Gabriel Etzel: Stop saying THIS to our graduates

Commencement is my favorite day of the academic year. Filled with excitement, graduates and their families come to campus from all areas of the globe to celebrate a milestone achievement. Graduates wait in anticipation for academic leadership to say “you may now move your tassels,” and friends and family cheer when their loved one’s name is called to walk across the stage.

Yet, in the midst of the celebration there is a subtle, yet devastating, message our graduates often hear. It comes in different forms, yet the heart of the communication is the same. What is this fatal message? It is the simple admonition to “be true to yourself,” or stated another way, “you be you.”

The message seems innocent enough. We want graduates to have confidence in their accomplishments and in their ability to face the future. We’ve worked hard to prepare them, and we want to build their confidence as they leave. More basically, it’s healthy to encourage others to pursue what makes them happy—to work hard work and be determined to succeed.

The challenge, though, is that from a biblical perspective, we can’t always measure success in a clear line to the top. In fact, some of the most celebrated stories we tell are ones of self-sacrifice, not self-discovery. What if being true to oneself means sitting on the couch playing video games, refusing to work hard to care for myself and those around me? What if finding myself means forsaking my family? What if pursuing my individual happiness makes everyone around me miserable? Would we still tell those individuals to look within themselves for meaning and purpose?

As an example, consider the popular Disney movie, Frozen. Elsa is true to herself and follows her heart, which leads her into isolation in a world of her own making, where everyone she loves is suffering as a result.

Recognizing the problem of the “being true to oneself” message is not original to me. Many authors have written extensively on the concept (often called “Expressive Individualism”). Trevin Wax explains the view.

“The key here is that the purpose of life is to find one’s deepest self and then express that to the world, forging that identity in ways that counter whatever family, friends, political affiliations, previous generations, or religious authorities might say,” he wrote.

Additionally, Josh Chatraw describes the mindset of expressive individualism indicating “human flourishing occurs when we look within ourselves and cast-off external norms to find our authentic identity…Expressive individualism results in personal choice being seen as the highest good.” The elevation of the individual is the result, with the person being the center of one’s own life.

Consider for a moment the burden this sets on our graduates. Which one of us had everything figured out when we graduated school? (For that matter, do we really have things figured out now?) When we encourage our graduates to simply look within and be true to oneself, we support the mindset that will ultimately lead to loneliness and despair—a world of one’s own creating that leaves those around us miserable as a result.

Instead of encouraging our graduates to merely look within oneself to find one’s purpose in life, consider two additions.

First, encourage graduates to look around oneself to find true meaning. Genesis tells us it is not good for man to be alone, and Ecclesiastes affirms that two are better than one. Humanity was created for community and we are not ourselves when we are alone. Graduates should be encouraged to find their place within a larger community, noting how their unique gifting and preparation will contribute to the larger society. This means recognizing the difference between individuality (which notes we are unique), and individualism (which elevates the one over the many).

A second encouragement for graduates to find their purpose is to look above oneself. Psalm 139 records the psalmist reflecting on being fearfully and wonderfully made. Psalm 100 reminds us that it is “he who made us and we are his.” God, as the author of creation, has the right to speak to our meaning and purpose. This is good news for us, as we no longer need to feel the weight of the world on our shoulders. Instead, we can look to the author of all creation to find our true meaning in life.

This change in perspective—looking around and looking above, instead of just looking within—paves the way for a better future for our graduates. It may appear to be a subtle shift, but it is a message our graduates need to hear, and one that can free them to become who they were truly created to be.