21 May 2016, Kenyon College, USA
President Decatur, faculty, staff, parents, friends and members of Kenyon’s Class of 2016: Congratulations. To all of you.
Seventeen years ago, I was supposed to be graduating from Kenyon. It ended up taking me an extra semester, but I was in the audience that day with my friends and classmates. I remember nothing about the Commencement address except that it lasted ten thousand years. Empires rose and fell and still the speaker droned on, cicada-like in his monotony, so I come to you today with but one solemn promise: One way or another, this will be over in 14 minutes.
I want to spend one of those minutes, if you don’t mind, in silence. This is a trick I learned from the children’s TV host Fred Rogers. If you don’t mind, I’d like us all — not just the students but all of us — to close our eyes and think for a minute, just a minute, about the people who loved us up into this moment — family and friends, teachers and kind strangers. I’ll keep the time.
Those people, they are so proud of you right now. My thoughts turned inevitably back to my years at Kenyon, and to my professors, especially Don Rogan, who died this school year. Professor Rogan was a brilliant teacher, but I’ve forgotten much of what I learned in his classes about phenomenology and gospel redaction. What I remember most is that he loved me and that he took me seriously. He and his wife Sally welcomed me into their home, fed me, laughed with me, cried with me.
For many years, I wondered why he loved me — I was not a particularly good or committed student; I showed no special promise. And then, when he died, I saw the grief-stricken Facebook posts pour in from his old students, and I realized: He had loved us all.
Love is not like mass or energy — it is not conserved. And in the next 17 years, you will forget a lot, but you will not forget the kindness and generosity of those on this hilltop who were kinder and more generous than they needed to be.
So when I was a student here, there was widespread agreement among my peers that the so-called real world of proper adulthood was, basically, a disease you caught and then eventually died from. Adulthood, with its mortgages and spreadsheets and lawn maintenance, seemed to be a thing to be dreaded and resisted until finally it overtook you, like a zombie plague.
Once you acquired adulthood, you’d start saying things like, “Brand awareness in a fractured media landscape,” and, “We need a president who knows how to get things done.” To be an adult meant engaging in totally unironic conversations about the weather. I remember once, when I was at Kenyon, my grandmother called me to tell me that she was watching the Weather Channel and it looked like it was raining in Ohio. I explained to her that I was reading Ulysses, that I wasn’t even in Gambier but instead in Dublin, Ireland, in 1904, that history was a nightmare from which Dedalus was trying to awake, that nothing — literally nothing — mattered less than the current weather, and then after a moment she asked, “Well, is it raining or isn’t it?” To be an adult was to be a river rock blasted by an endless torrent of mundane terrors — from resume formatting to electricity bills — that would inevitably smooth all my hard edges until I looked and felt just like everything else.
Now this is the part of the Commencement address where I’m supposed to tell you that in fact adulthood isn’t so bad and blah blah blah but NO. NO. It is so bad. If anything, it is far worse than I could even have imagined. I mean, have you ever been to a homeowners’ association meeting? Each of you in the Class of 2016 is wondrous and precious and rare life in a vast and almost entirely dead universe — imagine devoting two hours of your bright but brief flicker of consciousness to a debate over whether the maximum allowable length of grass in your neighborhood’s front lawns should be 4 inches or 6.
But it’s true: You will debate grass length — or something equally stultifying. You will learn, almost against your will, the difference between whole and term life insurance. You will test-drive a minivan and find yourself surprised by the quality of its handling. And along the way, you’ll find yourself wondering: “Why am I doing this? Why am I doing any of this?”
And this, in my experience, is when your Kenyon education will come in very handy, because whether you’ve studied economics or anthropology, for the last four or, if you’re like me, five years you’ve been investigating what constitutes a fulfilling, successful human life. And I’d argue that actually is adulthood — like, maybe adulthood is not something you’ve spent your time at Kenyon preparing for; instead, maybe you’ve been doing it, albeit not on the minivan scale.
You are probably familiar with the old line that a liberal arts education teaches people how to think. But I think it mostly teaches you how to listen — in your classes and in your readings, you’ve been listening. You’ve listened to your professors and to your peers, but also to Toni Morrison and Jane Austen and John Milton as you all together examine the big questions of our species: What do we owe ourselves, and what do we owe others? What is the nature of the universe, and what is our role in it? How best might we alleviate the suffering within and without?
You learned about these questions at Kenyon, but you won’t leave them here. And while making your voice heard on those questions is vital, you’ve also learned here that your voice gets stronger the more you listen — not just listening to loud voices, but also to those that are hard to hear because they have been systemically silenced.
I hope that listening will help inoculate you from the seductive lies of our time — the lie that strength and toughness are always assets, that selfishness is not just necessary but desirable, that the whole world benefits most when you act in your own narrow self-interest.
That seductive lie is appealing because it allows us to go on doing what we would’ve been doing anyway, because it imagines a world in which I am what I feel myself to be: The exact center of the universe. But living for one’s self, even very successfully, will do absolutely nothing to fill the gasping void inside of you.
In my experience, that void gets filled not through strength but through weakness. You must be weak before the world, because love and listening weaken you. They make you vulnerable. They break you open. And it is only when you are weak that you can truly see and acknowledge and forgive and love the weakness in others. Weakness allows you to see other humans not as enemies to defeat, but as collaborators and co-creators. In the end, we’re making humanness up together as we go along.
At the homeowners’ association meeting, where the miserable adults are debating grass length, what they’re really doing is hashing out what kind of neighborhood they want to share. When you are deciding between whole and term life insurance, you’re actually thinking of a world without you, and how you might be helpful to those you leave behind. And how lucky you will be to leave people behind, to have been woven so deeply into the interconnected web of the human story.
All of it, actually — from the electricity bills to the job where your coworkers call themselves teammates even though this isn’t football for God’s sake — all these so-called horrors of adulthood emerge from living in a world where you are inextricably connected to other people to whom you must learn to listen. And that turns out to be great news. And if you can remember that conversations about grass length and the weather are really conversations about how we are going to get through, and how we are going to get through together, they become not just bearable but almost kind of transcendent.
One more way that listening will be of use to you: Over the next few days, you will straggle out of this strange and wonderful place, and enter a world where you will be, at least for a little while, manifestly weak. If you are lucky enough to have a job, it will likely involve fetching coffee for ungrateful bosses, or entering data, or writing press releases that no one reads. Some people will probably treat you as less than fully human, imagining you to be not the complex and multitudinous person you are but instead as an easily replaceable cog in the clockworks of their organization. All of that will be easier if you can see yourself not as the protagonist of your own heroic journey but instead as a collaborator in a massive, sprawling human epic.
I don’t remember anything said at my commencement address, but I do remember Wendy MacLeod’s speech the day before. Professor MacLeod, I apologize in advance for butchering your quote and for not swearing when you swore, but she said something like, “You are about to be a nobody. And that’s important, because when you become a somebody, if you can remember what it was like to be a nobody, you won’t be a jerk.” Looking back, I think that’s the second-best piece of advice I have ever received, behind only that given to me by Professor Rogan, who once told me — and this I can quote directly — “You’re a good kid, but you need to learn when to stop talking.”
So anyway, I’ll shut up momentarily. I can offer you no real advice on how to live a successful adult life. But I don’t need to. The people you thought of, during that minute of silence — they are who you want to be when you grow up. They have been strong for you, but also weak for you. They listened to you. They were irrationally, impossibly kind to you. It’s not just that you wouldn’t be here without them; you wouldn’t be without them. If they are here today, I hope you’ll take a second to thank them. If they aren’t here, they may call later, to ask you how it went. They may even ask what the weather was like. Tell them it was rainy, inexcusably cold for late May, and remember to ask if it is raining in their pocket of the world.