Ten comedic, inspiring, and insightful life lessons in the commencement address to SCU’s 2015 graduating class.
In a speech that sounded straight out of The Colbert Report, where he was a frequent guest, nationally-known Jesuit, Catholic author and commentator James Martin, S.J., entertained and inspired the 2015 Santa Clara University graduating class with advice that was part pastoral, part comedic.
Along with being known for his recurring appearances on the Comedy Central show, which ended its run last year, Martin is editor at large of America Magazine, the national Catholic weekly, and has published articles and commentary in Commonweal, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Time magazine, as well as been a guest on CNN, NPR, and other broadcast media. He has also written for Santa Clara Magazine.
An edited transcript of Martin’s speech follows.
Be the self God wants you to be, but don’t be a jerk.
Thank you. First of all, thanks to Father Engh and the board of trustees for this great honor. By tradition, I don’t know if you know this, but I am now a member of the Class of 2015. So, to my fellow graduates and my fellow Broncos, congratulations! I look forward to seeing you at our 50th reunion, when you will be a spry 71, and I will be 104. [laughter]
Last night, I was walking past the Mission Church and this guy, who was obviously a student showing his friend around, said, “Yeah, it’s super old, but it’s really nice.” So I hope he can say that about me in 50 years. [laughter]
I am especially honored to be recognized by such a distinguished university and one that holds such an important place in Jesuit history and Franciscan history, centered, as the University is, around the Mission Church.
There’s always been a lot of friendly rivalry between the Franciscans and the Jesuits. Do you know the story of the Jesuit and the Franciscan who are at a theology conference at Santa Clara and they end up eating at Ike’s and they get food poisoning and die? [laughter] They go to heaven and they’re waiting together at the pearly gates and suddenly the gates open up and a red carpet rolls out right up to the foot of the Jesuit. Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother, and St. Ignatius Loyola walk up to the Jesuit and say, “Welcome to heaven. Well done.”
So the four of them walk back in, leaving the Franciscan priest all by himself. He waits for about an hour and he’s getting a little ticked off. And finally the side door opens up and some Franciscan saint, who he doesn’t even know since there’s so many Franciscan saints, calls over to him and says, “Hey, come here!”
The Franciscan goes over and the saint says, “Welcome to heaven,” and the Franciscan says, “Wait a minute, the Jesuit gets Jesus, Mary and St. Ignatius and all I get is this crummy welcome from you?”
And the Franciscan saint says, “Oh, yeah. You have to remember, we get Franciscans up here all the time. We haven’t had a Jesuit in about 25 years.” [laughter]
I am honored to receive this degree from a Jesuit University named after a Franciscan saint, very much like our pope actually. In his recent email to me, Father Engh suggested that I keep my remarks brief, which I will. So rather than a long talk about something you couldn't care less about, I’m going to tell you 10 things that I wish I had known at your age—10 things that would have made my life a lot easier. Some are pieces of advice that I’ve learned from wisdom figures along the way. Others are the results of dumb mistakes that I’ve made. A few are insights from the great spiritual masters that I’ve adapted a little bit. I’m serious about this: If you put these into action, my fellow graduates, you will be a lot happier.
Number 1: The first thing is really three things that go together. They will save you a lot of heartache in your life. Are you ready? You’re not God, this isn’t heaven, and don’t be an ass. [laughter] I cleaned that last one up a little bit.
So you’re not God. Stop trying to do everything, to fix everything in your life and in everybody’s life and make everything perfect. You can’t. Why? Because you’re not God. So stop acting as if you were God.
A Jesuit friend of mine recently told me a true story about Pope Francis. My friend was scheduled to meet with the pope with a few other Jesuits and four Catholic sisters. When the pope entered the room, all the sisters fell to their knees, and the pope said, “What are you doing? I'm not Jesus.”
As the saying goes, there’s good news and there’s better news. Do you know this one? The good news is there is a Messiah. The better news is it’s not you. [laughter]
The second part of number one: This isn’t heaven. Try not to expect life to be perfect all the time. Once you realize that, you’ll be able to enjoy life more and you’ll find yourself more grateful.
Finally, don’t be an ass. Boy, I wish I had learned that one years ago. Look, you’re sick. Your boyfriend or your girlfriend just dumped you. You just had a fight with your parents. Your car broke down. Fine. You could be sad and disappointed and angry and you can share your struggles with your friends, but you don’t have to pass on your anger. Just because you’re upset doesn’t mean that you have to act like a jerk.
Once I told a friend of mine with mock seriousness, “Oh, my life is such a cross,” and he said, “Oh, yeah? For you or for other people?” [laughter]
Number 2: Our deepest desires are God’s desires for you. That’s how God calls you, speaking to you through your desires—what moves you, what attracts, what you’re interested in. What, as the Jesuit Pedro Arrupe said, gets you up in the morning. This is God’s main way of calling you.
So try, as far as possible, not to listen to people who tell you that it’s all about money or success or impressing people in Silicon Valley or wherever you end up. Believe me, I’ve been there and that road is a big dead end. The better path is the one that allows you, encourages you, to listen when God is speaking to you. To start discovering those desires, you might ask yourself, “What would I do if I could do anything I wanted to do?” Right?
If you’ve never asked that question before, (which I doubt, being at Santa Clara—it’s a good Jesuit school) maybe you could start by asking yourself that now. It may take a while to discover your deepest desires, my friends, but it is worth the wait.
Number 3: You can be your best self. Look, God has already made you a wonderful creation, but God’s not done with you. How can you tell? Because I’ll bet that you already have an idea of the person that you would like to be one day, right? Maybe freer, kinder, more spontaneous, or maybe more serious or hard-working. Well, that’s a call from God to become the person that you’re meant to be. Listen to that invitation, and even if you can’t become that person now, you can move toward that person by acting as if you were that person.
To make good decisions in your life, just ask yourself, “What would my best self do? What would the person I want to become do?” and do it. Soon you’ll find you’ve become that person.
Number 4: You can’t force people to approve of you, agree with you, be impressed with you, love you, or even like you. So stop trying. Boy, I wish I had learned that at your age. I think I spent most of my 20s trying to get everyone to like me, and the one person who didn’t like me, I really tried to get him to like me.
But no matter what you do, some people will approve of you, others won’t. No matter how nice you are, some people will talk to you, others won’t. So stop trying to get people to like you—just relax and accept the fact that some will and others won’t. It will save you a lot of heartache and a lot of energy.
Number 5: Stop comparing yourself to other people. That’s another dead end. In fact, it leads to despair. Why is that? When we compare, we always imagine someone else’s life falsely. Think about it. We see another person, maybe one of your classmates, and you say, “Oh, man, they have it made. Their life is so perfect,” but that’s false.
I’ve met quite a few people who are famous or rich or celebrities or whatever, and their lives are definitely not perfect. The problem is this: We know that our life is a mixed bag of kind of good and bad things. So we compare our own mixed-bag life to what we falsely perceive as the other person’s perfect life. And guess what? Ours always loses out. It’s a rigged game. Then we get depressed. So remember the old saying, “Compare and despair.” Just don’t do it.
Number 6: Be yourself, or stop trying to be someone else. Boy, you think, if only I were like him or her. That’s who I wish I were. But you’re meant to be yourself. You’re a beautiful creation of God, each one of you. And being holy means being you, not someone else.
We often look to other people for a road map of who we’re supposed to be, when all the directions you need are right inside of you. Man or woman, young or old, black, brown, or white, short or tall, gay or straight, you are beautiful. Remember this. If you remember nothing else, remember this. God does not make crap, in the words of Jesus, more or less. [laughter]
Number 7: When you realize the right thing to do, it’s still hard. When I was your age, a long time ago, I used to think, well, once I realize the right thing, all I need to do is do it. Not at all. It’s kind of hard to do the right thing.
Let’s say you’re out at a bar and everybody’s dissing someone who’s a friend of yours, right? You've been in situations like that. It’s hard not to join in, right?
You’re in a bar with some friends—two of my stories start out with bars. So you can see what my college was like. [laughter] You’re at a bar with some friends and everybody starts talking about how lazy poor people are, right? It’s hard not to join in.
You’re at work and everyone starts doing something a little unethical. It’s hard not to join in. It’s easy to see what the right thing to do is, but it’s hard to do sometimes.
Well, here’s the trick. Do it anyway. Otherwise you won’t be able to live with yourself and, sooner or later, that will catch up to you.
Number 8: Listen to the right voices. Look, you’ll hear a lot of voices in your adult life. And let me tell you, some voices you should not listen to, whether they come from your friends, your coworkers, or even inside of you. Don’t listen to the voices that say the following things: “You’re helpless. It’s hopeless. Things can never change.”
Don’t give those voices any power. Here are the voices to listen to: “Have hope. Things can always change, and you have the strength to get through this.”
And things will work out in the end. As the saying goes, if they haven’t worked out, it’s not the end. Or as Julian of Norwich said, “All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” Listen to those voices.
Number 9: Happiness and freedom are linked. In fact, they’re almost the same. As I said, I know a lot of successful people, but if they’re not free, they’re not happy because they’re usually too attached to stuff. Ever seen the movie Fight Club? Admittedly, I don’t recommend everybody going around punching people in the face, but there is an important insight in that movie. The stuff you own ends up owning you. That’s true, not only about stuff, physical things, but also about money and status and power. It becomes a god and it ends up owning you. So try to be free of anything that keeps you from being a good person, and you’ll be a lot happier.
Number 10: Here are seven things to say every day. Why not repeat after me—you ready?
I love you. Thank you. Thank you, God. Forgive me. Congratulations. Why not? And yes.
My fellow Broncos, I cannot give you any money: Since I’m a Jesuit, I take a vow of poverty. [laughter] I cannot give you any more advice, and Father Engh told me to be brief, and Jesuits take a vow of obedience. [laughter] And I certainly can’t give you a kiss because Jesuits take a vow of chastity. [laughter] But I can give you those 10 pieces of advice, and I really do guarantee that, even if you remember only one of them, it will help you to be happier because you deserve to be happy. Why? Not only because you are beloved children of God, but because today, on top of that, you’re something really special—Santa Clara graduates. Thank you for this honor and, in the words of Jesus Christ, “Go Broncos!” [laughter]