Hope is the Personification of Spring
Commencement At Duke 2008
The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching its walls on both sides.
Let me begin that way: with an invocation of your own best hopes, thrown like a handful of rice over this celebration. Congratulations, graduates. Congratulations, parents, on the best Motherís Day gift ever. Better than all those burnt-toast breakfasts: these, your children grown tall and competent, educated to within an inch of their lives.
What can I say to people who know almost everything? There was a time when I surely knew, because Iíd just graduated from college myself, after writing down the sum of all human knowledge on exams and research papers. But that great pedagogical swilling-out must have depleted my reserves, because decades have passed and now I canít believe how much I donít know. Looking back, I can discern a kind of gaseous exchange in which I exuded cleverness and gradually absorbed better judgment. Wisdom is like frequent-flyer miles and scar tissue; if it does accumulate, it happens by accident while youíre trying to do something else. And wisdom is what people will start wanting from you, after your last exam. Honestly, it is harrowing for me to try to teach 20-year-old students, the best things of life. The best I can think to tell them is: Observe posted speed limits. This will improve your odds of getting old enough to be wise.
If I stopped there, you might have heard my best offer. But I am charged with postponing your diploma for about 15 more minutes, so Iíll proceed, with a caveat. The wisdom of each generation is necessarily new. This tends to dawn on us in revelatory moments, brought to us by our children. For example: My younger daughter is eleven. Every morning, she and I walk down the lane from our farm to the place where she meets the school bus. Itís the best part of my day. We have great conversations. But a few weeks ago as we stood waiting in the dawnís early light, Lily was quietly looking me over, and finally said: "Mom, just so you know, the only reason Iím letting you wear that outfit is because of your age." The alleged outfit will not be described here; whatever youíre imagining will perfectly suffice. (Especially if youíre picturing Project Runway meets Working with Livestock.) Now, I believe parents should uphold respect for adult authority, so I did what I had to do. I hid behind the barn when the bus came.
And then I walked back up the lane, contemplating this new equation: Because of my age, Itís okay now to turn up as the village idiot. Hooray! I am old enough. How does this happen? Over a certain age, do you become invisible? There is considerable evidence for this in movies and television. But mainly, I think, youíre not expected to know the rules. Everyone knows youíre operating on software that hasnít been updated for a good while.
The world shifts under our feet. The rules change. Not the Bill of Rights, or the rules of tenting, but the big unspoken truths of a generation. Exhaled by culture, taken in like oxygen, we hold these truths to be self-evident: You get what you pay for. Success is everything. Work is what you do for money, and thatís what counts. How could it be otherwise? And the converse of that last rule, of course, is that if youíre not paid to do a thing, it canít be important. If a child writes a poem and proudly reads it, adults may wink and ask, Think thereís a lot of money in that? You may also hear this when you declare a major in English. Being a good neighbor, raising children: the road to success is not paved with the likes of these. Some workplaces actually quantify your likelihood of being distracted by family or volunteerism. Itís called your coefficient of Drag. The ideal number is zero. This is the Rule of Perfect Efficiency.
Now, the rule of Success has traditionally meant having boatloads of money. But we are not really supposed to put it in a boat. A house would the customary thing. Ideally it should be large, with a lot of bathrooms and so forth, but no more than four people. If two friends come over during approved visiting hours, the two children have to leave. The bathroom-to-resident ratio should at all times remain greater than one. Iím not making this up, Iím just observing, itís more or less my profession. As Yogi Berra told us, you can observe a lot just by watching. I see our dream-houses standing alone, the idealized life taking place in a kind of bubble. So you need another bubble, with rubber tires, to convey yourself to places you must visit, such as an office. If youíre successful, it will be a large, empty-ish office you donít have to share. If you need anything, you can get it delivered. Play your cards right and you may never have to come face to face with another person. This is the Rule of Escalating Isolation.
Our paradigm has come full circle. What we have traded for our image of success has cost us too much. Can we change? A lot will depend on you, our next generation. For a lot of history, many nations said exactly the same thing about abolishing slavery. We canít grant humanity to all people, it would hurt our cotton plantations, our sugar crop, our balance of trade. Until the daughters and sons of a new wisdom declared: We donít care. You have to find another way. Enough of this shame.
Is anyone thinking this through? In the awful moment when someone demands at gunpoint, Your money or your life, thatís not supposed to be a hard question.
We can rethink the big, lonely house as a metaphor for success. You are in a perfect position to do that. Youíve probably spent very little of your recent life in a freestanding unit with a bathroom-to-resident ratio of greater than one. (Maybe more like 1:200.) Youíve been living so close to your friends, you didnít have to ask about their problems, you had to step over them to get into the room. As you moved from dormitory to apartment to whatever (and by whatever I think I mean Central Campus) youíve had such a full life, surrounded by people, in all kinds of social and physical structures, none of which belonged entirely to you. Youíre told thatís all about to change. That growing up means leaving the herd, starting up the long escalator to isolation.
Not necessarily. As you leave here, remember what you loved most in this place. Not Orgo 2, Iím guessing, or the crazed squirrels or even the bulk cereal in the Freshman Marketplace. I mean the way you lived, in close and continuous contact. This is an ancient human social construct that once was common in this land. We called it a community. We lived among our villagers, depending on them for what we needed. If we had a problem, we did not discuss it over the phone with someone in Bhubaneswar. We went to a neighbor. We acquired food from farmers. We listened to music in groups, in churches or on front porches. We danced. We participated. Even when there was no money in it. Community is our native state. You play hardest for a hometown crowd. You become your best self. You know joy. This is not a guess; there is evidence. The scholars who study social well-being can put it on charts and graphs. In the last 30 years our material wealth has increased in this country, but our self-described happiness has steadily declined. Elsewhere, the people who consider themselves very happy are not in the very poorest nations, as you might guess, nor in the very richest. The winners are Mexico, Ireland, Puerto Rico, the kinds of places we identify with extended family, noisy villages, a lot of dancing. The happiest people are the ones with the most community.
You can take that to the bank. Iím not sure what theyíll do with it down there, but you could try. You could walk out of here with an unconventionally communal sense of how your life may be. This could be your key to a new order: you donít need so much stuff to fill your life, when you have people in it. You donít need jet fuel to get food from a farmerís market. You could invent a new kind of Success that includes childrenís poetry, butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says Your money or your life, you could say: Life. And mean it. Youíll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck - those will be yours.
The arc of history is longer than human vision. It bends. We abolished slavery, we granted universal suffrage. We have done hard things before. And every time it took a terrible fight between people who could not imagine changing the rules, and those who said, We already did. We have made the world new. The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on. If you run out of hope at the end of the day, to rise in the morning and put it on again with your shoes. Hope is the only reason you wonít give in, burn whatís left of the ship and go down with it. The ship of your natural life and your childrenís only shot. You have to love that so earnestly - you, who were born into the Age of Irony. Imagine getting caught with your Optimism hanging out. It feels so risky. Like showing up at the bus stop as the village idiot. You may be asked to stand behind the barn. You may feel youíre not up to the task.
But think of this: what if someone had dared you, three years ago, to show up to some public event wearing a big, flappy dress with sleeves down to your knees. And on your head, oh, letís say, a beanie with a square board on top. And a tassel! Look at you. You are beautiful. The magic is community. The time has come for the square beanie, and you are rocked in the bosom of the people who get what youíre going for. You can be as earnest and ridiculous as you need to be, to be the change you want to see. The ridiculously earnest are known to travel in groups. And they are known to change the world. Look at you. That could be you.
Iíll close with a poem:
Hope; An Ownerís Manual
Look, you might as well know, this thing called hope,
Is going to take endless repair: rubber bands,
Crazy glue, tapioca, the square of the hypotenuse.
Nineteenth century novels. Heartstrings and sunrise;
All of these are useful. Maybe even feathers.
To keep it humming, sometimes you have to stand,
On an incline where everything looks impossible;
Or on a line you drew yourself...
You might have to pop the clutch and run,
Past everyone else's evidence;
Past everyone who is laughing at you,
They say it just won't work.
In the worst of times, you will have to fly,
By the seat of your pants with nothing in the bank,
But your deposit of hope.
It may seem you are passing your hope
like a bad check.
But just maybe, you might make that check good
And make a difference.
Your Money or Your Life
Commencement address at Duke University
Durham, North Carolina, USA
May 11, 2008
Have a great day!