Good morning, seniors, nearly graduates, parents, teachers, alumni, Trustees, and those joining us from around the world through livestream. Seniors, look out at this crowd and recognize how many people have invested time, care, energy, and love into your lives. Think for a moment about others who have done so but who cannot be here today. Realize that you would not have reached this milestone and would not inhabit your current versions of yourselves without their support and guidance. Why don’t you blow them a kiss and give them a round of applause?
We have reached this momentous day at last, a day so powerful that we don this strange apparel which was even cooler than Mekhai’s pink pants in the 1200s. In our Senior Dinner, we took a fond look back, and now it is time to peer into the future, which can be both exciting and unsettling at the same time.
There are twin journeys you will soon embark upon. In one, you set forth to a new location with a huge range of opportunities, a move that will require some adjustment. You will cast off the entire structure of the life you are accustomed to. You will bid farewell to your family and friends and pets, and immerse yourself in new daily schedules, live in a small, basic room with a stranger, eat food that’s probably not very good, encounter a series of classes that may be daunting, with professors who may or may not offer the sort of personal relationship you have found here. You will get sick – whether its flu, colds, strep, Covid or something else – in the germy bouillabaisse of the dorms. Remember when you were seeking the perfect fit? Well here it is. And yet, you will find your way. You will make new friends, deepen and broaden your learning, find new clubs and activities to interest you. You will make it that great fit – in fact, the fit is more about your efforts than about the college’s offerings. Some of you will be immediately happy and adjust quickly; for others it will take longer and you will have moments where you doubt you have made the right choice. But you will find your way.
The second journey is internal, and it is in essence a spiritual one. Let me share with you a poem by Wendell Berry, called A Spiritual Journey:
“…the world cannot be discovered by a journey
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.”
In her recent book See No Stranger, Valerie Kaur tells us that “home is the space within us and between us where we feel safe—and brave. It is not a physical space as much as it is a field of being.” You will make a new home at school, without giving up the home of your childhood, by engaging with others to create that sense of belonging.
While you are growing accustomed to your new life externally, you will continue the slow work of self-knowledge, of authentic selfhood, of becoming truly comfortable in your own skin, and you will deepen your sense of purpose. That is the more fundamental journey, because the more you progress in it, the more certain you can be of handling well the endless variety of challenges thrown in your path on the external journey, and the better you will be at elevating others. The more you understand and accept yourself, the more you will be able to do the same for others. And whatever your vocation, I hope you will come to know that your avocation, your calling, is to elevate others.
That calling begins in a circle of those closest to you, but extends to people you have never met. You do not have to change the world over night, which is a good thing because it is highly unlikely you can do that. But you can change the world you live in, in your families, your classes, your clubs and activities, other institutions you are part of. Lasting change can come from “small pockets of people coming together to inhabit a new way of being.” On that foundation, you can then address broader societal concerns. “All change, even very large and powerful change, begins when a few people start talking with one another about something they care about.” (Margaret Wheatley)
We have built a society that prioritizes rights over responsibilities, the individual over their community, those we define as “us” over those we have defined as “other.” Since the industrial revolution, that has led to dramatic economic growth, the accumulation by some of great wealth and power, but also to great inequality, alienation, violence, and destruction of the earth, all of which have accelerated in your lifetimes. We have also been fragmented by the internet, which instead of delivering its promises of new ways to connect has cost us much of what we need to live in right relationship with one another – memory, meaning, thinking, caring, personal connection.
We need to explore our interdependence with other humans and with our environment and we need to value those connections more highly. That knowledge will come more from your internal journey than from your external one, and it will come to shape the external one. The paradox is that to know yourself better, you need to listen carefully to others.
“When we choose to wonder about people we don’t know, when we imagine their lives and listen for their stories, we begin to expand the circle of those we see as part of us. Listening moves us closer, it helps us become more whole, more healthy, more holy. Not listening creates fragmentation, and fragmentation is the root of all suffering.” That’s from a social commentator named Margaret J. Wheatley, someone worth reading.
Your quest does not need to be monastic. I hope all of you find success in a field of your interest and are rewarded for your talents and hard work. And in fact, the practice of listening and developing relationships will be essential to your success in nearly any field. But I hope you will commit to a goal beyond that as well, which is to use the power that success brings and the intelligence you build to take actions that will help elevate others. Nicole, in her speech at Senior Dinner, spoke of your power as a citizen, and rightfully urged you all to vote and to insist on the changes you wish to see in the world.
In relation to this, I recommend to you a podcast by Baratunde Thurston, comedian and social commentator. His podcast is called How To Citizen. He uses citizen as an action verb, which I love. He explores things you can do to make your world better, beyond just voting (though that is important too). His broad subjects are how to be a good member of society, how to participate in society, relate to others, understand the power we have collectively, and apply that power for the good of the many, not the few.
Though much of my focus today is about how to conduct yourself in the new circles you form as you enter college, I can’t fully ignore the bigger picture. I cannot on this day extol the need to be a good citizen, a positive participant in society, and ignore the historic hearings that began to be broadcasted on television last night. I remember when I was young watching my parents watch the Watergate hearings. I couldn’t follow them really, and the talking heads on our 13” black and white screen were not compelling, but I knew something big was going on. Now, debuting coincidentally on my late father’s birthday, something big is going on and you need to pay attention. These hearings are pursuing questions of profound historic significance. There will be counterarguments, and you should pay attention to them too. These hearings and the responses to them will be consequential, and you need to watch them to come to informed opinions, even if you think your opinions are fully formed already. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, you should watch them. Even if, maybe especially if, you largely choose to avoid political battles in our capital, you should watch them. I won’t tell you what to think about them, but only that you should think about them.
Stepping back to a smaller scale, I encourage you to listen as closely to your opponents as to those with whom you agree. Your commitment to understanding them may begin to change them. You may see that their perspective is driven by wounds that are not immediately apparent, and your efforts to understand them may encourage them to open their minds. Listening does not grant equal legitimacy to all perspectives. But it does grant them humanity—and preserves our own.
So beginning in your new world, and then extending to a wider world, make the effort to listen to people you don’t immediately agree with and resist the urge to judge them hastily. At the same time, build rapport with people who see the world in similar ways as you and work with them to citizen, to make your world a kinder and wiser place.
Institutions and societies are usually slow to change, and when they do change there is often a backlash. But do not lose faith. In my lifetime, for example, there has been enormous change in the acceptance of people with a variety of gender identities and sexual orientations. That battle is not won, but the change is dramatic, and much of it has been driven by conversations in small groups, at the individual level. Hearts have been changed and minds have been opened, and the more that happens the broader and deeper the change will become. In that process it becomes clear once again that “it’s not differences that divide us. It’s our judgments about others that do.” (Margaret J. Wheatley)
So, my charge to you is to deepen your sense of authentic selfhood, so you can move past self to serve this world and help to heal it, to seek connection and understanding, and to learn how truly necessary we are to each other. No matter what is going on around us, we can attend to the people in front of us, to the issues confronting us and there, we offer what we can. As the writer Margaret J. Wheatley notes, “We can offer insight and compassion. We can be present. We can stay and not flee. We can be exemplars of the best human qualities. That is a life well lived, even if we didn’t save the world.”
Congratulations to the Class of 2022. As you set out on your journeys, may you go forth with courage, may you do the work of justice, may you speak the truth, may you find joy and peace, and may you be the light that blesses others.