Polonius and the Prodigal: Advice for Graduating Seniors

by John H. Haile

(PC: Bruce Jeffrey)

Good morning. It’s great to be with you today and I’m honored to speak in this chapel. I grew up here on the Stony Brook campus, and have many wonderful memories of this building. I have been nourished and challenged here spiritually, as I know you have as well, and I have also gotten in trouble here. Sometime in the early 1970’s—maybe 1972—the Swanson Gym was being built, and a very large construction sign with an artist’s rendering of the building had been put up by the construction company. In the dead of night, three of my friends and I stole the construction sign and placed it upstairs in the chapel balcony, so that when we came in for daily chapel the next morning, there it was. I’m not sure why we thought that was particularly funny, but it was great to see the consternation on Mr. Gaebelein’s face when he arrived. Another time we put a whoopee cushion under Mr. Soderstrom’s seat. I am not condoning or endorsing such behavior, of course. Since graduating from Stony Brook, the road I’ve followed has kept me in school, and I’ve had the privilege to serve as an English teacher and administrator at four different schools since I graduated from college, and since 2005, I’ve been a member of the board of trustees, whose job it is to support the school and make sure it stays on the right track.

So, over my many years in school, I’ve heard a good many chapel talks and speeches—far more than I could count. Spring is the time for speeches generally—especially Baccalaureate and Commencement speeches, speeches by Valedictorians and Salutatorians, farewells for departing colleagues, and so on. The focus tends to be primarily on the seniors who are heading off to college. This year, I understand that 58 members of the class of 2015 are in that boat—finishing your high school years and preparing for the jump to the next stage of your education. I won’t have the chance to be with you at commencement—my own school in Massachusetts graduates the same weekend—but I’m confident it will be a thoughtful and triumphant send off, mixed with the tears of farewell for classmates and mentors you’ll leave behind. I’ve never been a commencement speaker—nor do I wish to be–but as I was thinking about what to say to you today, my mind kept returning to the seniors. So I’m going to address my thoughts this morning primarily to them at this important time in their lives.

Over the years, the vast majority of graduation addresses—in my own schools and in the college commencement addresses I’ve heard–tend to fall into three categories. I suspect you’ll find them familiar as well. Almost always, I find the speeches inspiring, clever, often funny and occasionally memorable. The best ones offer takeaways of wisdom that work themselves under my skin and actually make a difference in my life. Since Stony Brook, my educational experience has been in secular schools—those that don’t have the wonderful advantage of looking at the world through a biblical lens. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the education given or received in those places isn’t valuable. I think it just means that it’s incomplete—not fully formed. I would say the same thing for the commencement speeches—great as far as they go, but not always satisfying in an eternal kind of way. Let me see if I can think with you seniors for a few minutes about things you’re likely to hear over the course of your educational life.

One of the most common commencement speech themes I’ve heard over the years has to do with being true to yourself. As an English teacher and a Shakespeare lover, I always get a big kick out of this one, because more often than not, the speaker makes reference to the lines “This above all: to thine ownself be true/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.” As those of you who know Hamlet will recognize, these lines are from Act 1, scene 3 of that play, where the Danish prime minister Polonius is giving advice to his son Laertes as he heads off to college in France. Perfectly appropriate, right? What could be better? The problem for me is that well-intentioned speakers never take this line in context. Shakespeare places these lines, this advice, in the mouth of a deceitful, self-important buffoon. Polonius is shown to be untrustworthy in multiple ways—he pruriently manipulates his daughter, using her as a political pawn, and hires a lackey to spy on his son while he’s away at college so he can find out what taverns and brothels he frequents, and how he spends his money. For me, that changes how we should view these words pretty significantly. By putting this seemingly good advice—to thine own self be true—in the mouth of a fool, Shakespeare suggests, it seems to me, not that there’s no truth to the idea, but that it should be understood as incomplete and in a way, ironic. Being true to who we are is fine: but do we really belong at the center of things? Is it really a good idea to say that “above all” fidelity to our selves—making ourselves the primary point of reference—is what matters most? Being true to ourselves might be possible without taking anyone else into account. That’s a little scary if you think about it. And what if the “self” to whom we are being true isn’t a noble self?

A second idea beloved of commencement speakers is the unlimited power of your dreams. Sometimes a speaker on this topic will invoke Ralph Waldo Emerson, that great American transcendentalist, suggesting that, with Emerson, we must throw off the mantle of the past–of inherited ideas, and be original—follow our own inner promptings. This is the gospel of Walt Disney, who emblazoned on the gates of Epcot Center in Florida the words “If you can dream it, you can do it!” Frequently, speakers on this topic will also make reference to the modern secular saints of the American dream: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college to pursue their dreams and reached the pinnacles of success by doing so. The idea here is usually to inspire us to seek greater things—to “reach for the stars” and to find in that vision of something beyond a compelling purpose in life. Again, what could be more fitting for graduates heading off into the world? If we don’t have dreams, we are condemned to plodding mediocrity, right? Dreams are great—don’t get me wrong. But what stars are we reaching for? Are all stars equally good and valuable? The Robber Barons of the nineteenth century had dreams as well. So did Hitler and Stalin. What concerns me a bit about purveyors of THE DREAM is that they often don’t address the pesky underlying question of the focus, the goal, of our dreams, and without that, we lose the ability to distinguish Gatsby from Mother Theresa.

A third idea that finds its way into year-end speeches I’ve heard has several forms that all seem to need exclamation points: “Carpe Diem!” Seize the Day! You Only Live Once! Just Do It! At my school, seniors give chapel talks in the spring, and I’d say at least 75% of them center around this idea in one way or another. It was a favorite theme of numerous Renaissance poets, particularly those like Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick who used this idea in their attempts to lure the objects of their desire into bed. Most often, though, it’s a noble thought—one that asks us to appreciate what we have now and where we are, to celebrate our friendships, and not to take what we have for granted, to make the most of our time on earth. It’s often portrayed as being about taking control of our lives—the “Invictus” proposal: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul!” It’s the theme of countless movies, songs and books. And in one way, there’s nothing wrong with it—I believe in its limited power, clichéd as it is. But what if the here and now is not all that is, and is to come? What if seizing the day now—focusing on our own happiness and fulfillment in the moment—compromises something greater—something eternal?

Time is a really interesting thing. As human beings, we see time as something finite, something of which there is a limited amount. When we’re young—time is our friend. We can’t wait for our next birthday…we’re impatient for the weekend to come…we can’t wait till we’re old enough to drive…. As we get into our twenties, we are still friendly with time, but we begin to feel as though we wish there was more of it—more hours in the day to work, to play. As we get older, time becomes something sinister—Father Time carries us toward the grave, and we wish we could slow his march. We stop celebrating birthdays. We seek out Viagra and hair coloring and plastic surgery. But suppose the essence of us wasn’t really subject to time’s limitations and ravages? Suppose the “real us” had a life that stretched beyond time and connected us to something we couldn’t understand or control. Suppose all our will power and passion in the moment only gets us to first base on the little league field?

So as you can see, while I like all three of the common commencement themes I’ve touched on, they all seem kind of limited, kind of constricted. So, you ask me—what should we hear in a good commencement speech or Baccalaureate sermon? I think what I would like to know is what would Jesus have said? Unfortunately, Jesus didn’t give a commencement address at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem or the Yeshiva Institute of Bethlehem. We do know, however, what he said in response to a commencement-worthy topic. In Matthew’s gospel, we read the following story, which comes in chapter 22, at a time when Jesus has been telling a lot of parables, stories about the Kingdom of God. In this passage, he’s speaking to a group of religious leaders. Here’s what we read:

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

So this is kind of like a commencement speech challenge, right? What’s the most important thing in the world? And what does Jesus answer?

37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Okay—so given this, what might Jesus’ commencement talk be? My guess is that he wouldn’t talk about “to thine own self be true.” My guess is that he would tell a story, perhaps this one:

And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to[b] one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his servants,[d] ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

In a way, the younger son in this story embodies the conventional advice of the commencement addresses I’ve mentioned. He had obviously been thinking about who he was and what he wanted, and decided that to be true to himself he needed to leave his father’s farm and seek his fortune elsewhere. He had a dream—albeit a pretty limited and selfish one, but it must have required some vision and courage to get up and go to “a far country.” And, for sure, he was “seizing the day.” He was clearly living life to the fullest and in the moment. He was being the “master of his fate and the captain of his soul.” So perhaps this young man had just graduated from school and was anxious to follow the advice he had received from a well-intentioned speaker he’d just heard. But what does Jesus’ story suggest about the young man? I think, perhaps, three things.

First, if we seek to be “true to ourselves,” we have to know who we are. Our old testament reading this morning reminds us that we are fallen people in need of being given “clean hearts” and a “right spirit.” That’s something we can’t do on our own, and if we are only true to our fallen selves, we’ll end up in the pigsty like the young man in the story.

Second, the young man’s dream wasn’t sufficient to sustain him. The star he was shooting for wasn’t high enough or bright enough. He was ultimately pursuing a dream that failed to take into account his relationships and obligations to others—specifically his father and his brother. No dream that is purely selfish can be a lasting, worthy or sustainable dream. And third, in “seizing the day,” this younger brother failed to take into account that life has an eternal dimension. His headlong pursuit of immediate gratification left him empty and alone when the money ran out. He wasn’t seeing the “big picture” that understands time and the limitations it places on us mortals. He hadn’t read either his Bible or his Shakespeare.

So what would Jesus want us to take away from this story? What would his advice to the class of 2015 be, perhaps?

First of all, like the son in the story, you are loved unconditionally. The picture of the father in the story is Jesus’ picture of God, who “while [the son] was still a long way off… saw him, and ran to embrace him.” What an amazing thing! This father, who has every reason to resent and reject the son who has squandered half his fortune, loves him and celebrates his return with no word of condemnation or call for restitution. As you finish your Stony Brook career, seniors, know that God loves you.

Second, know that you are in need of that unconditional, redeeming love. No matter how hard we work to live in the moment, to seize the day, we are broken creatures, unable on our own to live lives that satisfy our deepest longings or bring us lasting happiness. The younger son in the story pictures that truth, but he’s not alone. Perhaps you remember that interesting tidbit at the end of the second creation story in Genesis 3: after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God placed a cherubim with a flaming sword to guard the way to the tree of life. All our human attempts at utopia, at perfect happiness on earth, down through time, have led us to the same conclusion: we can’t do it on our own. None of our efforts, none of our dreams, will finally reach Jesus’ standard: loving God with all our hearts, souls and minds, and our neighbors as ourselves.

So—God loves us, and we need God’s love. And the good news is that all we have to do when we recognize this is to say, with the younger son: I know my need. I know being true to myself is not enough. I know that even my best dreams will fall short. I know that living for the moment doesn’t bring ultimate happiness. This may sound wimpy or defeatist. Perhaps. But ultimately, such a position allows us to realize the greatest joy of all. It puts us at the feet of the cross, that place where the love of God for us meets His purpose for our lives—to love our neighbors as ourselves. Only there, members of the class of 2015, does the power to live lives of real vision, of real satisfaction, and of real love become available.

I wish you all lives filled with God’s richest grace, peace and joy.

About the Author

John Haile ‘73 is the dean of faculty and teaches English at Brooks School in North Andover, MA.  Growing up as a faculty child at Stony Brook—the son of Peter and Jane Haile–he holds a B.A. from Bates College and an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School, both in English. In some combination, Haile has taught English, coached soccer and served in various administrative roles at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Mississippi, Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut and Western Reserve Academy in Ohio. He was a member of the SBS board of trustees from 2005-2015. He and his wife Susan have three grown children and four grandchildren. Their family particularly enjoys summer retreats to their cottage on Androscoggin Lake in Maine where they hike, sea-kayak, sail a wooden Lightning, read and watch the birds.

This address was delivered in the Stony Brook School Chapel on April 26, 2015.


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