Seamus Heaney, the late great Irish Nobel laureate, gave a beautiful and compelling commencement address to the students of the University of North Carolina on May 12, 1996.
Heaney touches something deep in me. It is, perhaps, his great sense of truth. Never in all the hours down the years that I read or listened to his words did I feel that I was being performed to, that I was receiving a version that Heaney was projecting into the world.
I always felt, at some deep physiological level — at the base of the amygdala or the heart or whatever body part it is that recognises truth for what it is — that I was witness to some profound and unfiltered authenticity. His soul-centred spiritual wisdom communicated itself outwards through every pore and body tic. The words, those gorgeous words of his, crafted into pitch-perfect poetry, were the cherry on the top but what attracted me to Heaney was the whole package of him.
While there are hours of audio and video on YouTube, his North Carolina speech seems to exist online only in its written form. But still, for anyone who has listened to the words and tones of Heaney, reading the written words of this speech is almost the same as hearing them spoken aloud.
It is a work that is beautiful and compelling, in large part at least, because of Heaney’s reticence in giving it in the first place.
The world … expects a commencement speaker to arrive with a set of directives, a complete do-it-yourself success kit, which he or she then issues to the graduating class; the commencement speaker’s appointed role is to provide a clear-cut map of the future and a key to navigating it as elegantly and profitably as possible … But while that is what the world prescribes, the inner laws of this particular speaker’s being make him extremely anxious about laying down laws or mapping the future for anybody.
For Heaney, the only true path was through uncovering the deep and secret truths we hold within ourselves, and which only we can find, and taking those truths to navigate our way through the uncharted waters of our own experience.
I hope it will be obvious why I tell you this: I want to avoid preaching at you but I do want to convince you that the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives. True to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another.
Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom. And you will be sure to keep going in life on a far steadier keel and with far more radiant individuality if you navigate by that principle.
And whatever life holds, for you and me and any of us, the only necessity is that we keep sucking breath into our lungs, put our head down and just get started. To get started, even if the going is tough. To get started, especially if the going is tough.
Luckily, in a commencement address you only have to get started and keep going. Luckily for you and for me there is no necessity to start again. But for you today, class of 1996, starting again is what it is actually all about. By graduating from this great and famous university, you have reached a stepping stone in your life, a place where you can pause for a moment and enjoy the luxury of looking back on the distance covered; but the thing about stepping stones is that you always need to find another one up there ahead of you. Even if it is panicky in midstream, there is no going back. The next move is always the test. Even if the last move did not succeed, the inner command says move again. Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained.
It strikes me that there are few better symbols of the rudimentary challenges of life than “the panicky midstream”.
(Read the full text of this Seamus Heaney commencement speech here)
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