During graduation season, high school and college graduates get their fair share of messages to go out and change the world—they are told they will find the cure for cancer, bring about world peace, and end injustice. I had the honor of giving a high school commencement address this year, but I didn’t say those things. To be honest, most likely they’re not true.
The “dream big” and “you’re the best” triteness frequently leaves graduates jaded and cynical when they realize in their twenties that they have neither changed the world nor fulfilled those big dreams, and that they’re not really the best after all. Such fluffy messaging might make everyone happy on graduation day, but it creates false expectations about what adulthood entails and what a meaningful life actually is.
As an alternative to the conventional narratives that celebrate self-fulfillment, self-advancement, and careerism, I want to propose to young people that during the college years and early adulthood it is necessary to foster commitment and to prepare for hardship and sacrifice. These countercultural habits and practices are difficult to establish, but they will serve one well in all stages of life.
Foster Commitment to People, Places, and Ideas
During the college years it is easy to form patterns of detachment and fragmentation after the initial separation from home, family, and community. In 2021, nearly half of college students “reported having symptoms of depression and anxiety,” a finding that is explained in part by young people who are living apart from their families for the first time. These feelings of isolation may be intensified as students contemplate life beyond college in a culture that lionizes choosing high-powered careers, moving to new places, and charting one’s own path. All of these things can work against fostering commitment to people, places, and ideas—all of which are central to human flourishing.
The potential to remake oneself at the beginning of college can be invigorating, but it must be anchored to the larger frameworks for flourishing in which we are designed to thrive. Paradoxically, it is within commitment that we find structures external to the self to frame meaningful action in the world. The writer and philosopher Matthew Crawford calls this concept “empowerment through submission.” Consider the process of how one learns a new skill, such as playing a musical instrument. Without committing oneself to the external order of scales, notes, time signatures, and musical notation, and without internalizing these structures through sustained practice and imitation, one cannot play music well at all. Freedom is found not in abolishing limits, but in embracing them.
Thus my advice to college students is that you will function best if you situate yourself in a context of relationships to people, place, and ideas. First, in terms of people, there is disturbing evidence not only that are fewer young adults getting married, but also that fewer are even investing in any kind of committed relationship. During college, the concentric circles of your relationships will expand and multiply, but don’t neglect the seemingly mundane connections that will outlast the college years: family, friends, and community. At some point in the future, this might also include a spouse and children within the wonderful and mysterious gift of marriage. The self-giving commitment required in a marriage—or any deep relationship for that matter—is certainly a big ask. But it also has the potential to bring you outside yourself in ways that commitment-free relationships cannot.
When many view the college years as a time for experimentation, casual sex, and hook-ups, instead, be willing to go against the grain and prepare for Christianity’s resounding yes to sexuality in the context of natural marriage. A faithful marriage entails self-control, chastity, and discipline. But it also provides much more than the message “just say no,” which frequently fails in the face of temptation anyway. The deep and lasting fulfillment found in faithful monogamy allows the fullest expression of erotic love, and it brings eros to its proper fulfillment in agape (sacrificial love). Prepare for this. Practice such an ethic in your current relationships. This doesn’t just happen—and marriage doesn’t just happen. All relationships require intention and effort. Don’t just float through life avoiding commitment; it will deprive you of true joy.
Second, you shouldn’t forget the importance of commitment to place amid the transience and upheaval of college life. This means living intentionally in a community and truly devoting yourself to it. Be open to the possibility of returning to your hometown after college, as well as the idea that it might actually be a great place to make a life and raise a family. Escaping your hometown should not be your default position—after all, if everyone pursues this goal, what will be left of such towns? Moreover, as you go to new places you will find that the grass isn’t always greener there—the issues you had with your hometown might apply to your new place as well. You might find that the city, for all of its attractions, may only present a life devoid of meaning and community.
Third, you should remember that commitment is also necessary when it comes to ideas. Decades of research shows that a large proportion of Americans believe that truth and morality are relative. Might such lack of clarity about truth and ultimate questions be a contributing factor to the lack of meaning and purpose in life? Many are convinced that the last one hundred years provide ample evidence of this worrisome connection. Whether it was those writing during the existential and moral reckoning after World War II like Vicktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) and Richard Weaver (Ideas Have Consequences), or those in more recent years concerned about “the meaning crisis,” their insights are similar. Namely, without recognition of any deeper, meaningful reality beyond material existence, life can seem meaningless and man can seem powerless. You deserve better than this. There really are right and wrong answers. Care enough to search for truth and live in truth.
Embracing commitment to people, place, and ideas requires a grander vision of the good life than our culture’s celebration of collegiate autonomy and careerism. Yes, careers are important, but they are not the most important thing in your life, as many of you will change careers, and may not even end up in a job that aligns with your college major. What is more important are the other “jobs” you will have that outlast temporary careers: the job of being a son or daughter, the job of being a mother or father, the job of being a member of a community. And when you reach your deathbed, these are the jobs and callings you will be thinking about—not your score on the SAT, or your degree from a prestigious university, or your ascent of the corporate ladder. Instead, it will be much more permanent and ultimate things that come to mind, such as relationships of love, rootedness, and commitment to people, place, and ideas.
Prepare for Hardship, Suffering, and Sacrifice
Along with the practice of commitment, you will need to prepare for hardship, suffering, and sacrifice. We don’t become stronger or more resilient by avoiding failure or shying away from hard things; we actually become stronger by embracing difficulty and responsibility. Nassim Taleb unpacks this in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, where he argues that complex systems like economies, education, and even human beings are strengthened and gain resilience from some measure of “volatility, randomness, and stressors.” However, instead “we have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything” by removing such risks and challenges. Jonathan Haidt makes similar observations in The Coddling of the American Mind, where he notes, “given that risks and stressors are natural, unavoidable parts of life,” our goal for adolescents approaching adulthood “should be helping [them] develop their innate abilities to grow and learn from such experiences.” When we embrace antifragility, we no longer are insulated from the consequences of our decisions and the sometimes harsh realities we’re dealt. Only through these challenges do we acquire strength, maturity, and virtue.
The Christian tradition offers a unique approach to suffering that you might find compelling as you contend with the challenges of life. Unlike many modern people who seek to dismiss or deny or wish away the reality of suffering, Christians believe that the greatest hope and means of salvation is actually found most fully in suffering and in weakness. One of the twentieth century’s most important Christian thinkers, Richard John Neuhaus, explained it this way: “The way of the Christian life is cruciform. Jesus did not suffer and die in order that we need not suffer and die, but in order that our suffering and death might be joined to his in redemptive victory.” This means that our suffering has a deeper meaning and purpose. During your college career, you might wish to take time to reflect on the reality of suffering, its potential significance, and how you might navigate the challenges of life in a broken world. This might include connecting (or reconnecting) with churches or religious communities who give sacramental and liturgical expression to these ideas. This is particularly important in your college years, when it is easy to disconnect from such communities and practices.
So too, we must prepare for sacrifice. Despite messages of self-fulfillment and loving yourself first, there are times when everyone must sacrifice his or her own wants for someone else’s good. In a moving account of his experience of terminal cancer before he even reached forty years old, Paul Kalanithi wrote in When Breath Becomes Air of how he and his wife wondered if having children before he died from cancer would make death harder for both of them and their potential children. But they arrived at this striking conclusion: wouldn’t it be great if it did. Kalanithi and his wife saw that only within the context of sacrifice, suffering, and confronting our human limitations can we grow and more fully experience the love of another, despite—or perhaps even because of—our own weaknesses and failings. With our brokenness and failings, we must experience life alongside others to get by: we are radically interdependent creatures who must sacrifice for each other.
As you prepare for college and begin this next phase in your life, remember to focus not on your own self-image or self-perception, not on your careers or degrees, but on your commitment to people, places, and ideas, on your ability to confront and overcome hardship, and on your relationship with God. Being grounded in these ways will make sense of all your other roles and responsibilities, both in college and into adulthood.