2013 Baccalaureate Service: “Running Toward”

Memorial Church, Cambridge, Mass.

As prepared for delivery.

Greetings, Class of 2013.

What a privilege it is to be with you this afternoon, together one last time for that ancient and curious custom known as the Baccalaureate. The ritual may lack something of the exuberance of that other ancient and curious year-end custom, the Primal Scream. But at least I hope it will help get you ready for your more stately procession through the Yard on Thursday as you officially enter the company of educated women and men. This is after four years and the consumption of an estimated 125,000 Veritaffles. You may remember, when we gathered for the first time, outside this church in 2009, you followed a procession of alumni in the first freshman Convocation ever held. And I – in a phalanx of elders in dark robes – urged you to take risks. I told you 13 is a magical number, not only because of the gifts you were bringing to Harvard, but because you yourselves were lucky, an extraordinary intersection of talent and circumstance. Circumstances in fact conspired to make you an unusual group.

You entered as the most socio-economically diverse and the most international class in Harvard history. (You represent 84 different countries.) You were the first to enroll after the global economic crisis had rattled almost everything. The first to start with the new academic calendar — no miserable winter break spent meaning to study for January exams. The first to have Wintersession. The first to experience an all-Gen Ed curriculum. But that apparently was not enough firsts. A week after that freshman Convocation, one of you became the first in the college to catch the H1N1 swine flu.

Unfazed, you began to distinguish yourselves in unorthodox ways.

You built a virtual library that will reach more than a million students in India.

You taught philosophy to prison inmates and tried to diagram truth.

You produced four Rhodes scholars on a single floor of Quincy House — maybe it was something in the water? Or whatever it is that gets served at the Penguin Pub?

You co-founded “Sex Week,” a campus discussion about sexual health that landed on the front page of The New York Times.

You built the world’s largest cardboard box fort in the MAC Quad.

And this March you prompted the unparalleled headline in The Wall Street Journal, “Harvard Outsmarts Harvard,” when one of you devised a hot new mathematical model that gave the men’s basketball team a 4.6 percent chance of an NCAA upset. Then another one of you, against all odds, helped upset that prediction when you led the team to its first ever NCAA victory. You are the class that busted a million brackets.

And of course, with a minute to go, you sealed victory in The Game against Yale for an unprecedented sixth straight year when one of you ran 63 yards for a touchdown.

As the world shifted and Harvard changed, you responded.

You saw the federal repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the return to campus of ROTC and the opening of the Harvard Office for BGLTQ Student Life.

You gave hands-on relief to the earthquake victims of Haiti and Chile; conceived the future in the new i-lab, and helped make Green the new Crimson.

You met weird weather head on — danced in the deluge at Harvard’s 375th birthday party; sledded the slopes of Widener through two blizzards; and when Hurricane Sandy hit, you organized aid for the victims of the storm.

And you were the first class to capture it all on Instagram.

Some of the toughest challenges came this year — which began with revelations about breaches of academic trust and raised hard questions for all of us. What is success? What is integrity? How do we uphold it, in our own lives and as a community? What is accountability? We have thought hard and must continue to think hard about the complex messages the world of achievement sends us.

Several weeks ago, when many of you were finishing your senior theses, you may have noticed an image that appeared on social media. It was the day after Tiger Woods reclaimed his ranking as the world’s No. 1 golfer, a ranking he’d lost after a personal scandal in the fall of your freshman year. It was a Nike ad, a picture of Woods emblazoned with the words “Winning Takes Care of Everything.” It ignited a firestorm: On what planet does winning take care of everything? According to whose values?

Surely Nike intended to salute achievement, a value we share. We understand: Harvard 68, New Mexico 62. We celebrate the serendipitous alignment of hard work and talent and good fortune and grace by which you all won your seats here today, the lucky members of the Harvard College Class of 2013. Winning can be a measure of excellence, and an expression of integrity — the will to win, as legendary football coach Vince Lombardi put it, “with zeal … [with] every inch of [you] … fairly, squarely, by the rules.” But what is the role of winning in life?

We are not brands. We are human beings. We recognize that winning, or the need to win or to present ourselves as winners, can at some point become a form of losing. A meaningful life can recede in an endless string of contests. In our better moments we search for a larger purpose. We take the long view. What, after all, does “success” mean? What does a good life look like?

When the bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon a few weeks ago, we considered these questions again, in a context that gave them new meaning. As we pondered the many immediate challenges — safety, security, communications, crisis management, healing — we also found ourselves asking bigger questions — existential questions. What matters most to us? Who are we? What do we owe to one another? How should we live?

As I heard and watched and read reports of the bombings, I, like others, was struck by the way the actions of so many at the scene represented a powerful answer to such questions. Amid the calamity, there appeared streams of people running toward the chaos, toward the explosions. The first responders — police, firefighters, the National Guard; the raft of doctors, nurses, and EMTs; the trauma surgeon who had just completed the Marathon and “rushed in” by heading straight on to the operating room at MGH. The volunteers, the bystanders — women, men, young and old — running toward the unknown, risking their own safety to see if they could help.

There was the priest who saw blood, put on his brown Franciscan robe, and made his way into the mayhem; the cardiologist, a volunteer from Texas who thought, “OK, so I am about to die,” and took off his belt to apply as a tourniquet to a victim’s leg even while policemen shouted at him to evacuate; the Army veteran who “saw smoke … smelled cordite,” and ran down the stairs from a post-race party, anticipating more bombs. He saved a college student’s life with a tourniquet made from a T-shirt and reunited a mother and child.

The man in the cowboy hat, who ripped away fencing to reach the most severely injured, and later said simply, “My first reaction was to run toward the people.”

Why people do this — run toward danger to help others — is partly a mystery. Cognitive scientists are trying to chart what one calls the “spark of fellow-feeling.” The some 9,000 people awarded medals by the Carnegie Hero Fund typically cannot explain their actions. One of them — a man who leapt from a subway platform and away from his two young daughters in order to save a stranger between the rails as the train passed over them — said he did it because he felt chosen.

My point today, as you prepare to graduate and take your Harvard degrees into the world, is that I wish for you, Class of 2013, lives of running toward. Lives in which you are motivated, even seized, by something larger than yourselves, lives of engagement and commitment and, yes, risk — risk taken in service to what matters to you most.

For years I have been telling students: Do what matters to you. Find what you love. It might be physics, or stem cell science, or acting, or finance. But don’t settle for Plan B, the safe plan, until you have tried Plan A, even if it might require a miracle. I call it the Parking Space Theory of Life. Don’t park 10 blocks away from your destination because you think you won’t find a closer space. Go to where you want to be. You can always circle back to where you have to be.

And it occurred to me, as I anticipated talking to you today, that the Parking Space Theory of Life is just another version of running toward, of keeping focus on what we really care about. “Running toward” is a way of being, an attitude, a capacity for courage, a kind of grace, as Governor Patrick put it at the post-Marathon Service — “the best of who we are.” As one runner said who crossed the finish line just as the bombs went off, “You go from feeling personal satisfaction to suddenly [knowing] it’s not about [you] at all.”

Living a life of running toward is what a liberal arts education has helped prepare you to do. It may seem counterintuitive. So much of your education has been about the next question, the critical stance, the discerning and skeptical eye. But it has also been about taking risks, daring to commit. One of you wrote in the Crimson this month that in high school, failure was, in your words, “not an option,” but that here, being willing to try and fail has made you resilient. You even said you’ve learned how to relax — maybe another first. The best kind of learning does not train you to win. It teaches you to ask what winning might mean. It cultivates curiosity and courage and boldness — whether you’re tracking an elusive gene or boarding a bus in Mumbai — and it gives you a new capacity to act, despite the risks.

Running toward means abandoning the safe and the certain for the unknown. It means facing your fears and moving beyond those who tell you “no.” Legendary epidemiologist Donald Hopkins, a Harvard School of Public Health alum, was told as a young researcher he and his colleagues would never eradicate smallpox. It required years of travel to remote villages around the world, not easy for someone who admits he is terrified, in his words, “of snakes, rats, bats, airplanes, heights, and food poisoning.” “But,” as he told The New York Times decades later, “we did [it],” adding, and I quote him, “So I’m sort of immunized against skepticism.”

Running toward means improvising in the face of uncertainty — using a T-shirt for a tourniquet or designing a well around a broken diesel pump with Haitians who need clean water. Jazz musicians might call it “the art of negotiating change with style.”

It means collaborating and coming together around a common purpose — whether it’s 3,000 physicists at the Large Hadron Collider searching for a subatomic particle, or the nurses at the bombing, as one described it, “working [silently] in tandem.”

It means running toward not just your own dreams but running toward where you can help. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote 50 years ago this spring, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”

Not everyone is prepared to run toward an explosion. But each of you is exquisitely suited, and urgently needed, for something.

Head toward what that something is — whether it’s a map of the human brain or a theater set in Australia. How do we know if we are ever running toward the right thing? Toward the good thing? Can we predict the effects of credit default swaps on Wall Street, or micro-finance on villages in India? The truth is, we don’t always know.

You might pursue your passion, purely for the love of doing it, and then get swept up into something of larger significance. You might be asked to enter a new arena, with far more at stake.

Think of Kathrine Switzer, in 1967 the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, who finished the race, even after its director — affronted by the presence of a woman (she had registered using only her initials) — tried to tear off her numbers and shove her off the course until her football player boyfriend cross-checked him out of the way. It was then she realized that what began as a personal challenge was “probably going to change women’s sports,” and she vowed, as she later recalled, that “I’m going to finish this race on my hands and my knees if I have to … because nobody believes that [a woman] can do this.”

Or think of NBA center Jason Collins, who two weeks after the Marathon bombings came out as a gay athlete in a major professional team sport, because, as he put it, “Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?”

Live fully and live truthfully, class of 2013. Stay in touch. Tweet. Forward us your selfies. Come back now and then for a Veritaffle. And remember: Keep on busting brackets. Immunize yourself against an excess of skepticism. Immunize others. Go where you are needed. Run toward life.