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Claire Topalian Headshot

To Those Who Are Meant to Go Against the World (My Fake Commencement Speech)

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I am a sucker for a solid speech, and with graduation ceremonies just recently wrapping up around the U.S., I've spent a lot of time listening to and reading commencement speeches. After sharing my affinity for commencement speeches with a friend, they recommended (or challenged) that I write my own: "What would you talk about if you had to write a commencement speech?" Though I have not lived long, nor have I done anything noteworthy enough to warrant an actual commencement speech, I accepted the challenge and forced myself to focus on one central message that I would, at this stage of my life, deliver to an [un]willing audience. The following post is what I came up with.


There are countless types of people, but today, I want to address two and talk about one.

Some people are meant to go with the world, flowing gracefully through it, picking ripe fruit as they glide through existence, pouring goodness from their pores ... this is not to say that they do not face challenges and heartache; indeed, we all do, but they manage to handle even these moments with the utmost peace.

But then there are some of us who are meant to go against the world, and we cannot help but push against the grain; we are fueled by skepticism, we enjoy anger, and we are quick to speak up, often causing unrest with every step. You know you are one of these people if you've ever walked into a room and felt a hush fall around you; a sudden halt to a topic of conversation, about, say, strip clubs, Wall Street, or the 4th of July.

I want to talk to you today about the latter of these two types of people - and not because the latter is more important or pressing for today's world; quite the opposite in fact: I would venture to say that the former - the genteel, peaceful type - is just as much in demand, and perhaps more so. But I need to talk to you about being someone who goes against the world in part because this type of person often needs a shove out the door, especially in today's somewhat vacant American culture, and in part because I am this type of person, and I have fought myself about this internally for far too long, even though I've long felt it stirring in my gut and coursing alongside adrenaline in my veins. If you suspect that you are someone who is meant to go against the world, I hope that you will, and I hope you will start today if you haven't already.

I need to be honest, though. As much as possible. Going against the world is not easy, as I'm sure you can imagine well on your own. Being a person who must go against the world is difficult for many reasons. Going against anything, beating against a current, is going to be hard, no matter what. Then you will fight constant temptation for things ... constant consumerism, power, money, sex, peace, a house, children, privacy, simplicity. A life. I don't want to tell you that a life is impossible for those who go against the world - that isn't true, and you can create what ever life you imagine for yourself, with some level of reason and luck. But you should know up front that going against the world will require a very patient and understanding partner, if that is something you are looking for. You'll also discover quickly who your friends are. Much like finding and cherishing the right partner, you'll need to honor those friends who stick around despite your annoying tendency to point out what is wrong about "SOCIETY" at large, warfare, politics, et al., at any given moment. These are, undoubtedly, patient and good people. Don't forget this. Moreover, if you are a woman, going against the world will prove to be more difficult, especially socially. From a shockingly early age, girls are coached to smile often (or constantly), please others, and be polite. Too many times we mistake snobbery or even negativity from female peers when they are simply caught thinking without a smile on their face. This constant expectation for women to be genial in nearly every interaction will inevitably make it very difficult for women to spark controversy, exhibit genuine anger, and confront others who have done wrong. Be sure to do it anyway. It could take longer to find people who understand, but you will. Ultimately, a good rule of thumb is to never go against the world in a way that excludes others from loving you, because we all deserve love. This may seem vague and irrelevant now, but if you find yourself railing against the world and growing more and more lonely, you'll know what I mean.

Let's briefly discuss anger, because anger will be vital to your cause, but it can also break your cause. There are types of anger. Some types are debilitating, useless, and petty. Others are powerful, and they course through our veins in ways that push us off the diving board and into frightening but meaningful territory. Harness this second type of anger. You'll be amazed at what this can do for you, and for others. One part anger mixed with two parts intelligence is a mighty sword (but I don't condone violence).

Going against the world doesn't make you a cynic. Quite the opposite: believing in something better, something not yet done, is perhaps one of the most optimistic ways to exist. Those who go against things often adhere to a more optimistic, utopian world ideal than those who go with the world, in fact. In many ways, it is crazy to believe that we could change things that strike us as deeply parasitic in a dramatic way, but it's been done before; we know it's possible.

There's another part to this, and it's about being weird. I beg you, even when every single person in your life, and worse, every media message that is being forced down your throat, insists that you comply with a shallow concept of what it means to fit in or be normal, please, please, do not listen. I realize this has been said over and over, in many different ways. Just trust that whatever weird means to you is worth holding on to. This is going to be a huge part of going against the grain. Being weird as a child, as I'm sure many of you can testify, often becomes an asset in adulthood - and it's good practice for when you must ignore what others think. Going against the world will not be comfortable, but it is necessary. As author and poet Criss Jami writes, "Everyone pretends to be 'free thinkers', but few individuals pass the line into expressive territories that may be detrimental to their own social well-being." Imagine what you would do if you didn't fear social isolation; imagine how far you could take your cause if you stopped caring what others think.

Why do I think that living a life that goes against the world is important? Consider the living heroes of our culture today. You may struggle to name them. Regardless, it is imperative that we find heroes, because, as Russell Brand remarks, if we do not find our own, they will be found for us - and they will not stand for the right values. We're wise enough to know that we live in a capitalist, patriarchal society. This is not the type of society that is going to hand you a hero worthy of your admiration. You can be sure, however, that you will be presented with figures who represent money, who exist for the profit of very few. I would not advise falling for one of the many false heroes in our world today. We have been drugged and pacified as a Nation to a point where we can no longer recognize when our own values - if we have managed to hold on to them this long - are being threatened and ravaged by anything from politicians to corporate interests - and always for a fight that we did not sign up for.

Finally, if no one elects to go against the world, I believe we are doomed. Should no one go against the way of things, we will all be pushed through the funnel of money, vanity, war, and corruption without regard for our selves, our souls, or the shape of the world that we leave for our children. Don't let yourself fall asleep to the pacifying efforts of our controllers; don't allow yourself be controlled. Take up arms of fierce intelligence, not violence. Take up arms of relentless compassion in the face of injustice. Commit to making yourself socially uncomfortable, because if you aren't, then you are not truly going against the way of things. Allow yourself to be angry, optimistic, weird, and go against the way of the world in the name of a world worth living in.