Remarks to Bishop’s University Class of 2015
Chancellor, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, members of the Platform Party, graduating students, families and friends, thank you for the honor of receiving a degree from Bishop’s University and for the privilege of sharing in this day of celebration. Since I arrived on campus yesterday, I have felt a strong kinship between the culture and values of Bishop’s and those of my home institution, Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Thank you for your extraordinary hospitality and for the invitation to become part of the Bishop’s community.
One of the major movies that came out this past year was “Into the Woods,” an adaptation of the 1986 Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.
“Into the Woods” tells the tale of a baker and his wife, desperate to conceive a child, who head into the forest in search of four objects that will break the spell of the wicked witch – played brilliantly by Meryl Streep — who has made them barren. They must find a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. In their quest they cross paths with refugees from other fairy tales — Jack of Beanstalk fame, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella.
The story draws its energy and power from the age-old dialectic between structure — the mundane routines of daily life — and chaos, symbolized by the woods. The woods are dark and scary, and full of danger. The characters lose their way, stumble on obstacles real and metaphorical, grow disheartened, and yet somehow find the courage to persevere, to stay focused, and to draw strength from the solidarity of fellow wanderers. Eventually they stumble back into the light finding both themselves and their place in the world.
So why am I telling you all this? What does this story, “Into the Woods” have to do with you and this grand occasion?
Here’s the deal. I see the twenties, more than any other period of life, as a time of wandering in the wilderness. Except for those of you who will go directly onto some form of graduate or professional school, this day marks the point at which you depart the familiar territory of this beautiful and navigable campus and head into the woods — with all the adventure, danger, and uncertainty they represent. For many of you this will be the first time that you have ventured seriously “off road,” daring to chart a course for yourself not set out by others. And if you’re like me in my twenties, I expect that, amidst the exhilaration of getting behind the wheel of your own life, you will feel moments of profound doubt, uncertainty, and loneliness.
I am here today to urge you to courage as you embark on this next phase of your lives and to suggest that your liberal education has equipped you with some powerful tools of navigation for your journey. Let me explain.
First, you are well-equipped to deal with ambiguity — the murkiness of the woods. If you’ve learned anything from your liberal education, you’ve learned that hypotheses are tentative and experiments may prove them wrong; that data sets tend to fight back with inconvenient elements or a lack of pattern; that history and literature draw their richness and power from the fundamental contradictions of the human condition. With this understanding comes the realization that life is less about finding clarity and much more about finding meaning.
Two years ago, when my daughter was graduating from college, I asked her if her friends who had not yet found jobs were concerned. “No,” she replied, “they’re not concerned about not having a job, they’re concerned about not having a narrative.”
Here’s the trick. The impressive narratives you see in the lives of the adults you admire emerge only in retrospect. Somehow, each one of them got from twenty, to thirty, to forty, to fifty, to sixty, and whatever the twists and turns of their chosen paths, they, by definition, emerge with a narrative that, looking backwards, connects the dots. More often than not, the narrative has a strong sense of coherence, sometimes, even, an aura of inevitability.
The problem with living your own life, however, is that you don’t know what it looks like from the front end. It has no shape. Your path is not carved out. This can be scary and anxious-making, and the challenge is not to panic early on and grab for premature clarity at the expense of more durable meaning, which is different for every person. As Joseph Campbell, scholar of comparative religion and myth, famously said, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”
Which brings me to my second point. We’ve all heard the Chinese saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Yet, at any given point, how do you know if it’s the right step for you?
Some of you who have already lined up a job may be asking yourselves this very question. On one hand, I’m sure you feel huge relief that you have some promise of economic viability — not to mention a snappy narrative to share with eager relatives and your friends’ parents at graduation parties. On the other hand, if you’re honest with yourselves, you may secretly worry about the utterly arbitrary nature of the path on which you’re about to embark. How many of you, for instance, dreamed your whole life of doing research for investor calls, or being a receptionist in a non-profit organization, or rummaging through piles of documents in a law firm? At some level, these choices may leave you asking yourself, “Is this what I went to college for?” “Isn’t work supposed to give me a sense of meaning and purpose in life?”
Let’s consider again the story. The Baker and his wife set out into the woods and become single-mindedly consumed with securing the most arbitrary set of objects imaginable. Yet, they are carrying out these tasks for a larger purpose — conceiving a child — that they see as conferring the deepest possible meaning for their lives.
At this early stage in your lives, the relationship between near-term choices and long-term meaningfulness is often much less clear. So the question is, how do you square the arbitrariness of your first step — or for that matter any given next step you may take along the way — with the goal of finding work over a lifetime that aligns with your deepest interests, brings you joy, and allows you to contribute to purposes larger than yourself?
One way to square the circle is, again, to be found in the deep lessons of a liberal education. The kind of education that you receive here at Bishop’s teaches you not just “stuff” — biology, chemistry, mathematics, economics, psychology, sociology, or whatever else you may have majored in — it also motivates and equips you to live an “examined life,” to “live with the question of how to live.”
If you take seriously this notion of “living with the question of how to live,” you realize that navigating the woods has much less to do with the specific path or paths you may carve out for yourself over the course of a lifetime than with the spirit in which you undertake the journey. Each step you take along your own journey is a step you will learn from. You will learn practical skills – like how to drag yourself out of bed in the morning and get suited up for work, how to deal with difficult people and ill-defined assignments, how to cope with not being valued in an enterprise, or, sometimes, not being seen at all. You may learn, as well, that whatever you’re doing at any given moment is the farthest thing from what you want to do with your life. But if you approach whatever work you have chosen with focus and diligence and reflection, you will advance along a path — and it will be one that is authentically yours, not because of the specific steps you have chosen, but because of the way you are making the choices and processing the experiences.
Mark Twain is credited with the pronouncement that “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” I have always found this statement misleading at best, and paralyzing at worst. Few people — Yo Yo Ma and Einstein notwithstanding — are born with the kind of outsized gift that manifests itself early and unambiguously as the defining direction of one’s life. For most of us ordinary mortals, we find our paths by means of something a lot closer to trial and error. The logic and integrity of our lives emerge not from a sudden epiphany, but from a commitment to making authentic choices. German poet Rainer Maria Rilke puts it elegantly: “The point is to … [l]ive the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Which brings me to my final point. But first, back again to our story.
After a brief period when it looked like everyone was going to live happily ever after, the kingdom was besieged by a woman giant seeking to avenge the death of her husband, who had crashed to his doom when Jack chopped down the beanstalk. Quaking the earth, shattering buildings, and slaying people with every step, she sent the baker, his wife, Cinderella, Jack, and Little Red Riding Hood back into the woods in total chaos. Faced with terror and confusion once again, each first looked for a scapegoat to appease the giant and save themselves. Eventually, however, they banded together and figured out a scheme to kill the giant and make their way to safety.
In the story, then, it wasn’t magic that saved the day, but human solidarity. The true superpower you have gained from your liberal education is the ability to make connections — to “connect the dots” in intellectual terms, making sense of yourself and the world. Much more important, I hope you have also gained the ability to connect deeply with your fellow human beings. The greatest gift of a liberal education is to equip you with both the tools and the motivation to enter sympathetically and imaginatively into the lives and concerns of others.
We had our commencement at Bates last week, and the sentiment pervading every conversation I had with students was the overpowering emotion they felt at the prospect of being parted from friends they had made over the past four years. Campuses like Bates and Bishop’s are the most powerful incubators ever devised for creating human connection through learning that occurs in a place and through the bonds of common experience.
I think we all understand the joy to be derived from these connections, but there is enormous power in them as well. The capacity to engage deeply with your fellow human beings – whether at a personal level or at a societal level in service of important causes — is one of the most effective tools you carry with you as you work to carve out your path through the woods. There will be times when you are unclear or anxious about what to do next, when you’re debating the “safe” choice versus the “exciting” choice, when you’re considering whether you can stand short term pain for long term gain. In these moments, rather than grasping for the false and premature clarity of someone else’s path, you have been given the insight and capacity, because of the education and experience that you have had here, to reach out for the conversation, or companionship, or encouragement — the solidarity — that will embolden you to stay on your own, authentic path.
E.E. Cummings once said, “It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.” And judging from my own experience, you’ll never stop needing that courage, as you will confront difficult passages throughout your life. At these moments, I hope you will feel the power of the education you have received here at Bishop’s — the patience to live with ambiguity as you search for answers, the imagination to see specific choices within a larger context, and the humility to reach out for help and solidarity when you’re tempted to give up on the project of building a life with its own distinctive sources of meaning.
Thank you for inviting me here today to share this wonderful moment with all of you. And safe travels!
[i] Joseph Campbell, http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/20105.Joseph_Campbell
[ii] Laozi, http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/a_journey_of_a_thousand_miles_begins_with_a_single_step
[iii] Jonathan Lear, “The Examined Life,” The New York Times, October 25, 1998.http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/25/reviews/981025.25lear2t.html.
[iv] Quote often attributed to Mark Twain. See Robyn Benson Dom, “Envisioning a Life of Health and Well-Being,” in No Mistakes! How You Can Change Adversity into Abundance (Texas: Hierophant Publishing, 2013).
[v] Rilke, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/717-be-patient-toward-all-that-is-unsolved-in-your-heart
[vi] William Cronon, “‘Only Connect…’: The Goals of a Liberal Education,” The American Scholar, Volume 67, No. 4 (Autumn 1998), retrieved fromhttp://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Cronon_Only_Connect.pdf.
[vii] Cummings, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/eecummin161593.html