have the temerity to follow through when the opportunity does arise. And that's okay, because it's the smaller acts of courage and selflessness that add up: It's sticking up for someone when you could've just walked away. It's donating blood when the sight of needles scares the piss out of you. It's doing something for someone else when you can't get anything out of it—and especially when you stand to lose something yourself.

I wanted to talk about sanguinity and optimism, and how people seem to prefer "Know Your Limits" to "You Can Do Anything." I know, it pisses me off too whenever the Dr. Philian jackass du jour tries to convince me that I can do anything, but I'd rather hear that than "here's what you can't do, deal with it." I just can't take this near-nihilistic realism seriously, because whenever these realists speak, there's an implicit "as far as we know" attached to whatever they say. And what we know just isn't all that far.

I wanted to talk about all these things, but whenever I tried to write anything meaningful about any of them, I just kept thinking: I'm going to die, probably sometime in this century. My friendship, love, courage, and optimism probably won't even really matter too much. Most everybody I know and care about will be dead with me, and soon my name and any mark I left on this world will be forgotten. All that I am, all that I've experienced, and all that I've contributed will vanish into the ether.

And that kind of sucks.

Some people turn to religion and faith to handle this. The idea that there's some greater purpose for all of us, and that what we do is being tracked and guided by someone is comforting. Or, at the very least, it offers a reason to get up in the morning. And that's all right. But I worry when someone says that it's fear of eternal punishment or offer of ethereal reward that dictates what they do—that's selfishness, dressed up in dogma. And besides, your religion could change: a tragedy could shake your faith, a Tibetan monk could inspire you, or two really charming people carrying copies of Awake! might make you rethink your beliefs. Or hell, maybe Earth really is just a little cell in some huge macro-organism, and we're just a virus infecting the planet, no more meaningful than a strain of avian flu.

I've thought about it, and I don't know what to think. The best I could come up with is the paradoxical idea that none of this could matter, so everything matters all the more.

If I'm going to be forgotten by everybody a couple of centuries from now, then maybe I should do my best to help make the lives of the people that are around me now better.

If my contributions are going to be meaningless after I die, then maybe I should start making some contributions that'll help someone else down the road do something great.

And if I'm going to die sometime in the next 150 years, then maybe I should start appreciating the time I do have—without the constraints of fear or misplaced anger hanging over me.

I know saying "I'm going to die" sounds macabre and horrible, but it's really not. It's liberating. And it's inspiring. And it's plenty scary, but it's the kick in the ass that I think I need more often than I'm willing to admit.

If I'm going to die, then fear of failure doesn't have the same paralyzing power it once had. Failure happens with such frequency and ferocity that not trying something because I might fail is like not trying to swim because I might get wet.

If I'm going to die, then pettiness and grudges become kind of pointless. I'm thinking of all the people with whom I've been angry or frustrated, and I can't imagine that it's worth wasting any more time fuming or whining about it.

And if I'm going to die, then I can't imagine the product of any sort of greed or avarice will do me good once I'm dead if I didn't use it to help others. I'm just taking a stab at this here, but I doubt that whatever god does exist takes PayPal.

Different societies, cultures, and religions set different standards for what is a life well lived. And there's a good chance that none of us have it exactly right. But what small common ground we can find with the diverse, disparate people of this world—those with good hearts—usually is no more than, "What have you done with your life that has made someone else's better?"

That could involve friendship, or love, or courage, or optimism. I don't know; I think we all have to find our own way there.

But what I do know is that I'm going to die. But first, some stuff is going to happen. Some of it will be good. Some of it will be bad. And I hope that, by the end of it, more stuff will have been good than bad.

And I hope the same for all of you guys, too. Good luck.

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