Henry Rollins' 2009 Sonoma College Commencement Speech
It is an honor to be in front of you today as we congratulate all of our graduates and welcome their families and friends. My name is Henry Rollins and the fact that I was asked to speak briefly to you all today is one of the highest compliments I have ever been paid and most terrifying propositions I have ever been given. I only hope my words have some meaning and merit.
I would like to thank you for going to college. I would like to thank you for taking years of your life and devoting it to study and the pursuit of knowledge. The world is in great need of people who can think, people who value ideas
For a moment, think of the person you were before you came here as a freshman or a freshperson if you will, and the person you are now. Of course, there was a large amount of good times, carrying on and engaging in behavior that we need not mention here. It is perhaps why the human brain is allotted such a vast amount of cells, so that it’s not a big problem when a few million fall off the back of the truck.
But amidst all the fun and frivolity there were infinitely long stretches of time where you had to hit the books and work and work in order to achieve. There was no one there to tell you to keep at it but you. And you did it, and here you are. You may not need every single course you ever took to get you though life, but the focus and discipline that was required to complete the course will be invaluable tools that you will utilize and that will hopefully benefit you and those around you for the rest of your life.
Your education and the time you spent here must be more than merely the means to a good job and financial security. Those are certainly important concerns but I am hoping for much more from you. To come all this way only to become content cogs in a large machine or merely indistinguishable threads in a massive tapestry is not enough. It just isn’t.
I know you are well aware of what is happening on planet Earth in 2009. Some say that we are in tough times. I believe we are in challenging times that are in need of bold thinking, fresh ideas and new ways of going about old things. This is where you come in. The future greets you today. You are a very big part of what it will be.
So, it is incumbent upon you to take all that you have learned and all that you have worked so hard to achieve and do something with it that is more than the gathering of items and the purchase of a place to put it all in. Because at the end of the day, that is a bit of a checked swing, isn’t it? You don’t want to retire into the dull roar that quickly and quietly, do you? I should hope not!
It is interesting, the excuses people give when they tell me why they don’t read as much as they used to, don’t travel or inquire as much as they did years before. They tell me they got tired, the kids, the job, the drive to work, the grind, not enough hours in the day, they say. When someone would tell the great philosopher Seneca that there wasn’t enough hours in the day, Seneca would reply that the gods had been quite generous with time allotment but that many people made poor use of it. Not a second of your life will you ever get back. Make every day count, or acquire a taste for regret.
I don’t understand how a mind that has been enlightened by years of study and immersed in an environment of such frenetic intellectual activity could ever suffer the crushing blow of complacency. I hope that none of you ever suffer this self-inflicted, greatly compromised condition. Not only is it inexcusable, it is boring as hell and no fun at all.
Your curiosity must never wane! Ever. You are, therefore you want to know, want to go, want to know more and want to go further. As college graduates, you know all too well how much there is to know and the incalculable amount of fascinating things there are to explore, from thought to geographic destination. It is your curiosity that you must enhance, strengthen and value, more and more as the years go on and on. It is your curiosity that you must guard against exhaustion, apathy and that awful plague called middle age. You are allowed occasional but brief vacations from your curiosity, DVD box sets of television shows and carbohydrate rich foods are permitted—but don’t make a career out of it! It is your curiosity that you will pass on like a genetic trait to your children, infect all those around you like a virus and inspire the anger of those who have chosen to admit defeat. One of the greatest and most powerful words in any language is: WHY.
When you stop wanting to find out, you’re done. There are few things more unendurable than being forced to spend time with someone who is intellectually incurious. This can never be you. Ask a question. Go forth. Arrive at the answer. Catch your breath. Ask Why. And then set off again. Never relent!
The world is in need of bright minds. Individuals who seek to spread peace and prosperity by the way conduct themselves and the value they place on the lives of others and on life itself. These people, by way of their concern and awareness, whether they know it or not—are leaders.
You lead through kindness, generosity, tolerance, innovation, the quest for knowledge and a basic, resolved goodness that is incorruptible, inexhaustible and undefeatable.
You do not lead by intimidation, by economic coercion, overwhelming military might or sanctions.
Brutality, oppression and the constant threat of violence only results in brutality, oppression and actual violence. The world has more than it needs.
A member of Ku Klux Klan doesn’t need a frying pan upside the head! He needs an Al Green record and some good books. He needs better information so he can make better decisions and reach better conclusions. He needs to be inspired. You could do that for someone else, you could do that for a lot of people. It might take a lot less and go a lot further than you think.
If you have noticed, I keep mentioning the people and the world around you. I have been doing this because you are surrounded. You are surrounded by millions of square miles of land, billions of gallons of water and who knows how many cubic feet of air. You share all of these finite and vulnerable resources with millions of people. Everything you do, affects someone else, perhaps more than you realize. I am hoping that you understand that your responsibility to yourself and your well-being must also somehow include the planet on which you live and the people you share it with because like it or not, it does.
And now it’s time for my self-serving op ed. Of course, everything I have said to you thus far, has been merely my opinion. Fair enough. Here’s something that perhaps has little to do with our topic today but this is something I will not allow myself not to say to you on this very important day: It is my opinion that all wars are avoidable and unnecessary and could have been prevented by more compassionate governance of peoples and the highest possible value put on life and human rights. I know that one day, war and torture will be relics of the past. That racial discrimination, homophobia and other intolerance and ignorance will be looked upon as primitive, half-baked behavior that no one could ever be induced to repeat. I know that future generations will look back and wonder, “What in the world were those people thinking?”
From that history they will understand that some of their duties as human beings are to pursue peace at all times, to make sure that famine and human suffering never return, and that the stewardship and care of the planet and its very delicate ecosystem is in everyone’s best interest.
But, I am an impatient person and can not, will not, wait for these conclusions and actions to be part of some distant future. I want them to happen right now and I want you to be a huge part of that.
I think you will, and I think you’re going to be great at it. I think that some of the decisions you will make and actions you will take will make things better. You don’t have to be a doctor or a hero to save a life and you don’t have to be a scientist to brighten the future. All you need to do is care and get involved. I know you will, and I can’t wait to see how you act upon every ounce of your tremendous potential.
This is a great day. It’s your day. And so are all the ones to follow.
Think you can handle it?
I bet you can.
The future is bright.
I know this.
I’m looking at it.