“The Final Assignment”

Prepared remarks by Dr. Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Associate Professor of Psychology

Sunday, May 16, 2021
Ray and Sue Smith Stadium
Holland, Michigan

President Scogin, Provost Griffin, esteemed guests, friends and family, and Class of 2021, thank you for this honor of speaking today. 

Class of 2021, I’m here today to remind you of your final assignment. No, not your 20-page Life View paper from Senior Seminar that you conjured ex nihilo in less than 36 hours, fueled by Mountain Dew and SourPatch Kids. I’m talking about your final assignment. No assignment here at Hope could be anything more than a penultimate assignment preparing you for your most important assignment: how you live your life. And, like every other assignment you’ve ever completed, this, too, has a due date. 

During your time at Hope, you’ve experienced grief and loss, and been disabused of any lingering illusions of control. You know well how your life, your reality—our global reality—can change in a day. You have known the pang of lives lost too soon and are familiar with tragic loss. You are acquainted with pain and suffering, and you know, some more intimately than others, of how vulnerable, tenuous, fragile, and uncertain life can be. In fact, the only certainty in this life is that one day it will end.

I offer this gentle reminder of your mortality not as an act of provocation but as an invitation to become more comfortable with the reality that we, I—you—will all one day die. People are often uncomfortable thinking about death. Others think dwelling on it robs this life of meaning. After all, how can life be meaningful if all ends anyway? But I tend to think that death is precisely what makes this life so precious and gives life so much meaning. As my students in Senior Seminar know as they fill out their own obituaries, death has a way of clarifying your values. When you realize that life is finite, it helps you prioritize the things in your life that are truly meaningful. Just as we would never complete any assignment if there were no due date, we wouldn’t feel pressure to live meaningfully if life never ended.  You see, this reminder is that your final assignment—how you live your life—has a due date. Death is the due date for your assignment of life. And no one knows just when that is. 

Each of us is offered competing cultural narratives for how to live the most meaningful life. Consumerism contends that we should orient our lives toward making the most possible money so that we can buy the most possible stuff, with the hopes that one such purchase might imbue our life with the worth and significance we so desperately crave. We are sold the myth that with a large enough house, enough material possessions, or a certain number in our bank account or stock portfolio, we will finally matter. We mindlessly agree to becoming a cog in a larger capitalistic wheel in the larger service of creating “more,” regardless of the human cost or environmental degradation. In doing so, we risk forfeiting our lives for the relentless pursuit of more, only to find such an endeavor is a fool’s errand: in the competitive game of materialism, there are no winners. 

Similarly, success begs our time be spent climbing—toward the top; up a corporate ladder; over other people; all in the name of notoriety and pride. We seek significance through recognition, status, respect, prestige, and admiration. We console ourselves that people might not like us but at least they’ll respect us. We curse the simple contentment offered to us daily in exchange for the inexhaustible drive for greater accomplishment, regardless the cost. We resign ourselves to never settle, which looks more like never being settled, so we embrace discontent in the service of constant striving, upward mobility, and chasing the next big thing. Here, too, it is often too late before we realize that all of this climbing was in vain, because, as Franciscan Father Richard Rohr argues, all along, our ladder was leaning against the wrong house. We missed the point of our strivings and have invested our time and energy in the fleeting, vapid pursuits of shallow accolades and meaningless praise. After all, who has ever, on their deathbed, looked back and said, “I wish I spent more time working?” 

Perhaps a more pernicious trap is the allure of piety, a misplaced conviction in your own righteousness that looks like religion but lacks the compassion and courage of an embodied relationship with the divine, and the humility and empathy of true community with others.  It’s a feigned imposter of a true well-spring of meaning. And piety need not be relegated to religion: each of us serves a god of our choosing—work, politics, nationalism, money, fame, safety, security, comfort. And when ideology becomes our god, we offer our time and allegiance as dutiful sacrifices. We convince ourselves that our motives are noble and our intentions pure; we surround ourselves with people who share our same beliefs and scoff at those who differ from us. We draw increasingly narrow circles and are unwilling to engage with those with whom we disagree. Our worlds shrink. We forget how to listen. And all along, we convince ourselves that we’re right and others are wrong.  Beware of self-assurance. Realize that whenever you feel as though you know something completely—and are totally right—may it be a warning signal; be vigilant to resist closed-mindedness, work to remain open, listen to others, and continue learning. 

And all of these cultural myths that promise meaning but never deliver are couched in the biggest lie of them all: there will always be more time. Like a procrastinator’s trusty assurance, we soothe ourselves with the illusion that our life will span endlessly, and one day we can get around to doing good, giving back, fighting for justice, standing up for the oppressed, taking that trip, telling that person you love them, enjoying that sunset, or soaking up a golden splashed afternoon by the water. We assume we’ll have time to course-correct, begin living intentionally in 5, 10, 20 years. We’ll get around to it—eventually. But these are bets on an unguaranteed future, in which time is fleeting. You see, as life progresses, the days get long but the years get short. Time accelerates. 

Your time is your most precious resource. Money may be renewable, but time is not. Your time is limited, constantly decreasing from a set amount. It will expire. We will all expire. But before we do, we decide how we live—where we spend our time, in whose lives we invest, and in what ways we have labored to make this beautiful and terrible world more loving, more just, more compassionate, more free, more authentic, and more whole. We must ask ourselves, what part have we played in bringing more love and healing into this world? 

Many people think that meaning is found only in the magnificent—those memorable, rare, grand gestures that only occur but a handful of times in life. But meaning is found in the mundane—in the daily decisions, the tender moments, the sweet exchanges we share with those whom we love and those who we should, but don’t, love quite enough. It is found in the still, soft silence of holding the hand of the person who just received the terrible news; wiping the brow of the person whose life is ending; crying alongside the friend who knows full well the bitter cold of grief and glimpsed life’s seeming indifference. It is in the daily, hard, unfit, untidy, and tragically beautiful moments that—when added up—comprise our lives. And how you find meaning matters.

Expose these cultural myths of meaning for what they are: inauthentic imposters attempting to offer you what only a genuine engagement with others and the transcendent can provide. No amount of money will ever grant you any more worth or value than you already inherently possess. You are already enough.  

No position, title, degree, or achievement will affirm your dignity or lend you approval you already have. You are already worthy

No misplaced righteous conviction that alienates others and refuses to change and grow can offer you the deep and meaningful connections to people and the divine that you so honestly crave. You are already loved.

In the pursuit of a meaningful life, students often want to know: what is the meaning of life? I appreciate the earnestness of this question because it reveals the deep desire they have to align themselves with something good and larger than themselves. But an honest analysis suggests that meaning is not a what but a how. It’s not a particular set of beliefs or thing that you can possess. No, meaning is not a noun, but a verb. What they are asking—what your Final Assignment is asking—is how can you live a meaningful life? 

Put simply, how do I make the moments of my life matter? 

I can’t answer this question for you. It’s a deeply personal one that is likely as unique as you are. But as a psychological scientist who has studied meaning for over a decade, and a human who has made countless mistakes along the way, allow me to offer you a few clues.

First, go all in on love. Relationships weave the tapestry of meaning in our lives and other people are often the source of our most meaningful moments. But too often, we fail to love others authentically. We’re wrought with fear of being rejected—or perhaps truly known and rejected—so we hide the true parts of ourselves, so we can reassure ourselves that any rejection is not a true dismissal of who we are, but simply a denial of the persona we project. We fail to be authentic with others, staying on the surface, where it is safe. But it is precisely the moments where we can truly be ourselves—our full selves—and another person sees us for who we are and loves us deeply, that are so transformative and healing. That comprises a deep and enduring love that we all crave. A knowing coupled with acceptance. Of course authenticity is risky and can hurt, but it also opens the door for true and deep love. Having the ability to experience that in your own life may be the single most meaningful feature of life that you can hope for. Do not wait to share with someone that you love them. And do not take that deep, transformative love for granted; cultivate it, prioritize it, work at it. Constantly. 

Second, adopt a spirit of humility. Perhaps you’ve learned at Hope that you might be wrong—some of you have learned this more than others. The irony is that the more you learn in life, the more you realize how little you actually know. Own your mistakes. Be quick to admit when you’re wrong. Acknowledge your biases and work to combat them. Share the praise. Take your portion of blame. Seek to increase the diversity of your friends and colleagues, intentionally pursuing people who think, look, and are different than you. Read against yourself. Assume you might be wrong. Ask for forgiveness and offer it others. Be quick to listen. Stay curious. And, this is a big one: be willing to change your mind—even your whole cultural worldview—when you’ve encountered sufficient evidence to do so. If you believe the same things at 62 that you do at 22, we’ve failed you. Never stop growing. 

Third, and finally, put in the work. Happiness is easy but meaning is hard. The things in life that truly make life worth living—a weathered relationship that stood the test of time, working for social change, overturning oppression, fighting injustice—take considerable work. The path of least resistance will always vault comfort and security, pleasure and safety, over the good and worthwhile things that make life meaningful. Do not fear hard work. There’s a reason why we’re both impressed, and annoyed, at marathon finishers: it seems so hard, but is also a pretty admirable demonstration of commitment and dedication. And if they can do it, we wonder if we could too. But your marathon might not be the literal, running, kind. You might pursue the long battle of fighting for inclusion and affirmation of the marginalized, or working to improve living conditions for the poor, or helping sustain and care for our environment. None of these things can be accomplished easily or quickly. And because we’re not guaranteed our moments, we need to start the good work now. 

Because meaning is hard, hopelessness comes easy. But be wary of hopelessness, because it gives way to indifferent resignation, which eventually becomes passive endorsement. When you stop visioning a better future, you start to become complicit with the broken status quo of the present. Hope is a brave act of defiance. It takes courage to see the world as it is—beautiful and broken, terrible and precious, tragic and sweet—and choose to envision a different future, where love and justice impel us and wholeness and healing become our chief goals. Where we measure our success not by our earning or accolades or fleeting cultural standards of worth, but by how much we give back, and what we have done to improve the lives of others: how we helped make the world a more loving and just place. Hope may be the bravest thing of all. 

Class of 2021, your final assignment is to live a life of meaning—one in which each moment matters, where you choose love over fear and authenticity over perfection, where you are curious to learn and open to grow, and where you are unafraid of the hard work required to bring about a loving and just future. Live every day as if your assignment of life is due. One day, you’ll ultimately be right.