June 5, 2019 by American College of Sofia
Honorable ACS President,
Dear seniors, parents, teachers, advisors, guests,
When I received the invitation to give the keynote address at this commencement ceremony, I seriously hesitated to accept this great honor. It is, after all, not easy to stand up in front of 160 young people and their families and try to talk intelligently, say original and interesting things with a sense of humor, and maybe even make them laugh, as а friend would. But your school’s representative was insistent, assuring me I would handle it. Finally, I agreed, if still uncertain inside. And right then, she added half-jokingly, “Just don’t tell them that their life is about to begin now; they feel they have been living some time now.”
Of course. I was about to fall right into the inevitable trap of this cliché. We, those much older than you, are accustomed to thinking that you, upon completing your secondary education, are yet to start living; up until now you have lived with your parents, about to move out now and start living and either studying or working, or both, away from family, about to become independent almost. It is considered that you have grown up, not adults yet, but grown up. And from here on, you are to grow even more.
My observations of the phases of a human life tell a different story though. Of course, everyone has their own perspective based on personal experience. I think that childhood, adolescence, teenage and college years are the most difficult years of a human life; after all, it is then that our views, our picture of the world and of humanity are shaped. And this picture is filigree work, sometimes enchanting, clear, and beautiful, at other times cloudy and indistinct, frightening even with its incomprehensibility, threatening if you will. Here you are, stepped out of this picture, having already taken a good look at it, acquainted yourselves with it, with your personalities developed, autonomous, complete. From now on, the changes that will occur within you will be within parameters and in directions already set.
According to Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, which I admit I was deeply impressed by many years ago, until their seventh year children are connected to the invisible, angelic, further world. Afterwards, as they grow, body, senses, perceptions, and sensations become stouter, thicker, more rigid, and less perceptive. Whereas before they saw the spiritual essence of every flower, tree, or living creature, they now pass by flowers and trees without even noticing them. Before, they felt neither fear nor shame, they knew which plants were edible and which fruits were not to be picked. Whereas before they resembled their Creator, they have now begun to resemble their favorite singers, artists, and idols, and have gradually renounced or grown estranged from their individuality.
I admit this theory captivated me. It spoke to me about the Fall, about the state of humanity after it, expressing it all in a fascinating way through the phases of an individual’s life. But the big disadvantage of this theory was that it made us gaze back at something lost for good. Childhood, innocence, and purity were now beyond our reach; there was nothing but deserted and desolate land in front of us, overgrown with thorns and weeds, land that had to be tilled and toiled at, with annoyance and endless tiring labor; only then would it bear fruit. And this fruit would never taste as sweet as it did in childhood.
Later, another theory captured me – I even thought I was the first one to discover it. For a long time, I thought it was selfishness and ambition that made the world turn, that all human progress was really motivated by egoism, and that egoism pushed us to study, improve, strive to be more successful than others, to be better today than we were yesterday. It seemed to me that we study, work, give birth to children, create goods and use them, consume everything life has to offer, just to feed our egoism, self-love, and ambition. It seemed to me that even love was some sort of a covert egoism – you love to be loved, to feed your ego with admiration and adoration from others, so you feel superior, more noble than them.
Of course, all of that is not just profoundly sinful, it is untrue. It is just a crude shell of the world, just a glancing, unsophisticated, elementary look at the picture we talked about. It is the equivalent of being used to breathing smog and therefore assuming that there is no clean air. But that is the essence of the human way – one develops and goes through various stages while moving along.
Further, I found something that is totally different from Steiner, or from egoism, something that is well known to most of you – it is from the popular speech by Joseph Brodsky delivered in front of the students at Michigan University. I remind you of it because I find it truly inspiring. He expresses simple truths with poetic inspiration. The most famous sentence of his words delivered at the stadium is, “At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim.” The validity of those words is undoubted, of course. But to me the very beginning of his speech appeals more: “Life is a game with many rules but no referee. One learns how to play it more by watching it than by consulting any book including the Holy Book. Small wonder then that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose.”
We have the freedom to fall in love with one or another theory, to be enthralled by one or another philosophy, to follow one or another religion. The freedom of our will, of our choice is something untouchable within us, something unbreakable, something that keeps our different parts together and builds our completeness.
I myself started feeling whole and healed (note that in Bulgarian heal and whole share the same root, in English to heal is to make whole again) when I joined the Christian faith and started following the words of Jesus Christ – “become like children.” That direction, that irresistible call of His relieved me of a great and unspeakable burden.
Because being like children comes to a person as naturally as eating when hungry, drinking water when thirsty. Children have the natural, innate knowledge that death is not the end, and so they do not fear it, do not fear animals, do not fear people. They feel trust towards all men. They do not care if these men are rich or poor, handsome or ugly, do not notice their wrinkles or age. What else does become like children mean?
To not be ashamed when blushing. But to be ashamed if cold-heartedly watching injustice and treachery.
To not despair of ourselves when we lose. But to feel ashamed of ourselves if at any cost, even at the cost of hurting someone else, we have won benefits for ourselves.
To not feel bad when others around us achieve success, glory, money; our souls should not be hurt by someone else’s beauty.
To expand our hearts, to get to love as much as we can not the abstract person but the specific person, to not be closed off within our ego because that is how our heart starts shrinking.
And perhaps most importantly: to discover the world as new, to cherish it and be grateful. Those three things – the everlasting creative act, joy, and gratitude can make life full of value and meaning. Of course, they do not represent all of life, but without them we are like a ship stuck in the shallows.
In conclusion, I want to express my joy at the opportunity to speak before you and my gratitude to you for listening. I also express all my love for you as I wish you to be successful and blessed in your lives.