Here's a transcript of the speech that I gave at high-school graduation on June 13, 2002. I decided, at the last minute, that I didn't like the version that was in the graduation program, so I changed it, and read that version instead. I guess once they ask you to make a speech, they can't very well unask you, when it turns out that your speech and the one they're expecting have noted differences. But heck, I wrote it when I had a 103 degree fever, so I can be excused for wanting to modify it after the fact. If parts of it seem obscure, it's because it is (not too many people got the humor, especially the Douglas Adams allusions).
Who am I? What is the purpose of everything? Is it really only Thursday? These are deep questions. These are, with one possible exception, all questions that we all wonder about rather a lot. Or if we aren't wondering about them just now, we have thought about them not too long ago. Or if we haven't done that either, I'm sure we will be thinking about them before too many more years have passed. Oh, and then there's the fact that these are all questions, without exception, which nobody has provided me any good and satisfying answers to. In fact, I'd wager, no such clear and generally accepted answers yet exist. Leastways, if they did, you'd think we'd all have heard of them by now.
Now it isn't as if people haven't asked these questions enough times. I bet that at least half of all the people who ever lived considered at least one of those three questions. Nor is it as if people haven't spent enough time thinking them over. Many of history's greatest minds did just that. Yet what answers have any of them left for us? Some decided, at length, to turn their interests elsewhere. Others, meanwhile, answered the questions in such a cryptic or unorthodox way that nobody could understand their answers, and so they were consigned to asylums, prisons, or the dustbin of history. Still others answered the questions completely and fully, but nobody who has lived since ever seemed to be able to agree as to what answer they really meant.
In his Hitchhiker's Guide trilogy, the late Douglas Adams tells of a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings. These beings decided, once and for all, to find the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything. So they built a gigantic supercomputer named Deep Thought. Deep Thought meditated for 4 1/2 billion years and finally announced that the answer was, in fact, 42. The creatures, who incidentally looked a lot like white mice, were rather disappointed, and realizing that they hadn't known what question they were asking to begin with, so an even bigger computer had to be built to find out what the actual question was. This computer was so large that it was frequently mistaken for a small planet. The mice named it Earth.
Of course, it seems bizarre that anyone would attempt to find the answer to a question which they do not really know to begin with, and even more bizarre that they should actually succeed. But even supposing they do succeed, what use is the answer without understanding the question? As the main character wonders, "42? What the dickens is that supposed to mean?" Sometimes answers aren't enough.
Questions, unlike answers, do have value on their own. A question is a starting point, like the road sign which bluntly states: Los Angeles 404 miles. Between the question and the answer lie an infinite number of potential routes, some of which do lead to the answer, some of which don't. Like the various roads to L.A., we find that there are actually many different ways of getting to the same answer. Some of the questions don't even have any answers. But how we go about trying to get there is entirely our choice. It is in trying to get to the answer that the more important questions become apparent from the others, because for those, the process of arriving at an answer is more useful than the actual answer itself. This is a fact which people who have driven to L.A. will agree with. Thus men who were never able to answer even their own questions were accounted great philosophers because of what they learned trying to answer difficult questions. Some of them even tried driving to L.A.
So what's the point, then? Well, the questions we ask will determine the issues that we will or won't face, the problems we will or won't concern ourselves with, and the lives we will or won't lead. What makes a place the type of place we want to live in? What makes it the type of place we can live in? Heck, what do we want to consider living? For the longest time, we've been the ones asked the questions, but other people have been doing the asking. That is about to end. Graduates, it's time for us to start asking the questions, but more than just asking, we have to demand answers too. How many of you remember asking something when you were younger only to receive the response: "because that's just the way it is." Well, the tables have turned. We can now do the asking as well as help with the answering. Let us ask the tough questions, but let us also try to come up with some of the tough answers. "Because that's the just way it is," just doesn't cut it any more.
And for the curious, the ultimate question of Life the Universe and Everything, to which the answer is 42, is "what do you get when you multiply six by nine?"