Wisdom cries aloud in the streets (Proverbs 8), but she tends to lie low at commencement ceremonies. While valedictorians and guest speakers drone on about Daring to dream or Reaching for the stars, American youth are tuning out in football stadiums across the nation. They’ve heard this all their lives; all they’re waiting for now is the moment to break loose and throw their tasseled caps in the air. And then what?
They’ve been talked at ever since toddlerhood: Don’t run into the street; Be all you can be; It’s up to you to make a difference; Pick your clothes up off the floor; Think critically. The ideal education is supposed to be a dialogue but usually isn’t. We grownups can’t help it—there’s so much to communicate, and what seemed like lots of time 18 years ago is now frightfully short. And then it’s over; a legally adult man or woman is walking out the door. Wait! There’s one more thing I have to tell you—
“My son, keep your father’s commandment and forsake not your mother’s teaching.
Bind them on your heart always; tie them around your neck.
When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down they will watch over you;
and when you wake, they will talk with you …” (Proverbs 6:20-22)
To a lot of teens and young adults, this sounds like the kiss of death: Mom and Dad hanging around forever, whispering words of advice. The wisdom of the elders is usually perceived as rigid, antiquated, and insufficient to the moment. But Proverbs 6 presents something more fluid and alive. Wisdom is not a chunk of marbled principle, a permanent obstacle to conform to or sneak around. Wisdom walks and talks and watches; as you observe it (or her, to speak in Proverbial terms), she observes you. “And when you wake, [she] will talk with you.” Talk with, not at.
Your parents’ duty was to introduce you to Wisdom; yours is to get to know her for yourself. This will be an ongoing conversation, for as you grow and change you should get to know her better and better. Wise parents understand this, but even the wisest parents often make this mistake: They expect Wisdom to look like a lot them. They’ve come to know her under their own peculiar circumstances, over the course of their own history. She has been good to them, and they desire that she be good to you. For that to occur (they think) it’s probably best that you look like them. As much as possible.
But true Wisdom finds you where you are, and takes you beyond.
For Wisdom to be truly wise, she must talk with you—meaning, you have to talk back. This can lead to disagreements with your parents or family friends or teachers or anyone you’ve grown to respect—and sometimes with Wisdom herself. Those disagreements should be mostly about appearances, because she doesn’t look the same to everyone; her face, her clothes, the terminology she uses will vary. But not her heart; at heart she never changes for anyone. Ironically, the best way to learn what abides is by discovering what’s different.
“Challenge authority” is a popular piece of commencement advice. Question everything. As pernicious as that counsel can be, there’s a grain of truth in it. Wisdom must be challenged, and truth must be owned: studied, felt, experimented on, tested and proved, each individual for himself. Truth can stand up to this—that’s one reason it’s truth. But don’t just challenge Wisdom. Talk with her.
And now can we drop the literary device? Proverbs 3:13-20 includes some haunting echoes in its description of Wisdom: of greater gain than silver or gold (Colossians 2:3), the source of illumination (John 1:4), the path of peace (Colossians 1:20), a tree of life (John 15:5), the agent of earth’s creation (Colossians 1:16). Who does that remind you of? Not your mother’s Savior, not your father’s King, but yours.