Communication is not done with any of us, nor can we be finished with it. It will have its way with us for the remainder of our days.
These are the weeks when the nation launches another cadre of college graduates into the world. The annual ritual marks an important milestone for them and their parents. Most welcome the day; but I can sense that for others it comes with some trepidation. Graduates are given a map that is ambiguous. With a mix of joy and uncertainty some move on to jobs, perhaps a lazy summer at the shore, graduate school, or back to the shelter of their old bedrooms. No thanks to our politicians, they enter a world that is far from the stable platform they might have imagined back in high school.
When I graduated from the leafy outdoor theater at a college in California things were not that different. True, the Civil War was over. Rails had finally been joined at Promontory Point in Utah. And we were getting spoiled by the comforts of indoor plumbing.
With all of its uncertainties, the frequently rampaging river of American life obscures what we thought would be clearer pathways.
In actual fact, the stormy year of 1968 held out the same kind of outstretched hand of opportunity, but we also knew that thorns were concealed in the other. Then, the Vietnam War threatened to be my generation’s next experiment in communal living. And that was only one reason the nation faced doubts that stained its collective soul. Our cities had been battlegrounds. A president, his brother and Dr. King had all been killed by assassins. Racial justice was still in the distant future. What other options were there but to draw on youthful reserves of optimism and move on, comforted in the possibility of marriage, a good job, or perhaps escaping deeper into academia.
With all of its uncertainties, the frequently rampaging river of American life obscures what we thought would be clearer pathways. That’s especially true for young adults in the arts and humanities. Even so, I think anyone who has become a student of communication has a little bit of an edge, but only an edge. In truth, communication is everybody’s business.
When I have the chance, I usually offer some version of this idea in a parting comment to the seniors graduating from our program:
When you begin to think about it, your degree in this subject carries burdens. This isn’t a static discipline you learn and then move on. There really isn’t such a thing as complete mastery of the arts of connecting with others. Like all of us, most of you will spend most your days in hot pursuit of rewards for changing the thinking of others. This may require acts of creation, education, interpretation, explanation, persuasion, justification, reporting, narration or defense. To be sure, all of these efforts can be taxing. And listening to others do the same can turn mastery of the tools of everyday discourse into a life-long enterprise. This is true for all of us, whether or not we have chosen to study communication formally. Over time college graduates sometimes abandon in life what they studied in college. But that will not be true for you. Communication is not done with any of us, nor can we ever be done with it. It will have its way with us for the remainder of our days. Over a lifetime of relations with others our abilities to connect will sometimes open doors and occasionally not be enough to keep them from closing. We will often wonder what we might have done to tame the forces that create barriers. So, as the cliché has it, we must embrace even an uncertain future: to be ready to find whatever communication resources we can to make friends out of strangers.