In the last moments of her life, Harriet Tubman joined her family and friends in singing the spiritual “swing low, sweet chariot.” The Buddha spent the last few moments of his life exhorting us to “strive, with earnestness.” Compared to this sentimentality, Sir Winston Churchill’s last utterance that he was “bored of it all” seems rather ineloquent and brusque. Some last words have been funny, some serious, and some emotional. Regardless of their tone, however, there seems to be a general human fascination with the words that someone speaks in their last moments. Perhaps it seems futile to sum up the events of a life in a few words; however, these final proclamations can provide a glimpse into someone’s self image. They might even be able to help us live the life we want to live.
You might be wondering why I am talking about this morbid topic on such a joyous occasion. It’s because this is a valedictory, a goodbye speech, Vale coming from the Latin word meaning “goodbye.” Thus this speech represents the last words of a high schooler before graduation.
My position here is ironic. For, despite my mild obsession with last words, I don’t think it’s right to fixate on endings. Or beginnings for that matter. Some dislike endings out of a distaste for excessive harboring of emotions, but I find fault with the shadow that beginnings and endings cast on all of the in between events – the middle. After all, who here remembers the 57th day of sophomore year? The 7th detention served under Ms. Cousino? How about the feeling of being halfway through a large project?
When did the last and first become so much more valuable than the middle? Is it not precisely the middle events that give the last and first their vitality and, moreover, their triumph?
Perhaps this is just a middle child annoyance. Let’s call this phenomenon the Wednesday syndrome – the tendency to forget and under appreciate the middle. Is there cure for this widespread disease? I propose we could all use a healthy dose of mindfulness, the practice of being aware of each moment and our place in it. If we don’t live each day along a journey as an important and valuable one, then very few moments of life are meaningful. So, while this day as our high school graduation is important, what comes betwixt the first and the last days is equally important. Without the countless schedule one days, this last day would not be as special.
I am not proposing we brush off the beginnings and endings of things as unimportant or less valuable; on the contrary, I think we should celebrate them. However, that does not mean we should overlook the moments that went into making this celebration so worthwhile: every time we sat down in homeroom, stuffed our books in our tiny lockers, donned our blazers, cheered at sporting events, took a bow, and ignored having to sign our planner as a hall pass. We celebrate every single one of those moments today; each ought to be significant. Endings, as with last words, are important only when they are a reflection of the events in the middle and the effort we have put in throughout our journey.
Would this diploma mean as much to you if it weren’t for the cringe-worthy awkwardness of freshman year, the tragically forgotten sophomore year, or the triumphs and stresses of junior and senior year?
A few years ago I decided I want my last word of life to be “Amen.” Derived from the Aramaic root “-aman” which means “supported, confirmed, or upheld” this word is also closely associated with the word meaning “truth.” As I’ve come to understand it, Amen affirms what was just said or done as being innately truthful to yourself, something which resonates with what you hold to be true.
At the end of our lives, we will all ideally reflect back on everything we have said and done; by saying Amen I hope to affirm that my existence was true to myself and my desires.
To cure my own Wednesday syndrome, I also challenged myself to end each day by saying Amen – affirming my support of my actions throughout the day as well as recognizing how that day has been influential in the greater scheme of my life. In other words, I challenged myself to be mindful of each day and its value. To me, part of that is recognizing how each day is a beginning, middle, or ending of some journey, and that each day has its place in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I have failed more than I have succeeded at this task; however, I still think this is an important one: to be mindful, to live in each moment, then go beyond that mindfulness to appreciate each moment as important within a journey. In other words, to stop wishing it was Saturday during Wednesday’s first period prayer intentions.
Today is certainly important, But tomorrow… tomorrow can be as important, and that is what I want to challenge us to think about.
Our personal growth journeys need not align themselves perfectly with the school calendar, beginning on August 15th and ending on May 16th with a break in the middle for Christmas and Easter. Rather, personal journeys occur on their own time frame, which means that tomorrow might be the beginning of the most formative journey of your life, or a middle step, or an end. Maybe tomorrow you will open the first page of what will become your favorite book, begin a new health practice, or break a bad habit. But these are all beginning or ending events. More likely, tomorrow holds the promise of middle events – spending some time with your family, treating yourself to your 614th ice cream scoop, or renewing a spiritual journey you have already started. We might not remember all of the details of these in between moments, but they comprise most of our lives. The beauty of living in each moment is recognizing how every event compounds upon itself to form a life.
Today, I join my classmates in saying Amen to our high school careers. In this, we reflect on the middle moments that have brought us here and challenge each other not to wait until the end to value the middle. We find Harriet Tubman’s final song of swing low sweet chariot meaningful because it is a mirror of what she stood for in life and how she lived her middle moments. Similarly, the Buddha’s last call to earnestness is powerful because it demonstrates his own dedication during his life’s middle moments. And Churchill’s witty proclamation of boredom portrays how he stayed afloat during stressful times of leadership. Regardless of what our last words are, for life, for today, or for any journey, I hope our regrets are few. And I challenge us to stop the epidemic that is Wednesday syndrome, and to value the middle moments as much as beginnings and endings. To celebrate the beauty in this occasion, and then to recognize tomorrow’s importance as a place in the beginning, middle, or end of another journey.