A Graduation Ceremony for the Rest of Us
Each year, I have the rare privilege of having a front row seat to one of the few respected rituals in contemporary life: college graduation. It’s beyond unfortunate, however, that we don’t ritualize life’s other markers beyond graduation.
In honor of life’s often overlooked but life-altering transitions, here’s what a ceremony for caregivers might look like . . .
What Are We Honoring?
Our ceremony will honor our willingness to respond to life roles that we were drafted into—unexpectedly. That’s right, the roles that called us to care that didn’t occur within our expected time frames and didn’t conform to our plans. These care roles weren’t the roles that we spent our lives sculpting our resumes to attain. Explaining care doesn’t go over well at parties—trust me, I’ve tried—because people don’t know how to respond. Care isn’t a position. It’s not a company. There are no promotions. It’s not a bucket list item. These life roles came at us, whether we were ready or not.
Honoring care authentically means none of us would individually walk across a stage for a handshake and picture. For our ceremony, that would be deceptive and impossible—we’d never fit everyone in the camera frame. Invisible life transitions like caregiving are always social—our responsibilities and connections highlight how we are rooted in and grounded with others. Our ceremony will call attention to the fact that our lives aren’t defined by other people’s beliefs about ambition. No, our ambition isn’t neatly packaged. It’s private and public, familial and stigmatizing, life-altering and life-affirming. This ceremony will honor our willingness to walk not simply toward our goals, but also our willingness to open doors into people’s lives when few others would.
Who Would Speak?
Commencement speakers are the celebrities of college graduations. Carefully chosen and vetted, a person speaks for the graduating class. An inspiring figure. A public celebrity we’ve seen on television. A politician or sports figure that comes from afar to tell us about the art of living, armed with sweeping answers and clichés to rid of us of our uncertainty and tell us there is nothing really to fear because the world beyond is for the taking.
For our ceremony, we’d do things much differently. Importing a national figure to talk about our everyday, lived experiences wouldn’t make sense to us. When someone tells us they have the “answers”, we tune out. We don’t have the energy or patience for such speeches. We’re not even looking for answers and we’re not keen on listening to others who charismatically clean up and organize our lives in fifteen minutes or less before heading out of town. We’re used to messy—clean clichés wouldn’t work.
Instead, perhaps all of us in attendance would write out a line or two about our experiences and challenges, or draw a picture or create a tune, integrating our creations into a babble of voices and representations. It would be noisy no doubt, but whatever is created would be connected to others’ creations. We would be both creators and audience—our words and creations and images and sounds and presence would be our rousing anthem. Not a Katy Perry kind of anthem though. Unlike college graduates, we’re not waiting to be inspired. We know too well the expiration date of inspiration. Our experiences tell us that inspiration without love and care and a commitment to others rings hollow. I’m talking about an anthem of our own making that allows us to pause time long enough to mark our care transitions—however confusing—while surrounded by others.
What Would Be Said?
This is so very complicated because we know graduation speeches always include a brief shout out to the past and an unending preoccupation with what is coming, where people are going, and who they hope to become.
Our ceremony couldn’t help but be drastically different. We don’t think like most college graduates—we don’t see ourselves as unbounded, floating in the wind of life. Our roles connect us to those we love and care for. Sometimes we feel our connections constrain us but we also know they are the life fulfilling necessities we wouldn’t want to live without. We aren’t free agents. We are social agents. That’s what will be said. And shared. And felt. And celebrated.
Most people dream of where they will visit and what sights they might see and experience after graduation. Grief. Loss. Anger. Loneliness. Silence. These experiences are typically not invited to graduation speeches. But these are the places we have visited and these are the places that have visited us. They have compelled us to expose parts of ourselves we didn’t want others to notice. They’ve made us vulnerable, inspiring us to endless self-questioning and doubt. They aren’t glamorous destinations but they are necessary parts of our journey that shouldn’t be omitted because leaving them out would mean erasing vital parts of our experiences. Let others edit their words of wisdom to only include inauthentic half-truths. Not for our ceremony though.
What About Moving Our Tassel?
Today, during our celebration, we don’t need to mark our care transition with the ritual placement of our tassels because we are already marked. We don’t have to tell people we are important by reminding them of the awesomeness of our yet-to-be-lived future. We don’t have to strategically self-present like college graduates and tell the world what we think they want to hear. Today, we are as we are. We are what it looks like in the midst of disorientation and resilience. We are college students’ future selves. The only difference is that for the first time, we can see and appreciate who is around us. We are no longer consumed with looking through people to find a glimpse of the future. We can appreciate those around us—that’s right, you—for who we are now. Yes, this is where we need to be, here—complicated. Tangled. Connected. Grounded. Not out there beyond—but right here. Yes, right here. Not valuable for who we are going to be. Valuable for who we are and what we are doing now.
Excuse me, but I think I’m going to stay here a bit longer. Unlike a college graduation, I don’t have a party to attend. Nothing to run to. Not anymore. Do you notice what’s going on? People are still arriving at our ceremony. The seats around us are constantly being filled because there are no onlookers—no spectators or visitors—just participants engaged in this thing called living. Stay with me here a bit longer, would you? I want to close my eyes and feel the presence of acknowledgment and shared struggle. Grab a seat, there’s one right next to me.