Once again, I have not been asked to deliver a commencement address. I was once offended by this oversight, but no longer. After all, look at the people who actually get asked. They tend to be famous, and we all know what it takes to get famous these days.
Nonetheless, the desire to address America’s youth, or some bored and captive portion thereof it, remains a lifelong dream. And so, once again, a short graduation message:
My dear students:
You are about to embark on a great journey during which you will take on massive responsibilities and challenges, such as a mortgage, children, and eventually a fatal disease.
I could make several suggestions on how to make the most of this voyage. I could advise you to work hard and follow your dreams, and to make lemonade when lemons appear, etcetera, etcetera. But the fact is, you already know all that, no matter how dim you are.
Instead, let me pass along the secret to achieving a happy life. Happiness, after all, is the main thing, and achieving happiness in our society is no easy assignment.
What must you do to be happy? You must follow this advice to the letter: You must do everything possible to avoid getting rich.
(Pause for moans and groans, possible shrieks)
Yes, dear students, the sound you hear is your parents gnashing their teeth, rending their garments, and in some cases hurling their turnips. They have paid good money to send you to this fine school with the hope that you will one day get rich and make them proud. They have also insisted that financial security is vital to happiness.
But I say unto you: Do not rise to that bait. The truth is, money does not make you happy. Quite the contrary. It makes you its miserable slave.
I am not guessing here. While I am not rich, I know plenty of people who are. For the most part, they are sad people. They are also, in the deepest sense of the word, stupid.
Consider the content of their conversation. It is, for the most part, pathetic.
Believe it or not, not long ago ordinary Americans could quote long passages of Scripture, poetry, and important speeches. Even in my day students would amuse themselves by uncorking a few jugs and then uncorking long passages of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or a poem or two from Dylan Thomas.
These days, you’ll be lucky to get a few rock lyrics or lines from a movie.
(Pause for possible booing).
The rich man is especially egregious (pause for blank expressions). By that I mean the richer you are, the worse your conversation is likely to be. The rich man can’t quote the Bible, Homer, or even much Woody Allen. But he can give you chapter, verse, and subordinate clause from his various warranties and owners manuals. He might also bless you with a passage from Consumer Reports — something along the lines of “Ode to A Toro Mower.”
He may think himself clever and wise, and his neighbors may agree. But I submit to you that there are few things sadder in this universe than a well-dressed man sitting in his well appointed house with a prime cut of beef in his belly and an $18 glass of wine in his hand, studying a magazine article about the joys of titanium tennis rackets.
That, my dear students, is futility writ large.
(Scan for incoming vegetables).
It is also true that money isolates people from one another, and not only by class. Rich people probably suffer the most. The reason is simple. They don’t do much for one another, even if they live in the same house. They don’t cook for each other — the cooks do that. They don’t make the bed, fix the plumbing, change the oil, or raise the children. Staff handles it all. In some extreme cases, the lovemaking is hired out as well. Those chores are often handled by people posing as gardeners or tennis pros.
(Pause while students turn around and give parents the once-over).
The fact is, the family that comes together to replace a faltering toilet enjoys a closeness the king and his clan will never know. Happy the man who nails shingles to the roof while his wife folds his boxers.
Unfortunately, many of you are in danger of becoming rich. Some of you may indeed already be rich. Here is my advice to you: You must recognize, this very moment, that you are in the grips of an addiction that will render your life meaningless. There is only one way out for you.
(Pause for effect).
You must remember the example set by Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge, let us recall, was miserable, insanely miserable, until he gave Cratchit a raise and sent a bag of money to Tiny Tim. Do you remember how he then danced for joy?
The same glory awaits you.
And so, dear graduates, your moment of liberation is at hand. Simply strike me a check and drop it in the basket making its way down your aisle. And please don’t scrimp. If you do, my assistant will come to your house and poison your dog.
Thank you, and God bless.
— Dave Shiflett is a member of the White House Writer’s Group.