Early last month, as the Supreme Court was nearing the end of its annual term, Chief Justice John Roberts quietly visited the small town of Canaan, New Hampshire for his son’s graduation from a small boarding school.
In fact, Roberts was the commencement speaker for Cardigan Mountain School, a prestigious all-boys school for grades six to nine.
The speech received little attention, until earlier this week, when a Washington Post column declared the speech the “best thing” Roberts wrote this term. In it, Roberts wished the privileged crowd of graduates a certain degree of misfortune in their lives.
“From time to time, in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice,” he said. “I hope you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time, so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck again, from time to time, so that you will be conscious of the roll of chance in life, and understand that your success is not completely deserved, and the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you will be ignored, so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.”
“Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen,” he continued, urging graduates to learn from the low moments in life.
“Whether you benefit from them, or not, will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes,” he said.
Roberts went on to acknowledge the most common commencement advice was for speakers to tell graduates to be themselves. In true Supreme Court justice fashion, Roberts concurred with that opinion.
“You should understand what that means,” he said. “Unless you are perfect, it does not mean don’t make any changes. In a certain sense, you should not be yourself — you should try to become something better.”
Roberts said the “be yourself” advice comes from the notion of the value of resisting against conforming to external pressures. He encouraged the teenagers in the crowd to think about who they truly are. Roberts went on to juxtapose classic Greek philosophy with the slogan of Nike.
“The Greek philosopher Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living,’ and while ‘Just do it’ might be a good motto for some things, it’s not a good motto when it’s trying to figure out how to live your life that is before you,” he said.
Amid the larger themes, Roberts offered a few smaller tips — from smiling and greeting strangers to regularly handwriting notes to others. He even inserted some playful humor.
“You’ve been at a school with just boys,” he said. “Most of you will be going to a school with girls. I have no advice for you.”
Roberts finished the speech by quoting advice another classic philosopher, Bob Dylan, gave to his own son.
“When the winds of changes shift,” he said quoting the song, Forever Young. “May your heart always be joyful; may your song always be sung; and may you stay forever young.”