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Nathan Thomas

Fear Itself – A Graduation Speech

“I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine . . .”

                                                -- Hamlet’s Father  (Hamlet I.5)

Thank you, President Smithers.  Members of the Board, parents, and graduates – congratulations on the day.  Listen to Shakespeare and what he does here.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses a technique that has become standard in referencing something scary.  Use the audience to imagine the scary thing in their heads.  As the playwright, I don’t have to be specific about the scary thing – I simply have to refer to the scary thing.  “I could tell you . . . . . but I won’t.”

Fear at graduation?  Why not?

We experience fear for many reasons.  One of those reasons for fear is an encounter with the unknown.  The strange and unfamiliar can cause fear.  Being in new territory can cause fear. 

Face it, we’re mammals.  We are creatures of habitual behaviors.  Indeed, our major retail companies rely upon our habitual behaviors for sales. Times of transition in our lives can lead us to confront those habitual behaviors in new ways.  And a resultant feeling can be fear.

We hope over the last few years that education has led you to encounter new territory.  We hope that you have been in a period of change as you have gained new insights and new perspectives.  Our faculty has been tasked at times with challenging you’re your thinking.  We hope your education has been much more than simply reinforcing your previously held thoughts and beliefs.

So there might have been times when you’ve been afraid.

As you’ve learned more, you gained new ground – a new country for exploration.  Like any new country, there were likely surprises. 

And, as we worked to teach something about creativity and the work of creative folks, we hope that you’ve also had the pleasant fear of not knowing how the new creation will work out – if it will work out at all.

            “Now, Hamlet, hear:
'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused . . .”

Notice here that Hamlet’s dad quotes the common story that’s making the rounds and then calls out that common story as a rank lie.

We approach the world with an interesting mix of fact, belief, opinion, and hope.  The process of education modifies that mix.  The balance of those categories can get shaken up.  In the ancient days, when I was in college, I had a conversation with my Fencing teacher, who also taught Personal Health. According to her, there were some folks who came from more guarded backgrounds who came to university with the mythical belief that French kissing could get you pregnant.

I doubt kids today in an internet universe come to school with that particular myth.  But we humans tend to have little beliefs that help us get through the day – like the belief that wearing your lucky underwear will help you pass the final in Organic Chem.  It’s probably harmless, but chances are that underwear won’t help you remember protein reactions or the name of that one enzyme that you always forget.  Dammit.

And learning new facts and re-jiggering the belief matrix can be frightening.  Confronting some of our myths can cause upset.

“Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.”

The Ghost now gives directions, except part of the directions include the dread command, “Do nothing.”  How awful. 

First, we have the fear of the future. Particularly those of us who are artists, we wonder, “Will we be good enough?  Will we measure up?  Will we find work?”

AND we are Americans, so we’re born to be pro-active.  Our lives are constructed around the notion of doing it yourself.  “Do nothing? What awful advice.”

Years ago I worked for a surgeon.  A surgeon has been trained to believe that she can literally put her hands in a human body and affect a change in that body for the better.  So this surgeon told me that one of the hardest things  to learn is to see a situation in which the right thing to do is to just stand there and do nothing – if it’s the right kind of nothing.

For those of us who are artists, I’d suggest not worrying too much about whether or not the work is good, or whether or not you’ll measure up.

The work is always there to be done.  And what is the measure of your art?  There is no yardstick for art.  Are you a playwright?  You’ll never be Shakespeare.  But you don’t want to be.  And Shakespeare can never be you.  You have your voice.  Are you an actor?  A designer? There is always a “great” peeking over your shoulder.  So what? You’re also standing on the shoulders of the pioneers in your field.  They’re also there to say, “Give it a shot.  See what’ll happen.”

And once again you’ll face new territory and a transition into something new.  And, again, there might be fear.

On graduation, accept the advice of an old pioneer who has done his darndest to explore terra incognita and has come back:

— If you can talk about it, it is more manageable.  So don’t be afraid of your fears.  Name them.

— You are going to have scrapes.  You’re likely to fall off a precipice or three as you go exploring your future.  Don’t worry. So have most of the others. 

— Singing and laughing always help.

— Sometimes it’s better to be kind than right.

And so, graduates,  adieu adieu – remember us.

Thank you.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
Check the Archives:

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©2016 Nathan Thomas
©2016 Publication Scene4 Magazine



May 2016

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