Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

What’s holding you back? Gravity. A graduation day message.

College graduation is our culture’s ultimate celebration of freedom and independence. Official parchment in hand, graduates toss aside their cap like the fetters of the past. The commencement speaker opens with Dr. Suess and closes with an optimistic charge, “Your future lies before you!”

However, how many of those graduates will actually be different 20 years down the road? How many will escape their past and create a different future?

Very few.

Why? A little force called Gravity.


While we understand gravity in its basic form (i.e. when I drop something it falls to the ground), it is one of the more difficult physical laws to explain. Sir Isaac Newton put it this way:

Proposition VII Theorem VII. That there is a power of gravity tending to all bodies, proportional to the several quantities of matter which they contain.

In more plain English, gravity is an attraction between bodies, objects and particles—one object pulls another object towards itself. The bigger the object, the stronger its gravity. So, in the case of the Earth, it pulls at you with enough force to keep you grounded to the dirt while spinning and swirling through space. Bigger planets have an even greater pull. Smaller bodies, like the moon, have less.

This “gravitational pull” is what keeps the dancing planets of our solar system from flinging off into the recesses of the universe. It keeps us grounded.

What does gravity have to do with graduation?

I think there is a form of gravity that acts upon us when we try to move away from our past. This gravity is found all around us—in our culture and community. It is pulling on you right now. You can’t see it, but its there.

Cultural Gravity

Every culture has a set of agreed upon values. For example, in America, we value freedom. We are, after all, the land of the free. We hate any king or government that tries to impose itself upon our freedom. If we want to walk outside naked in the pouring rain, by golly, who’s to tell us we can’t.

In Bosnia, where I live, people value relationships. Coffee is not a drink, it is a communal experience. There is no such thing as “too much time” with friends. And if a friend needs something—anything—you go out of your way to help them.

People tend to value what their culture values. Of course, you don’t realize you have those values until you leave your culture. Just send an American to Bosnia and watch the awkward reaction when he tries to leave after (gasp) only one hour of coffee. Or send a Bosnian to America and see the frantic look on her face trying to keep pace with her busy friends.

Cultural gravity holds us to our home culture.

Tribal Gravity

We are also members of smaller units within our culture. Most people, these days, call them tribes. Hipster. Jock. Goth. Ivy League. Our tribe has its own gravitational pull. It works to maintain the stability of the group.

What happens when a hipster trades in his fixie bike for a suit and four-door sedan? Or when the starting defensive tackle wants to study on the weekend instead of celebrating the team’s win?


The tribe resists the change. They call him a nerd. They label her a sell-out. They pull back towards the center.

Why do you think that so many ground-breaking artists lived and worked alone? It was the only way they could escape the conventions and rules of the artistic community.

Our tribes exert a self-preserving gravity that can either keep us grounded or hold us back from the change we desire.

Family Gravity

Perhaps the most powerful gravitational force in life comes from family—the power of both nature and nurture.

The 2002 Tom Hanks film, Road to Perdition, is the story of one man fighting for his son against the gravitational pull of family history. Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hit man for the mob. His only desire is for his son, Michael Jr., not to follow in his footsteps. But the gravity is strong.

When Michael Jr. picks up a gun in one of the final scenes of the movie, the audience is left wondering, “Is it possible to escape the past?”

For some, the past pulls too hard.

In many ways, Michael Jr. is fortunate. His father wants him to escape the family gravity. How much harder is it for those whose parents are the source of that gravitational pull?

Family surrounds us. Family is in us. And for those who want a different future, it is hard to escape.

Escape Velocity

In order for a rocket to make it to space, it must defeat earth’s gravitational pull. The speed required for such a success is called escape velocity.

The same is true in life. It is possible to escape the gravity of the past, but it takes a tremendous amount of focus and velocity. It’s about as hard as putting a man on the moon, but it’s doable.

If you are fighting gravity, the best plan is to spend time around the people, tribes, and cultures you want to emulate. Use their gravity as a force in your favor. Your future looks like the people around you. Make sure you surround yourself with the right ones.

Some rocket fuel also helps.

So, graduates, your future is before you. But unless you apply some focused velocity, it will look just like your past. If this seems like a lot of work, it is. It’s called life. Welcome to the party.

What gravitational force is strongest in your life?
What is your rocket fuel? Let me know in the comments.

A little bonus. John Mayer, Gravity.

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