Elmhurst College: Don't Wait for the Future

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Don't Wait for the Future

In his Midyear Commencement address, President S. Alan Ray encourages graduates to position themselves so that they are ready to seize opportunities when the economy improves.

Endless waiting. That’s what Samuel Beckett’s 1953 absurdist play Waiting for Godot is all about. Two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for a third named Godot, whose arrival will signal the start of something, of anything. But Godot never arrives and the characters adopt a philosophical attitude that rationalizes their permanent paralysis. Vladimir says to Estragon, “Let’s go,” to which Estragon replies, “Yes, let’s go.” Yet neither moves. Today, after years of a crippling recession, many of us seem to be waiting, too. For the effects of the recession to end, for industry to return, for new home sales to begin, for competent politicians to guide us, for employers to hire us, for credit to move freely, for—something, anything, that will enable us to get on with our lives as we’ve known them. If we are Americans, seldom have we felt so disempowered.

Each of us feels this state of affairs differently. For many graduates, waiting takes the form of unemployment or underemployment.  While nothing would please me more than to know each of you is on track for the future of your dreams, I know the reality for many is quite different. You may be waiting for your own Godot, or, at the risk of bad punning, the “good dough” of the title of my remarks. In this you are not alone.  

A recent study found that employment among young adults is now at 55.3 percent, down from 67.3 percent in 2000 and the lowest since World War II. Recent college graduates are also skipping long-distance moves and instead are moving back home with mom and dad. The same study goes on to say, “Some 5.9 million young adults age 25-34 lived with their parents last year, up 25 percent since before the recession–and the “mancession” is hitting young men hard. Men 25-34 are now nearly twice as likely as women to live with their parents.”

For many, and I hope most, of you, tomorrow means looking forward to your first professional job, a rewarding internship or fellowship or an exciting graduate program. For some of you, though, tomorrow may bring a different set of challenges. For some of you, the question may be, “what do I do now?”

To find an answer, I think it helps to consider where we experience the effects of the recession in our lives.

Don't succumb to hopelessness
We may first experience the recession in the larger world, the macro world, where we have seen a shift of our economy from manufacturing to service, followed closely by outsourcing of both manufacturing, and more recently, service jobs. Of course, even where they might remain, service jobs dry up when there is no one to serve: when credit freezes, jobs are lost and disposable income drops.  Yet we see the now-fabled 1 percent prosper and protect their standard of living. Surely this calls for a public response. Yet our government is intransigent and polarized at the very time it should be agile, creative, inclusive and cooperative.  We feel we cannot do much if anything about either the economy or government.  We become frustrated, angry, depressed. Social expressions of these personal reactions are the Occupy movement on the left and the Tea Party movement on the right.

Faced with our frustration, we are tempted to up our hands and declare there is nothing we can do—the path of paralysis—or to demonize others, to displace our anxieties onto social scapegoats. It is possible to see our social and political polarization on issues like abortion rights, marriage equality and immigration reform as the displacement of our anxieties onto easy targets. Certainly, these issues present genuine questions about the common good, but they also can be simply vessels for our anxiety and anger.

Since our feelings often drive our reasoning, I suggest that you monitor and reflect on your own responses and be attuned to the difference between feelings based on generalized anxiety over the future—your future—and feelings of genuine concern about the social impact of particular policies. Similarly, beware of feelings of hopelessness over the state of the larger world. Do not surrender the power you have to effect meaningful change. Elmhurst College has a long and proud tradition of civic engagement, service learning, volunteerism and social action that is yours. Claim it. Carry that tradition forward into your post-graduate lives and remain engaged in what is, after all, your world.

The recession not only threatens our sense of ownership over the macro environment, it challenges our attitude toward our personal, private world. This is the place where you experience anxiety over the future as yours, and decide what you will do about it. It is tempting to think poorly about yourself when you don’t have a job or can’t afford to live on your own. Remember, though, that you have the power to decide how you will respond to outside circumstances. Devoting emotions of anger and impatience to bemoaning the loss of an imagined future or to stimulating your fear of the socially Other—who you think may be to blame—is reactive, fear-based, and can be self-destructive. Instead, put your anger and impatience to good use in developing your potentials.

Louis Pasteur said that “chance favors the prepared mind.” So take care of yourself: do not dull yourself to your situation through too much drinking or drugs, TV, gaming or electronic media. If the macro world changes for the better you have to be ready to seize opportunities and you cannot do that if you are in a bad place personally.  So take care of your physical and emotional wellbeing.  However you think of spirituality, cultivate that deep and important source of personal strength. You’ll need it. And try to maintain your sense of humor and perspective. They are your canary in the coal mine of a difficult world. If your sense of humor and perspective are thriving, the rest of you probably is thriving, too.

Engage in professional networks
Finally, between the macro “outside” world and the micro “personal” world is the social world. Faced with recessionary times, it is tempting to withdraw, to isolate. Believing all your fellow graduates are starting terrific careers, it is easy to feel ashamed and embarrassed. It is all the harder, then, to do what is necessary, to become part of a community, part of a network of family, friends, philosophical or religious fellow-travelers, who care about you and your wellbeing for no pecuniary reason. Besides working for larger change in the big world and taking care of yourself in the personal world, you must network in the social world. Above all, stay in touch with Elmhurst College and your fellow alumni and alumnae and support each other in your professional efforts and personal growth. I cannot overstate the importance of becoming engaged in new professional networks.  For example, seek out informational interviews with established professionals in fields where you have a long-term interest.  Do not be discouraged if many such interviews lead nowhere.

Years ago I transitioned out of legal practice and thanks to one informational interview out of many, after months of exploration I landed the position that 12 years later led to becoming president of this College. Finally, consider graduate school. In addition to its intrinsic intellectual merits, graduate school can serve as an incubator for professional networks and self-positioning for better times. Whether or not graduate school becomes a place where you are just hiding from the recession depends entirely on you and your attitude toward your advanced studies. Like job searching, you should investigate only those graduate programs that can lead to long-term rewards.  Don’t jump at the first opportunity unless you absolutely have to.

A recent story in The New York Times concluded, “The millions of young people who cannot get jobs or who take work that does not require a college education are in danger of losing their faith in the future.”  “Losing faith in the future”? Millions, one might say, are in danger of losing their faith in Godot’s arrival, if by “future” one means an inevitable destiny of wealth and happiness. I suggest that that “future” is not one that deserves our faith in the first place. Wealth and happiness are not inevitable.  Despite what we may have been seduced to believe, we are not entitled to happiness—we are entitled, you’ll recall from the Declaration of Independence, to the pursuit of happiness. However, faith that the world can become a place of opportunity again, faith that we can create an economic system that is both financially rewarding and non-exploitative, faith that those living in this country and my fellow world citizens are human beings first, and competitors for scarce social goods only second or third, that kind of faith is worthy of you and deserves your adherence, even in, or especially in, times of personal transition and challenge.

Faith in a future that you create leads to the antithesis of waiting for some golden future, waiting for the exact right moment to begin your life, waiting for the optimum economic environment, waiting for the perfect person to make you whole and redeem your insecurities or pay your rent or give you answers to life’s big questions. Don’t find yourself waiting for Godot. You’ll never move. Have the existential faith that Estragon and Vladamir lacked—and act.

Late in Beckett’s play, one character says to another, “Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?" Tomorrow, when you awake, what will you say of today? I hope you will say that today you are recommitting yourself to mending a world in need, to taking care of yourself in every possible way, and to engaging fully and creatively in the complex society that is the precondition of your success. The big world, the small world, the social world—you need them all and they need you and your passionate engagement.

In closing, I cannot do better than to quote Mahatma Gandhi, who famously said, “be the change you want to see in the world.”  Congratulations, Class of 2012: stay engaged, stay well, and stay close to those who care about your future. Just don’t wait. Thank you.

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