Address by Elizabeth Strout ’77
Unedited transcript, subject to change and correction, of Commencement 2010 remarks by the Elizabeth Strout ’77, who received the honorary degree Doctor of Letters.
When I knew a few months back that I was going to stand here and speak to you for just a few minutes, I went out and found different people who had just graduated from college in the last year, and I said, “What is it that you remember from your graduation speech?” And they said, “Nothing.” So that was a relief [laughter].
So I’m not aiming to speak to you in any way of anything that you will remember. I just want to speak directly to you, right now. What I want to say to you, right now, is that chances are really, really good that you are going to be all right.
In a few minutes the ceremony is over and you won’t be college students any more. And I personally have never understood why more is not made, said or written about the trauma of this kind of transition. No wonder people don’t remember is said to them today. Your identity is about to change in a really major way, and whether or not you are glad or sad to be leaving Bates today, the fact remains that this is done.
There’s a tradition at this school where every year in the winter people go on a very cold day and jump into that puddle called Lake Andrews. On no level when I was a student did that interest me. But it did occur to me today that today is kind of a big-deal Puddle Jump day. And I still say that the chances are that you are going to be all right.
Here’s what I advise to you. Be open to your friends because they are the ones who are going to pull you out. Stay especially close to those who make you laugh. Be open to those who seem like they are so different they’ll never be friends. They’re the ones who will teach you what you can’t even imagine you don’t know.
Remember that how you live your life matters. I know a doctor who will never come forward on an airplane if they ask if there is a doctor available. She says, “Well, you never know what diseases you might catch. You might also get caught up on some sort of law suit.” That’s one way to live, and I think that you all have to make your own personal and professional relationships with how you live your life. On the other hand, when I was driving up here just two days ago, we passed by a man who was lying across the other side of the Maine Turnpike on his back, on his back on the grass with his arms spread. It seemed from what we could see that it wasn’t an accident but rather probably the man had felt ill and pulled over, and there he was lying. The ambulance had not yet arrived, but what struck me what how many people had already stopped their cars and were running to this man with expressions of earnest and really deep concern.
So really, the main thing that I want to say to you today is that the best part of what waits for you is that liberating prize of life, those remarkable moments when we understand that we are not the most important person in the world. That man on the side of the road is. The person on the airplane suffering is. Our children are, our parents are as they age, our loved ones are. Everyone is the most important person in the world. And I think it is your responsibility to become larger as you get older and not get smaller. Don’t become one of those people who end up complaining all the time, whose very face reveals years of accumulated bitterness. That choice is actually yours.
My college roommate and I, when we lived together in Hacker House sophomore year, used to wash our face at night in the bathroom and discuss everything that happened during the day. I can remember how many times she said to me, “Well, Strout, no matter what: You gotta admit, life is too interesting to miss.” And she was right: It really is.
So, stay present. Endure it. Celebrate it. In a lot of ways your future won’t be at all what you imagine, and in many ways it will be. But go ahead and jump today. Take care of each other, and get ready to be bigger. And remember that life takes time. So look forward to that relief of not being the most important person in the world, and you really will be all right.