Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. What Makes an Adult?

 

Convocation Remarks for the Incoming Class of 2019 at Merrimack College:

Not long ago, my youngest daughter Anne and I were crossing a street together. I stepped off the curb into the crosswalk and leaned out so I could see beyond the line of parked cars. As I did so, I reached back to keep my darling daughter from walking before I could be sure it was safe.

My daughter was 21 years old. She was a police officer. She was wearing a uniform and carrying a gun.

I have six kids altogether, and though each has followed his or her own distinctive path before arriving and crossing the threshold from child to adult, they all, at last, arrived.

In our diverse culture, we don’t really have a widely-accepted, universal ceremony that marks the moment that a kid becomes an grown-up. That’s not what we’re doing here today, for instance. Matriculating at Merrimack College is certainly related to achieving adulthood, but is not, itself, that achievement.

There was an official ceremony in which my daughter Anne became a police officer. It wasn’t quite as elaborate as this one, but it was pretty spiffy all the same.

In preparation for this moment, she had attended the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, had been squirted in the eyes with pepper spray, and zapped with a Taser, so she would know what these less-than-lethal weapons feel like from the receiving end. She had learned the laws of the state, and been prepared to assume the particular and awesome responsibility that falls to law enforcement officers, namely the ability to deprive a fellow citizen of his liberty, using force where necessary, including deadly force, and to do this on behalf of the people. With her new badge gleaming and weighty on her chest, she swore on her honor to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the State of Maine, and to serve and protect the people without fear or favor.

My daughter is and will always be my little schnoogums, my adorable baby girl. But she’s determined and brave, and she wants to help people.

On her first day at work, she donned her uniform, strapped on her gun belt and her body armor, got into her police cruiser and keyed her mic for the first of what would be many conversations with the radio dispatcher:

“252, Dispatch, I’m 10-8.”

“10-4, 252.”

Like truck drivers, soldiers, and others who must communicate over occasionally untrustworthy radio waves, police officers often replace or supplement spoken English with codes. These vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction: 10-4 always and everywhere means “affirmative,” but while a person with mental health issues in Maine is known as 10-44, in Los Angeles, the LAPD would describe him as “51-50.”

In Maine, 10-8 is the code for “available for service.” I was very, very proud to hear my daughter say it for the first time. And this, I’ve decided, is my definition of what it means to be an adult. An adult is 10-8.

This is not, of course, the only definition of adulthood. By one definition, at least, you all are already adults. You’re 18 years old (give or take). If you are arrested for a crime, you will be charged and tried as if you had all the moral faculties of a grown-up whether or not this is the case. You can vote; buy cigarettes, lottery tickets, and pornography; and join the military. You can get married without your parents’ permission, though you won’t be allowed to drink champagne at the wedding. If you want to partake of alcohol, you’re legally obliged to wait until the next, more or less arbitrary legal threshold, the age of 21. But I’m not talking about legal adulthood, here. You can be a legal adult and still be one of those human beings concerned primarily with his or her own wants and needs. A child, however adorable, is essentially useless.

An adult is useful.

Being useful is fun. In fact, the great joy of adult life is not that you can buy beer, or choose for yourself whether to eat Skittles for breakfast. Jolly though these things are, the seriously satisfying thing about being an adult is knowing that people can and do trust you, that they rely on you, that you can help, and that your work makes the world a better place.

You’ve chosen a good place in which to grow fully into adulthood. Yours is a college dedicated to the Augustinian values of hospitality, community, and the pursuit of truth, a place oriented toward service as well as — or even as the definition of — success.

But there are a few temptations I’d like to warn you about.

One is that you may not want to grow up. You might be one of those people who would just as soon be useless. You’d like Mommy and Daddy to take care of you forever, while you avoid work and responsibility, and spend your time taking naps and partying.

This was the temptation my eldest son Zach was faced with. So he took time off between high school and college, and joined the United States Marine Corps. In four short months, Marine Corps boot camp had cured him of laziness and irresponsibility. The Marine Corps can do the same for you. There’s a recruiting office right next door in Lawrence, and since you’re 18 years old, they can sign you right up.

Another temptation is one that well-educated people are peculiarly prone to, and since you’re about to become well-educated, I figure I’d better give you a heads-up. It is the temptation to despair.

Not long ago, I heard a very well-educated, highly-intellectual guy named Andrew Harvey give a talk entitled Transformative Action in Dangerous Times. The professor had an English accent, which made him sound even more intellectual — wish I could imitate it, but I can’t — and he was very passionate. We are now,” he said. “Living in Dangerous Times. A self-conscious conspiracy between corporations, politicians and the media are [sic] deliberately producing an unprecedented global cataclysm,” with wars, famine and the extinction of the snow leopard.

“We must stop denying the truth of this catastrophe, stop clinging to our comforts, utterly transform ourselves in body, mind and heart!” And then we’ll help the poor, and presumably the snow leopard too.

The professor sounded intelligent, as I say, and passionate, but not especially optimistic. Makes sense: the chances are extremely good that we won’t utterly transform ourselves in body, mind and heart, and so the poor and the snow leopard, and all of us really, are doomed.

Now, I’m a preacher, myself, and I know that it is actually a lot more fun to give a fire-and-brimstone sort of sermon than a “Things aren’t all that bad” sermon. “We are all sinners in the hands of an angry God” really wakes up the folk in the back pews, and I was tempted to do this today: “God is gazing down upon the seething cauldron of sin that is Andover, Massachusetts, and surely He will send the fire this time?”

Maybe it’s just the human attraction to melodrama that makes despair tempting? Or maybe it’s that, if the world is about to end, we might as well go with the beer and Skittles, the party and the naps?

You may be more familiar with religious predictions of Apocalypse, but secular apocalyptics are probably more common on college campuses, even Augustinian ones. The secular apocalyptic will see a plastic grocery bag caught in a tree, or a traffic jam on 495 and grimly declare that there are too many people using too little birth control and too many fossil fuels … the end is near.

The secular apocalyptic will, however, be offended if you point out the similarities between her point of view and that of the preacher who thinks same-sex marriage will provoke God to send the fire this time. The secular apocalyptic, after all, is rational and well-educated. She is drawing her conclusions from history, from science, from facts. And so she, of course, is right.

In 1968, a very smart, rational, educated guy named Paul Erlich, a professor of biology at Stanford University, wrote the following about the state of the world: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” He made this prediction in a book called The Population Bomb.

Another book, written around the same time by William and Paul Paddock, agreed: “By 1975, a disaster of unprecedented magnitude will face the world. Famines, greater than any in history, will ravage the undeveloped nations. The swelling population is blotting up the earth’s food,” and, they confidently added, “Our technology will be unable to increase food production in time to avert the deaths of tens of millions of people by starvation.”

I was about six years old when these books were published. My parents read them, along with a whole lot of other Americans. They were big hits, bestsellers. You, on the other hand, weren’t even a gleam in your daddy’s eye, so perhaps I should explain that no, the world didn’t experience mass starvation in the decades between my birth and yours. Our technology was, it turned out, more than able to increase food production in time to avert disaster.

In fact, the percentage of people living on the edge of starvation has fallen by 80 percent since 1970. When I was a kid, more than one in four people around the world lived on a dollar a day or less, the standard measure for starvation-level poverty. Today, only about one in twenty live on that little. As the economist Arthur C. Brooks declares in The Conservative Heart, “This is the greatest anti-poverty achievement in world history.”

Yet 86 percent of Americans think global poverty is getting worse, not better, and more than two-thirds of us do not believe it is possible substantially to reduce extreme poverty in the world in the next few decades — even though, in the past thirty years, we’ve been doing just that. Oddly enough, the college educated are no exception. I would like for all of you to be the exception. As you begin your years at Merrimack, your own, personal training for useful, service-oriented adulthood, I want to inoculate you against the temptation of despair. Clinging to childhood, going to parties and taking naps are all tempting enough without adding in the notion that any effort made on behalf of humanity is doomed to failure, and any gifts of adult service are meaningless.

Maybe there would be some excuse for giving up hope if the world really was coming to an end, but it isn’t. The world is not getting worse, it’s getting better, and it is getting better through the hard work of adults who have made themselves useful, who have sought the necessary training, experienced the necessary pain, and have signed on 10-8 with the great Dispatcher and heard Him answer 10-4.

Even if, right this minute, you feel anxious, useless, hungry, and sleepy; even if you still feel like you need your Mama to check the road for you before you cross it, you’re here. And you have chosen to commit yourself to spending the next four years finding out about the world and yourself, learning how you can serve and whom you can serve. (Well done!)

Keep going. Trust the process, and trust in the goal: Being a grown-up in the service of God and neighbor is more satisfying and way more fun than you can even begin to imagine.

Four years from now, your parents, your teachers — and me, too, I hope — will have the pleasure of seeing the results, and celebrating all the ways that the Merrimack class of 2019 is signing on 10-8.

10-4! May your life be blessed and a blessing, and may it bring you joy.

There are 33 comments.

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  1. The Dowager Jojo Inactive

    Good one as always.

    I have a strange craving for Skittles and beer.

    • #1
    • September 1, 2015, at 4:35 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  2. TKC1101 Inactive

    Impressive and poignant. Responsibility and optimism. That’s the America I remember.

    If only the college faculty and administrators would listen to this.

    • #2
    • September 1, 2015, at 4:39 PM PDT
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  3. Concretevol Thatcher

    Kate, I very much like your definition of an adult. This was a fine convocation, you should have passed out copies :)

    • #3
    • September 1, 2015, at 5:42 PM PDT
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  4. Dustoff Inactive

    Wow! Thanks for clarity and speaking truth. And again Wow! 10-8, available for service.

    Best wishes to you and your daughter.

    • #4
    • September 1, 2015, at 6:30 PM PDT
    • Like
  5. RightAngles Member

    Beautiful.

    • #5
    • September 1, 2015, at 6:55 PM PDT
    • Like
  6. Caroline Inactive
    CarolineJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    To the main feed, please. LIKE.

    • #6
    • September 1, 2015, at 6:58 PM PDT
    • Like
  7. RightAngles Member

    Caroline:To the main feed, please. LIKE.

    Yes, I agree. We are lucky to have Kate!

    • #7
    • September 1, 2015, at 7:00 PM PDT
    • Like
  8. MarciN Member

    RightAngles:

    Caroline:To the main feed, please. LIKE.

    Yes, I agree. We are lucky to have Kate!

    Agreed. :)

    • #8
    • September 1, 2015, at 7:57 PM PDT
    • Like
  9. Del Mar Dave Member
    Del Mar DaveJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Would that I had heard (and understood to the point of appreciation) those words at any of my graduations. And having Googled you, now I understand even more about your sentiments, your clarity of understanding and your excellent prescriptions for a life well lived.

    Thank you for participating in Ricochet.

    • #9
    • September 1, 2015, at 8:05 PM PDT
    • Like
  10. katievs Member
    katievsJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Wonderful. Thank you!

    • #10
    • September 1, 2015, at 8:07 PM PDT
    • Like
  11. Doug Watt Moderator

    Beautiful essay Kate. I can remember when my daughter completed her academy training. My wife and I were proud of her and took comfort in the fact that she was wearing the same badge that I wore. I was torn between her accomplishment and knowing that she would see what I had seen. I really don’t know what else to say. It’s a tough job and all I told her was to be kind when you can and be a no nonsense officer when that is called for. It is very difficult for me to explain to those who have not experienced the job.

    • #11
    • September 1, 2015, at 8:10 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  12. Drusus Coolidge

    Unrelated to anything specifically, I’m so glad to have you as a voice in the Ricochet community! Even when we differ, I value and respect your insights and opinions.

    • #12
    • September 1, 2015, at 8:20 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. The (apathetic) King Prawn Inactive

    Superb!

    • #13
    • September 1, 2015, at 8:29 PM PDT
    • Like
  14. Hammer, The Member

    Alright, Kate… enough being all charming and stuff. Let’s argue about something!

    • #14
    • September 1, 2015, at 9:19 PM PDT
    • Like
  15. Lash LaRoche Inactive

    Kate Braestrup:Another temptation is one that well-educated people are peculiarly prone to, and since you’re about to become well-educated, I figure I’d better give you a heads-up. It is the temptation to despair.

    Indeed.

    • #15
    • September 1, 2015, at 11:47 PM PDT
    • Like
  16. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Your first paragraph reminded me of this dumb fight I got into with my mom when she kept doing that — reaching back to protect me from the line of oncoming cars — even though I was by that point 27 and much more worried about making sure she wasn’t going to be run over, given that she’d just had brain surgery and wasn’t so steady on her feet. It was so silly of me to snap at her; I don’t know why I did. Maybe it was because I was worried about her and wanted her to respect me when I said there were some things I wasn’t sure she was up for, anymore, like driving — given that she didn’t have control over the foot she needed for braking. (She went on to drive for another 20 years, and the pancreatic cancer got her long before a car accident or the brain tumor did. It was benign, but there’s no such thing as a “really good” brain tumor.)

    If you’d told me then that one day I’d pay anything to have my mom yank me out of the path of a car that was at least 50 yards away from us and driving less than 10 mph, I’d have laughed. (And frankly, still would, because that would be so like her — to come back from the dead for exactly one second to save my life from a car that had no chance of hitting me in any case, leaving me wondering — “But Mom, couldn’t you have come back to say something about how you are, and more importantly, where you are?”)

    • #16
    • September 2, 2015, at 12:05 AM PDT
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  17. Lash LaRoche Inactive

    Yep, I suppose it’s simply in a mother’s nature to be over-protective. Mine still tells me – at 40 – to look both ways when crossing the street. And also to be careful around strangers, even though I carry a concealed handgun.

    • #17
    • September 2, 2015, at 12:23 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  18. iWe Reagan
    iWeJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Phenomenal!

    Though I quibble. My kids are quite useful, and most kids can be, if they have a fascist for a father.

    And why do you have it in for naps?

    • #18
    • September 2, 2015, at 3:26 AM PDT
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  19. The Dowager Jojo Inactive

    Two of my clumsy thoughts on being “useful”:

    First, it’s not only what makes you an adult, it’s what makes you happy. People wither and die, figuratively if not literally, when they don’t feel needed.

    Second, you reminded me of the children’s stories about Thomas the Tank Engine. Sir Topham Hat’s highest praise for Thomas was that he was “a really useful engine” ! Which is a good message.

    • #19
    • September 2, 2015, at 4:28 AM PDT
    • Like
  20. The (apathetic) King Prawn Inactive

    Jojo: People wither and die, figuratively if not literally, when they don’t feel needed.

    This is a bigger thing than we often credit. I’ve found it to be exceptionally important in marriage as well (another of those adult things.) It’s the flip side of the coin from appreciation as expressed as love and/or respect.

    • #20
    • September 2, 2015, at 6:21 AM PDT
    • Like
  21. Guruforhire Member

    You guys try to make words do too much. Generally in a tedious exercise in shaming people into behavior one finds desirable.

    Being an adult means: having reached physical maturity, and being intellectually capable of decision making.

    Beginning meet end.

    • #21
    • September 2, 2015, at 6:52 AM PDT
    • Like
  22. GrannyDude Member
    GrannyDude

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:Your first paragraph reminded me of this dumb fight I got into with my mom when she kept doing that — reaching back to protect me from the line of oncoming cars — even though I was by that point 27 and much more worried about making sure she wasn’t going to be run over, given that she’d just had brain surgery and wasn’t so steady on her feet. It was so silly of me to snap at her; I don’t know why I did. Maybe it was because I was worried about her and wanted her to respect me when I said there were some things I wasn’t sure she was up for, anymore, like driving — given that she didn’t have control over the foot she needed for braking. (She went on to drive for another 20 years, and the pancreatic cancer got her long before a car accident or the brain tumor did. It was benign, but there’s no such thing as a “really good” brain tumor.)

    If you’d told me then that one day I’d pay anything to have my mom yank me out of the path of a car that was at least 50 yards away from us and driving less than 10 mph, I’d have laughed. (And frankly, still would, because that would be so like her — to come back from the dead for exactly one second to save my life from a car that had no chance of hitting me in any case, leaving me wondering — “But Mom, couldn’t you have come back to say something about how you are, and more importantly, where you are?”)

    I’m sorry you lost your Mom, Claire. And I love this. Wherever she is, she is fine—and she got to have you for a daughter, which was and is a really great gift

    • #22
    • September 2, 2015, at 7:44 AM PDT
    • Like
  23. GrannyDude Member
    GrannyDude

    Guruforhire: Guruforhire You guys try to make words do too much. Generally in a tedious exercise in shaming people into behavior one finds desirable.

    “You guys” meaning “speech-makers to young people?” I agree! In my defense, I did manage to stop myself from telling them to read recreationally and floss. Seriously—it’s a horrible temptation for Convocation/Commencement speakers, which is why most such speeches always feel too long and are instantly forgotten.

    • #23
    • September 2, 2015, at 7:46 AM PDT
    • Like
  24. GrannyDude Member
    GrannyDude

    Ryan M:Alright, Kate… enough being all charming and stuff. Let’s argue about something!

    Okay!

    XO

    • #24
    • September 2, 2015, at 7:48 AM PDT
    • Like
  25. GrannyDude Member
    GrannyDude

    iWe:Phenomenal!

    Though I quibble. My kids are quite useful, and most kids can be, if they have a fascist for a father.

    And why do you have it in for naps?

    I’ll bet your kids are quite useful, iWe— and their fascist father is doing them a great service by helping/forcing them to become so. With five kids, you and Mrs. iWe should soon be able to avoid all housework, cooking and yard work if you aren’t there already, and have plenty of time for well-deserved and entirely appropriate naps.

    My other daughter fondly recalls being sent to do the marketing at around the age of 10, with my debit card in her pocket and the code written on the palm of her hand. I suppose if her father had lived, she would have had less responsibility, since it would have required actual effort to impose it without the assistance of, frankly, sheer necessity.

    • #25
    • September 2, 2015, at 7:52 AM PDT
    • Like
  26. GrannyDude Member
    GrannyDude

    Jojo: First, it’s not only what makes you an adult, it’s what makes you happy. People wither and die, figuratively if not literally, when they don’t feel needed.

    Absolutely—I agree completely.

    • #26
    • September 2, 2015, at 7:54 AM PDT
    • Like
  27. GrannyDude Member
    GrannyDude

    The King Prawn:

    Jojo: People wither and die, figuratively if not literally, when they don’t feel needed.

    This is a bigger thing than we often credit. I’ve found it to be exceptionally important in marriage as well (another of those adult things.) It’s the flip side of the coin from appreciation as expressed as love and/or respect.

    Agree with this, too.

    Hmmmnn. I’ll bet I can make this into a sermon…

    • #27
    • September 2, 2015, at 7:55 AM PDT
    • Like
  28. KiminWI Inactive

    Another piece to slip into my daughter’s back pack. She doesn’t want to listen to mama; maybe she will read someone else’s mama.

    Thanks Kate!

    • #28
    • September 2, 2015, at 8:20 AM PDT
    • Like
  29. Grosseteste Member

    I forwarded this to my wife, but unfortunately “Trust the process” is one of her PTSD triggers from seminary education and placement.

    • #29
    • September 2, 2015, at 1:41 PM PDT
    • Like
  30. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    That was wonderful, Kate. Thank you.

    If you haven’t already, I have a sense you’d eat up The Rational Optimist. Hits a number of the notes you did here, but with some really wonderful stuff on trade and anthropology.

    • #30
    • September 2, 2015, at 3:49 PM PDT
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