Sterling K. Brown’s 2023 Commencement address

Award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown delivered the 2023 Commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis on May 15, encouraging graduates to follow their inner voice. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Sterling K. Brown delivered the 2023 Commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis on May 15 at Francis Olympic Field. Below are his prepared remarks.

Class of 2023, you did it! The hard work, the late nights, study groups, office hours, tutoring, et cetera has brought you to this long-awaited day. You are graduates! And while this chapter of your formal education has ended, the next chapter of your life awaits! After all, this isn’t the ‘it’s over’ speech. This is a commencement address. This is the beginning of something new, and I’m sure many of you are wondering, ‘what’s next?’

Some of you will be continuing in your education. Doctors will be going into residency, lawyers will be studying for the bar, but for many of you, it’s a bit more open ended. And the question can be a wee bit unsettling. ‘What the hell am I going to do with my life?’

I’ve been there. And the only reassuring thing I can tell you, after having been out of school for over 20 years now, is: I’m still there! I ask myself the same dadgum question every day: ‘What am I going to do now?’

You see, impermanence is the natural state of the universe. Everything changes, all the time. Sometimes those changes are so imperceptible we’re not always conscious of them. But nothing stays the same forever. Whether that change is perceived as positive or negative is a determination left purely to the observer. Two people can observe the same event (i.e. a presidential election), and walk away from it feeling very differently.

This fact of impermanence is something we’re all aware of. ‘The only thing that’s constant in this world is change. All good things must come to an end.’ Yadda, yadda, yadda. If this is so, then why do we so frequently face change with resistance? Because we love the familiar! Routine is comforting. Knowing what to expect, and when to expect it, throughout the course of your day — the habitual becomes a sanctuary, a safe place. And for the past several years, that’s exactly what WashU has been for you. This has been your home.

And it’s good to be home, right? I know it is for me. I’m home right now. This is my city, folks! Born and bred. I’m straight outta Barnes Hospital, yo! Lived in Olivette from 0-18, and graduated from MICDS (in case any of you didn’t know the answer to this oh-so-St. Louis question). My family and friends, whom I only get to see a couple of times a year, are here supporting me today, and it feels real good! Thanks for being here, fam!

Being on this campus, having been asked to speak to you all today, feels exceptionally good. This school — and Imma say this quietly so no one else gets jealous — is the academic jewel of St. Louis. Everywhere I go in these United States, when I tell them that I’m from St. Louis, they inevitably ask me two questions; 1. Are you a Cardinals fan? (Answer — of course, even though this is a tough season) And 2. Did you go to WashU? And sadly, while the answer to that question is no, I can tell them that I went to ‘The WashU of the West.’

(I’ve actually never said that before, but for the purposes of this speech, let’s pretend I have. And since you’ve been so kind to bestow this honorific on me, I’ll definitely use it in the future.)

And my mom really, really wanted me to apply to WashU. ‘You know it’s one of the top universities in the country, don’t you?’

And of course I did. I took classes on this campus summer between my junior and senior year as a part of the Inroads St. Louis internship program. People at my high school for whom BC Calculus was not enough, came here to take advanced mathematics classes. And given that my undergrad  (aka The WashU of the West) didn’t start until late September, I kicked it real hard on this campus! And I can say from personal experience, y’all know how to have a good time!

So why didn’t I apply? In short, I was ready for a change. I was ready to leave the crib, and experience something new. And I’m really glad that I did. You see, until I left home, I naively believed that the way in which I was raised was the only way in which you could be raised in order to have a successful future. Let me explain what I mean by this.

My mother, Aralean Brown, is a God-fearing woman. Jesus Christ is her Lord and savior, and she most certainly believes that if you spare the rod, you will most assuredly spoil the child. And to those of you who are unfamiliar with that bit of scripture, basically, she believes in beating butts! Corporal punishment. And folks, if you weren’t raised this way, talk to your friends who were — we love trading war stories about who got it the worst. What kind of belt/switch/cord was used, how much you begged and pleaded with the arbiter of your punishment before the actual castigation began, and how you (quietly) cursed them under your breath after the licks had been doled out. We laugh! We think it’s absolutely hilarious! Even more so when we encounter someone who was raised differently and is utterly shocked by the intensity of our disciplinary rituals.

You’ll hear comments like, ‘Bro, if that was me, I don’t know if I would have allowed that.’ Allowed that — child please! If she was gonna allow me to stay in her house, I’d have to ‘allow’ her to beat my butt. That was the agreement, and it was a fair one.

‘Duuuude … what kind of relationship do you have with your mom, now?’ I love her! My mom is awesome! She’s playful, intelligent, loving, incredibly plain spoken — and she didn’t take any mess!

Lemme be clear. This is not a hard-knock story. My home was incredibly stable. I grew up in one house, went to one elementary school (shout out to Spoede), and one school for middle/high school. I grew up with both of my parents, until my father passed away. And even then, I was surrounded by family. My older brother and sister took turns coming back to live with us. And my aunts and uncles, grandmother, cousins, nieces and nephews were only minutes away. And everybody’s doing all right — and we all got our fair share of whoopin’s!

Point is, I thought you needed to be whipped/spanked in order to have discipline. In order to use ‘the good sense that God has given you.’ And even morse so, I thought if you didn’t have God in your life, more specifically, if you had not accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior, then you were doomed to burn in a lake of fire for all of eternity — and I would pray for your immortal soul. Because that is the Christian thing to do.

Now, however, by virtue of having left home, the way in which I see the world has shifted. Or rather, I should say, it has expanded. I have met too many people of different backgrounds, religious or otherwise, and who have never had a finger laid upon them, to think that the way I was raised is the only path to achievement, or salvation — it’s just a way. I no longer concern myself with saving someone’s soul or feeling the need to proselytize. My only goal is to love you. To be present and share myself with you as fully as possible. And if you see something in my being that draws you in, if my conduct is reflective of the divine in some shape, form or fashion, then we can have a conversation.

The indoctrination of home can, often times, be at odds with the evolution of the soul, and it’s not until you leave that you truly discover what your own personal path is. You have to step outside of the comfort and convenience of that which is familiar and chart the ‘undiscovered country of discomfort’ until it becomes your new norm — or not.

You will discover that not everything is for you. You may only need to do Ayahuasca once to recognize that it’s not your jam! Or not.

You may discover that your soul is as spiritually fed at a mosque, or a synagogue, in a theater, or in nature, as it is in church. Or not.

You may discover that ‘your people,’ the individuals with whom you share the most common ground, aren’t just of your ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, gender or sexual orientation. They may or may not share a similar occupation or hobbies. But for me, my only concern is whether or not the company I keep bears good fruit.

Galatians 5:22, 23 defines the fruit of the spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

In Matthew 7:16, Jesus says, ‘Ye shall know them by their fruit.’

You may discover that there is just as much hypocrisy inside the church, as there is love outside of it. Or not.

At the end of the day, you may discover that everything with which you were raised, is perfect for you, and exactly what you wish to instill with in your own children, if and when that is a path you choose to follow. But by virtue of having taken it out into the world, and holding it up against other modalities, you have the privilege of knowing concretely that your life and the way in which you live it are perfectly designed for you, and never having to wonder whether there is a better way — or, just, another way that is just as good.

And if you can’t test it, if you feel as if the choices you’ve made that govern the way in which you live your life are beyond scrutiny, self or otherwise, then you may wish to question how strong is the foundation on which you’ve built your life.

Now, I’m sure many of you have already begun this journey of exploration while here at WashU. Many of you have already left your homes to discover St. Louis, and even those of you who stayed in the Midwest have inevitably met people from many different walks of life. You are actively bearing witness to how many different paths lead to the same destination. And while your time here has now come to an end, I wish to gently encourage you to never stop acquainting yourself with the unknown. And whatever fear that may accompany that initial foray into the wilderness, replace it with curiosity, and it becomes infinitely less daunting. It is my experience that you will find what you are looking for, be it help or hindrance. Seek after the light, and while you may not always know where you going, your path will always be illuminated.

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu says, ‘At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.’ If any of you have ever experienced moments of stillness, when you feel in tune with nature and the cacophony of modernity has been turned down to a minimum, you will unequivocally know what Lao Tzu is referring to. There is a still small voice which gently whispers to you the direction in which you should go. Call it intuition, spirit or God. What you call it is not as important to me as to whether or not you choose to listen to it. My theory is that it tells us exactly what we need to do, and we’re the only ones that know what it’s saying. And it is this internal hearing that allows for the outward exploration I’ve been speaking about.

Many of us come to college for different reasons. We want to give ourselves the best chance for economic success, to gain a broad-based liberal arts education so we can be an informed citizen of the world, to immerse ourselves within a particular trade or field of study, etc. For me, the goal of higher education is the same overriding goal I have for my life. And that is to become the next best version of myself. And you’re the only one who can know what that is. If you give yourself the time and the space to listen to what is already inside of you.

Since I was 14 years old, I loved acting. Didn’t think it was a practical pursuit, but I loved it. I was way too pragmatic to think that I was gonna go to “The WashU of the West” to become a starving artist. I had an internship at the Fed here in St. Louis through Inroads, I had great grades in math and economics, and all roads lead to a very stable life in corporate America. And the whole time everyone around me thought I was making all the right choices for my life, my still small voice would say to me every time I did a play, ‘That’s better, isn’t it?’ My soul would become alive every time I was on stage, and my grades would actually get better. I had to hear the message several times before I actually took it seriously. It took some time before the internal voice of ‘knowing’ outweighed the external voices of expectancy.

Listening to your soul can, at times, be a very isolating experience. Or rather, it may isolate you from some, and unite you with several others. I can tell you all right now, that not every member of family co-signs everything that I’ve said here today. I’m ‘Hollywood’ now, baby! I talk about different religions and philosophers, I like goat cheese on salads, some are probably bewildered that I don’t beat my kids, and I’m pretty sure that most of them didn’t get my Ayahuasca reference! And that’s OK. Because they don’t have to agree with me about every little thing for them to love me, or for me to love them. And that my friends, is freedom. A freedom that comes more easily with the passage a time, but a freedom I hope you can grant yourselves sooner rather than later. Represent your home well, but you can’t live your life to please them, especially if it is at odds with that knowing which is internal.

So, what’s next?  We continue to mine the depths of the soul, as we explore the vastness of the universe. We replace fear with curiosity, knowing that growth requires discomfort. And we step away from home, knowing that you will always be welcomed back.

Thank you, Class of 2023, for allowing me to speak with you today, and congratulations on a job well done!


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