Stoicism tells us that negative moments in our lives are teachers: We can learn how to be decent when we are treated indecently; the obstacle to getting something becomes the way to get that thing. Everything that happens to us—good, bad, ugly—becomes an opportunity to improve.
Recently, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, gave a high school commencement speech, at the school his kid attends. More often than not, these speeches aren’t worth paying attention to; they tend to repeat the same themes (“Seize the day!” “Don’t be afraid!” “Follow your dreams.”) and with good reason: it’s not a bad idea for students at the threshold of their lives to hear those messages. Justice Roberts went in a different direction—a Stoic direction. You can read the whole speech here, but the paragraph that would have made Seneca and Marcus Aurelius proud is the following:
Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. 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. I hope that 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 role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that 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’ll 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. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.
So today we wish you the same….as any good Stoic would.