Charge to the
126th Commencement Exercises
May 28, 2004
This is my moment to bid you farewell, my successful sister-seniors
(soon to be alumnae) -- the bright-red class of 2004. And I wish I
could send you off with a smile and a carefree wave -- the joyful insouciant
launch you so richly deserve. What a pleasure it has been to see you
spread your wings and soar -- like the swan and the hawk we’ve
been watching this spring, as they’ve been watching us.
We’ll miss your passion and intelligence, so evident in your
academic achievements. And we’ll miss the collaborative spirit – the
gift for connection -- that we have especially valued in the work we’ve
done with many of you. You instinctively understood a necessity the
wider polity seems to have forgotten – that a commitment to democratic
principles in a diverse and interdependent community requires large
measures of forbearance and a willingness to work diligently to sustain
mutual trust and secure common ground. You brought a maturity to your
leadership – and an authenticity -- that we greatly admired and
will miss very much.
We’ll miss your sense of humor too, your flair for the flamboyant,
your penchant for whimsy and play. What fun we had with the quirky
Shakespeare marathon only you could have invented, and produced with
such panache. What fun you had far into the night before the last day
of classes, generating ideas for painting the campus red. Your favorite
idea -- a parting commentary on the administration -- was to envelope
the top of Galen Stone Tower in a tangle of red tape, visible from
miles around. And you did it! How, I’ll never know, and I suspect
I don’t want to. Someone (or ones) of you is brave, rash, or
I wish I could simply reciprocate and send you off with a light-hearted
joke. But that would dishonor the deeper work you have done with us,
and the deeper wisdom you have and are going to need. We are pausing
to take stock of the meaning of these four years, and I owe you the
honesty you have demanded of yourselves -- and of us. For the playfulness
that we have appreciated in you – and your constructive and upbeat
spirit -- have been part of your journey here, a vital and lovely part,
but not the whole story.
The other part has been the series of losses and shocks your class
has endured. Molly Thompson’s death over the summer of your first
year, and Nikki Atwell’s last year were two stunning blows to
the Class of 2004 that you have been very clear you do not want us
to forget. And we won’t. Nor will we forget the awful episodes
of terror around the world -- the 9/11 attacks just a week into your
sophomore year and the escalating cycles of violence ever since.
We cannot fully embrace this moment of high hope and celebration
without also acknowledging the burdens you have carried -- and the
reality that those burdens show no sign of abating soon. You arrived
here believing America stood for what is right and good. You leave – as
we all are – deeply shaken by the chaos in Iraq. The world you
inherit today is perilous and uncertain.
The juxtaposition of pain and joy that complicates this day for you
is the essence of life, I would argue, and, further, that facing
it with candor and
courage is the key to living life fully and well. We have a choice, we humans.
We can hold ourselves back from life in a vain effort to avoid its pain. Or,
in the words of the poet, Mary Oliver, we can make of our “one wild and
precious life something particular and real.”
On this your graduation day, then, I want to suggest to you that because of
the unusually tragic backdrop against which you have lived your college years,
because of the emotional highs and lows through which you have worked and walked
with such grace, your class, the Class of 2004, has been given an extraordinary
opportunity to practice what the Dalia Lama calls the art of happiness.
I’ve been contemplating this question of happiness all through this roller
coaster ride of a year. It was your classmate, Kristina Chan, who brought it
to my attention -- at our first private meeting in early September, president-to-president,
College Government and the College, both just back from a summer of readying
for another new beginning. I asked what she hoped her impact would be, as CG
president, expecting to hear a list of initiatives and goals. Without a moment’s
hesitation she answered, “maximum happiness.” There was in the
way she uttered those two words something that struck me then, quite viscerally,
as moving, deep, profound.
And so I’d like to suggest to you, as you prepare to move on, that you
take seriously the possibility that seeking happiness could be your goal – not
in a shallow or self-indulgent way, but as a sophisticated intellectual project,
worthy of your most disciplined thinking, as philosophers through the ages
have known it to be. This business of maximum happiness is a high-stakes proposition,
not only for individuals and the quality of their personal lives but also for
the public sphere and the ideal of a good society.
As the world’s great philosophical systems and religions attest – and
as we know from our own experience – reaching out to others in kindness
and empathy enhances inner peace. In fact, Aristotle defined happiness as “an
activity of the soul that expresses virtue.” Far from being a transitory
feeling or emotional state, happiness was, he believed, the culmination of
a life well lived, one guided by our reason, the one quality that makes us
human, that defines our shared human history and can shape our shared human
project. What could be more important, especially now?
Like everything else worth attaining, being happy involves serious work – learning
what you value, making difficult choices (none without costs), exercising self-discipline,
recognizing dissatisfaction as the springboard for motivation and yet not becoming
paralyzed by perfectionism and jealousy, understanding that there can be no
happiness without effort, at times even pain, and that the most reliable sources
of satisfaction are pursuits that have meaning and purpose through their intrinsic
If we take up life entitled, expecting all things to come our way, we court
disappointment and we miss out on gratitude. So I want to suggest to you today,
perhaps paradoxically, that the taste you have had here of loss, and grief,
and disillusionment -- much as I wish we could have shielded you from it --
actually offers you a special opportunity to walk through your lives with humility,
amazed at your good fortune, grateful for your blessings, appreciative of every
moment you are able to enjoy. “If you miss the joy of it,” Robert
Louis Stevenson wrote, “you miss it all.”
Finally, I have learned that you will miss the joy unless you cultivate your
inner resources and develop a rich inner dialogue. Discovering how to be happy
requires deciding how you want to live your whole life – who you want
to be. And that requires thinking, not just feeling, and thinking of a very
deep sort. Only when we stop, put aside our striving, judging, collecting,
competing, coveting (all the scripts being projected on us by a materialist
culture) – unplug the machines of multitasking of which you are such
consummate masters – only when we learn to dwell for a moment in the
moment, can we create spaces for the kind of contemplation through which the
joy of it will break through to us.
The joy of it comes from our gratitude and it wells up from within. Gratitude
doesn’t come attached to things, and it can’t be willed or faked.
But if we can learn to sit in respectful silence and wait patiently to see
what wants to emerge, it’s been my experience that, more often than not,
it’s gratitude that has been waiting for me to shut up, slow down, and
listen to my heart.
So, my wise and courageous seniors of whom so much will be expected, we send
you out now into a fractured world, with our hopes, our admiration, our pride
and our love. Before you go, I want to invite you to sit with me and each other,
and with your families and friends and faculty under this big white tent for
a few precious moments of silent reflection -- in stillness and in community
one more time all together -- in memory of Molly and Nikki, in appreciation
for all you have brought to this college, and to one another, for all you have
learned here, in gratitude to all who helped bring you to this point, and in
awe of who you are becoming.
And I want to begin our moment of silence with a poem by Pablo Neruda, called,
appropriately, “Keeping Quiet.”
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
This one time upon the earth,
let’s not speak any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness.
The fishermen in the cold sea
would do no harm to the whales
and the peasant gathering salt
would look at his torn hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire,
victories without survivors,
would put on clean clothing
and would walk alongside with their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing.
What I want shouldn’t be confused
with final inactivity;
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.
If we weren’t unanimous
about keeping our lives so much in motion,
if we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.
Now I will count to twelve and
you keep quiet and I’ll go.