Welcome and Remarks at Class of 2020 Commencement Celebration, June 4, 2022
Good morning, you wonderful people. Welcome to the long-delayed, in-person, three-dimensional, and richly deserved celebration of the Class of 2020! I am so very happy that you will finally have your opportunity to participate in the time-honored ritual of walking across the stage in this iconic spot on the campus we love. There are 464 graduates in the Class of 2020, of which two thirds of you are here this morning, along with your parents, families, and friends, who have traveled back to Bates this weekend to share in the celebration. Families, we know that you, too, have waited a long time for this moment, and we so appreciate your making the effort to be here.
Before we begin, I would like to ask that we take a moment to remember two of your classmates, Adam Dohn and Torri Santo Pelletier, who have passed away since your graduation in 2020. Adam’s parents and brother are here with us today. Let us observe a moment of silence to honor the memories of Adam and Torri.
As I was thinking about seeing you guys today, I cast my mind back to the second week in March, 2020, when the chain of events that has led us to this moment began in earnest. By Monday of that week, colleges and universities across the country began sending students home, and our NESCAC peers followed suit, day by day, as we went through the week. On Wednesday, March 11, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The next day, Broadway shut down, the NBA canceled its season, and the Smithsonian announced that it would be closing to the public. We held our announcement until Friday of that week — the 13th, as it happened — to make sure that we were ready to assist students with the sudden need to make travel plans and secure housing arrangements if they were unable to return home.
I pulled out the communications I wrote, so authoritatively, that first week, and I was struck by how little any of us knew or understood at the time. For example, in a paragraph from my initial announcement addressed specifically to “Seniors” — in other words, all of you here today — I acknowledged how brutally disappointing this turn of events was for your class, in particular. I then went on to say: “Please know that we are explicitly deferring any decisions regarding Commencement at this point. I very much hope that it will be possible by the end of May to welcome you and your families back to celebrate your accomplishments and receive your diplomas in person.”
Well, we all know that didn’t happen, but I am so pleased that we can be here today to make good on our promise to you. So if you’ll bear with me just a bit longer, I would like to offer a few thoughts appropriate to the unique experience of your class, and the unique ceremony with which we mark that experience today.
Part I: Opposite Day
When my kids were little, they loved to play “Opposite Day.” They would hug me and say, “Mom, we love you to smithereens!” I would thank them profusely and be so touched, and then they would shriek with laughter and say that it was “opposite day.” So they didn’t really love me. By the way, I’m pretty sure they did.
In any event, even though today’s gathering will feature the key elements of the classic graduation ceremony, this celebration feels a little like “Opposite Day — Commencement Edition.”
In the normal course of things, Commencement is a day of joy and pride, as it is today, but also a day of poignancy, when you say goodbye to the dailiness of life with your closest friends of the past four years, many of whom will turn out to be some of the best friends you’ll have in life. This graduation celebration, by contrast, is more reunion than leave-taking. It is a time of coming back together, not being torn apart. Rather than the mixed emotions I remember from my own college commencement, I hope that you are feeling the sweetness of seeing old friends and familiar faces in the place where you went through so much together.
In a typical Commencement, you would likely be excited, but also a little nervous, if not terrified, to think about leaving college to nail down a job, find an apartment, and figure out how adults make friends when they don’t live across the hall from cool people and eat in Commons. As you sit here today, however, you have already been out there, in the world, making your way as best one can in these still-pandemic times. You may have missed Senior Week, but you return this weekend with stories to tell, lessons to share, and loves and losses to catch each other up on.
In short, you are most definitely not the same people you would have been, had you gathered in the same caps and gowns, on May 31, 2020. Which brings me to:
Part II: The Decade of the Twenties
Okay. These past two years, you’ve been out there working or going to more school, living with your family some of the time, perhaps, or on your own, by yourself or with friends, meeting new people, and learning some things you didn’t learn in college. Like why hasn’t the world figured out that we need Commons even more when we’re working all day and don’t have time to grocery shop or prepare healthy meals. But I digress.
Coming to graduation after you’ve been out of college for a few years is a little like going to class when you’ve actually done the reading. It’s not that you’ve figured everything out, it’s that your questions are much sharper and more real and you have some structure to hang the answers on.
My lesson today is about your twenties, and I am here to tell you that the twenties are a formless decade whose messiness you should embrace. Why should you embrace this formless and often frustrating period? Because you are young and you have lots of time ahead of you. So you can try new things—you should try new things—in your work, with your friends, in what you do for fun. If they don’t go so well, you will have learned a lot, for one thing, and there’s plenty of time for do-overs, for another. The years of your twenties even come with a handy “reboot” button. If the jobs you have when you get out of college aren’t doing it for you, you can decide to go back to grad school, or med school, or law school after all, and all of those jobs you barely tolerated make you stand out as interesting and adventurous on your application. So if you’re here today, feeling like you don’t know exactly where you’re headed, don’t worry. Embrace the freedom you have to keep trying things.
My guess is that once you found your footing after your rather abrupt departure from Bates in early 2020, and once COVID calmed down a bit, many of you have been exhilarated to venture off road, behind the wheel of your own life. I remember feeling so free for the first time in my mid-twenties, when I was working at a regular job that was interesting enough, and the sweet part was that it did not involve homework hanging over my head every night. But I also felt moments of profound doubt, uncertainty, and loneliness, because it was hard to know where I was going from there.
Which is why I call the decade of the twenties formless. Here’s the deal. The impressive narratives that you see in the lives of the adults you admire—Shonda Rhimes, Dr. Fauci, or one of your favorite Bates professors—emerge only in retrospect. Somehow, each one of these accomplished individuals has gotten from twenty, to thirty, to forty, to fifty, and so on, and whatever the twists and turns of their lives, they, by definition, have arrived at the spot where we see them today. No matter how much of a mess they were in their twenties, or how squiggly the path they have taken to get where they are, more often than not, the story line we see now, looking backwards, seems coherent and compelling, even inevitable.
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. As Joseph Campbell, scholar of comparative religion and myth, famously quipped, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”1
When faced with the murkiness of the path ahead of you, the challenge is to keep yourself from panicking and grabbing onto some job, some schooling, some something just to give yourself a snappy answer at Thanksgiving when your uncle asks you what you’re doing these days. Trust me, you do not want to settle for premature clarity at the expense of genuine fulfillment, which is different for every person and can take a long time to find.
For what it’s worth, when I got out of college I went to school in two entirely different fields – religious studies and then law. I worked in three unrelated jobs, and I did not even start down the path that has led me here until I was fully 38 years old.
Which brings me to:
Part III: A Plausible Next Step
This is the last part, I promise.
We’ve all heard the saying attributed to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Most of you guys are a good number of steps into your journeys by now, but it still begs the question. At any given point, if the path before you is not clear, how do you make authentic choices about what to do next?
Here I would suggest that it’s easier if you do not focus on the big question, “what should I do with my life,” which can be downright paralyzing, but rather on the simpler question, “Is this thing I’m considering doing a plausible next step for me?”
It can be tricky to figure this out. If I’m about to make a choice, and it feels uncomfortable, is it because it’s not a good choice for me? Or is it because it is a choice that feels difficult because it is difficult, or involves more risk than I am typically comfortable with. Put more simply, at any given point, do I not have the guts to do the right, but difficult, thing, or do I not have the wit to see that the thing I’m fixated on doing is actually a bad decision for me?
There’s no easy way out of this dilemma. But you can take comfort in the fact that building a life has less to do with the specific path you carve out for yourself than with the spirit in which you undertake the journey. Each step you take is a step you will learn from. You will learn practical skills – like how to build Excel spreadsheets, how to deal with difficult bosses 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 the work you choose with focus and diligence and self-awareness, you will advance along a path — and it will be authentically yours, not because of the specific choices you have made, but because of the way you are making the choices and processing the experiences.
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.”3
The Class of 2022 had its commencement last weekend, and our speaker was Dr. Nirav Shah, Director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control, and a wonderfully wise and humane leader for our state throughout COVID. He gave an amazing commencement speech in which he referenced those who fought in World War II and were later dubbed “the Greatest Generation.” Dr. Shah stressed that they are known as the Greatest Generation, “not for who they were, but what they overcame.” He then went on to say this: “I don’t know what your generation will be called, but one thing is clear: the world has handed you more than your share.”4
Some of you may know my favorite quote from the poet, e.e. cummings: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”5 Judging from my own life and what you guys have been through already, you’ll never stop needing this courage, and the world will never stop needing you.
Congratulations to the amazing Class of 2020 and thank you for being here!
3 Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (1929). http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/717-be-patient-toward-all-that-is-unsolved-in-your-heart