How to Handle High School Graduation Clichés

for Nina, Janiece, Chris, Drew, Gold, and Constantino 

Anyone who has been to more than one high school graduation, ever, knows that in any self-respecting commencement address, there are certain lines that one is almost assured to hear.  The speaker is bound to comment on this being a “momentous occasion.” Graduates will be reminded that they should "Never be afraid to fail,” and that they should “Follow their dreams,” and “Never stop learning.” 

The same tired, worn clichés.

But wait a moment.

How does a phrase become cliché in the first place?  Is it not through a process of overuse? And why does a phrase become overused if not because it is (stay with me here) used a lot. These phrases are cliché through no fault of their own: they have become cliché due to their sheer universal appeal.

And we all know important universal themes are. These themes ring true because they appeal to what is common in all of us. In the heart of this English teacher rages a fierce battle between a vile hatred of cliché and a passionate love of universal themes.


What to do, what to do?

All right. Perhaps it is impossible to address a group of graduates without gravitating toward these clichéd themes.  Since we cannot seem to avoid them, then, please join me for the next few moments in re-exploring them. Are these clichéd expressions—the universal themes of graduation—in fact true? Can they be taken at face value? Are these the mental and philosophical building blocks on which we truly should base our future plans?

Let’s see.

First, there is this: “Don’t be afraid to fail.” – Although we may understand and agree with this sentiment to a certain extent, can we not agree that for us to be capable of making wise choices, we need to exercise some discernment in this area? There are, in fact, some situations in which we should be afraid to fail. As some of the graduates are no doubt keenly aware, when taking an exam on which graduation may depend, fear of failure is a legitimate concern.  In such cases, fear of failure, in fact, might be what prompts a student to work hard in order to achieve the best possible outcome. Likewise, fear of failure sometimes allows us to exercise healthy caution. 

On the other hand, an absolute lack of the fear of failure may lead us to make high-stakes decisions without fully considering the consequences.

Hmm. Is this a conundrum? Or are there deeper philosophical forces at work here?

In turning to the Biblical account of Gideon in the book of Judges, do we not find a man who genuinely fears failure? When God calls Gideon forth as the hero who will deliver his people from the oppression of the Midianites, where is Gideon? Hiding! Threshing his wheat in a wine press. After the angel of the Lord ironically addresses Gideon as a mighty man of valor, Gideon responds first by fearing that he’s going to die due to having seen the angel of the Lord.  Then, he sets out to accomplish the first task set to him by God in the dead of night due to fear that his family and the townspeople will kill him. Even after this first task is successfully accomplished, and God calls Gideon on to greater responsibility, Gideon responds by dithering, asking God for sign after sign, for assurance after assurance. 

Despite God’s verbal assurances of victory, Gideon worries. Despite promises, he feels fear. Rather than charging forth confidently as we would expect a mighty man of valor to do, Gideon responds instead with trepidation.

But wait a moment.  Gideon does respond.  

Despite his fear of failure. 

In the face of fear, he obeys the voice of the Lord.

In the end, perhaps graduates should not be told “Don’t be afraid to fail.” Perhaps they should be told that fear of failure is a natural part of the human experience.  That to feel fear is part of what makes us human. It’s an expression of our frailty, yes, but it’s also a natural buffer that may sometimes keep us from shooting off on foolish tangents.

My first admonition to graduates, then, is not, “Don’t be afraid to fail,” because fear is an emotion, and as such is a natural part of the human experience, and not necessarily a sin.  It is, however, a sin to let fear hold us back from doing what we know to be right. It is prudent, then, to remember the truth of 2 Timothy 1:7: “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 
Therefore, do not let the fear of failure hold you back from any legitimate calling that God places on your life.

The second cliché which requires our examination is this: “Follow your dreams.” – Of course, this one comes with the implied assumption that your dream is not to spend the next five years on your Mom’s couch pursuing a career in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

And that’s really the crux of the issue, isn’t it?  Your parents seem to know the dreams that they have for you, as do your grandparents, your teachers, your pastor, your youth leaders, your next door neighbors, and your Aunt Edna, but do their dreams always align with the dreams that you have for yourself?  And how do any or all of those dreams align with the plan that God has for your life?

Is this something that you have taken into consideration?

Of the three clichés which we are putting under the microscope today, we will find that this one is, in fact, the weakest and the least tenable. 

After all, what is a dream? It is—by definition—something that is contrary to reality.  A nebulous illusion. A vain hope.  A mere fancy.

Instead, then, of telling you to follow your dreams, I charge you to pursue goals. While dreams are mere intangible wishes, goals are tangible frameworks which can be used to gauge progress toward a desired end.

As to what that desired end should be, I remind you of Psalm 37:4, which assures the believer that if he is willing to delight himself in the Lord, the Lord will place His desires within the heart.

If indeed, as the catechism says, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then this should be the first goal of the Christian, and the one on which all other goals hinge. Having this as a primary focus will not only help the Christian to structure his goals, but also realign the methods he chooses to make those goals a reality.

This brings us to our third cliché: “Never stop learning.” Finally one about which we have nothing disparaging to say. 

Well…. Not quite.  Let’s be honest for a moment. To to be alive--to be processing life day in and day out--is to be learning.  Can you honestly think of a week that has gone by which has not taught you something new about the human experience? Think of what we learned just through the media this past week alone.  We learned that the there is a great possibility that the Zombie Apocalypse has already started in Miami.1 We learned that Egypt still isn’t a safe place to vacation for Americans.2 And we learned that the obesity problem in America could be solved if only we were to outlaw jumbo sugary drinks.3

The point here not that we aren’t going to keep learning unless we make a conscious effort to do so.

The question is what we are learning. And why.

What is filling our minds? What’s affecting our thoughts? What influences are we passively allowing to shape and mold our or decisions, and actions?

My third admonition is not to encourage you never to stop learning, because some sort of learning is almost inevitable. My admonition to you is to make the conscious, active decision to structure your learning so that it includes concepts of true worth and value. 

What you learn controls how you think, and how you think informs your behavior. In order for Christians to do what they are admonished to do in 2 Corinthians 10:5—which is to take every thought captive to the teachings of Christ— Christians must first ensure that what they are learning—the substance with which they are choosing to fill their minds—reinforces, rather than hinders, the pursuit of godliness.

What you learn, then, must be drawn through the filter of Philippians 4:8: “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.”

In the end, then, I charge you not with the same tired and worn clichés, but with the following three ideals:

·       First, ask God for the courage to press on in a worthy cause, despite the fear of failure.
·       Second, delight yourself in your relationship with the Lord, allowing him to aid you in setting exemplary goals.

·       Third, embark on an active, lifetime pursuit of truth.

1. Ew.
2. Worst vacation ever.
3. You'll just have to buy a few smaller ones.


  1. You should avoid reading the government's monthly jobs report.


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