2014 Baccalaureate Service: “Breaking Good”

Memorial Church, Cambridge, Mass.

Greetings, Class of 2014.

It is a privilege to be here with you this afternoon, together one last time for this strange and ancient ritual called the Baccalaureate, where I am to impart words of wisdom in a final sober sermon and you are to receive them, during a week of high spirits hardly designed for sobriety. 

Four years ago when I mentioned a day when every pew in Memorial Church would be packed, and the floor as well, with all of us dressed in black and gathered to pause for a moment to consider your time as undergraduates and your lives to come, I am guessing that you could not imagine any of it.

The week you arrived it was 96 degrees and Hurricane Earl was bearing down on us. I appeared with a host of elders in dark robes at your Convocation and urged you to make Harvard yours.

You adjusted to leaving home: As one of you explained in a Crimson interview, you asked your classmates to be sure it was safe to put socks in the washer. 

You survived without even the memory of hot breakfast—except as the inspiration for a rock band.

For four years you encountered extraordinary people: Henry Kissinger declared his loyalty to Adams House during the Great House War of 2012; Lady Gaga put up her paws in Sanders; Renée Fleming led a master class; Toni Morrison explored the nature of goodness; and Matt Damon discussed Good Will Hunting. Mark Zuckerberg came to recruit for Facebook; Al Gore challenged us on climate change; Wynton Marsalis traced the evolution of American music.

You discovered each other in evolving spaces, on Tinder and Snapchat or “i saw you harvard,” but also on The Porch outside this door or in the new Science Center Plaza or in Stone Hall—or perhaps even on the couch dragged into the Lowell House courtyard that created a sensation and a community.

You produced prize-winning senior theses on subjects ranging from Mammalian Cardiac Regeneration to Health Care in Uganda to Gang Violence in the Roman Empire.

You came together to organize relief aid, when an earthquake rocked Japan and a typhoon hit the Philippines. And then again in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, when Harvard cancelled classes for the first time in 34 years.

You took on the weird weather: You sledded down the steps of Widener through a bevy of blizzards; you danced in the mud at Harvard’s 375th birthday; and completed those senior theses during a polar vortex.

Within a month of your arrival, the movie “The Social Network” had provided the world, as one of you put it, with “a preconceived notion of you.” But in face of those determined to define you, you insisted on defining yourselves. You are likely to have to continue to do so. As Conan O’Brien, Class of 1985, put it: Count out the wrong change and it’s “You went to Harvard?” Ask a guy at the hardware store how these jumper cables work and it’s “You went to Harvard!” Or, my favorite, Get your head stuck inside your niece’s dollhouse because you wanted to see what it’s like to be a giant, and it’s “But Uncle Conan, you went to Harvard.” 

But in so many ways, you have in fact been the definers—the definers of Harvard as well as yourselves.

In your freshman spring survey, 90 percent of you ranked “hard work, honesty, respect, and compassion” as your top four personal values, with “power” and “wealth” near the bottom. As one of you put it, you “became your best selves with each other,” and you urged all of us to do the same.

You challenged the status quo, with Occupy, and with activism on issues of divestment and sexual assault. You helped spark an international conversation about inclusion with I, Too, Am Harvard. You called for a moral as well as an intellectual education.

You integrated the arts into new causes and contexts: re-imagining the Higgs boson as dance choreography, Finnegans Wake on a one-man stage, and classical music as an aid to North Korean defectors.

You created a blog called “LOL My Thesis,” that went viral, unleashing the abject and hilarious truths of thesis writers everywhere.

You snowshoed through the Harvard Forest, and measured the biodiversity of bees in the Arboretum.

You resurrected Harvard club cricket, as the motto says, “ball by ball, over by over,” and from a team of novices you transformed women’s rugby not just into a varsity sport, but an Ivy League powerhouse. You lent members of your class to the women’s Olympic hockey team. And you focused all eyes on Spokane as you carried men’s basketball back to the NCAA, past Cincinnati, and oh so close to Michigan State. And, of course, you crushed Yale in The Game for the 7th straight year.

And as the class who entered in 2010, which is sometimes called the year of the smartphone, you tweeted and Buzzfed it all, as you Instagram’ed your selfies, Viraltagged your Pinterest accounts, and monitored your Twitter feedback. I hope I got that all right.

As your phones kept getting smarter, the world continued to shudder, with disheartening frequency and sometimes terrifying force.

You were fourth-graders when 9/11 changed the nation, and halfway through high school when the financial system nearly collapsed in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

You were college freshmen when American forces tracked down Osama bin Laden, and the Arab Spring cracked open the Middle East; you were rising sophomores when Boston mobster Whitey Bulger was caught after 16 years on the lam. You were juniors when Lance Armstrong confessed to doping and a disgraced Tiger Woods appeared on a Nike ad above the words “Winning takes care of everything.” And just as we were asking, “in what universe is that true?” the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon and brought us all together in days and ways we will never forget. 

You have refused to be defined by events, however tumultuous they may have been. You have said, “We have a purpose. We demand our place.”

Thursday you will receive your Harvard College diplomas and enter the world of educated women and men. And you have every reason to feel apprehensive about defining yourselves in an unpredictable and difficult world, about what one of you recently called “one’s plans … or lack of plans … for life.” Even if you have plans, questions remain: Can I find a good job, or meaningful work in the long term? To whom and what am I accountable? What, after all, does “success” mean? What makes a good life? Or doesn’t?

Earlier this spring, I interviewed Vince Gilligan, the creator of the TV series Breaking Bad, which ended after five seasons last fall. As many of you know, it is fundamentally a morality play, chronicling the descent into evil of its main character, Walter White. I asked Vince Gilligan what he saw as the essence of Walt, a bland, non-entity chemistry teacher, afraid of life, who, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, over the course of the show transforms himself into a diabolical meth-making drug kingpin. Why had Vince invented him? What had inspired him to dream up this guy? Once Walter White knows he has a terminal disease, Vince explained, he is able to shed the fears that have always inhibited him. Breaking Bad is the story of a man who is freed to ask himself, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It is a question well worth pondering. Who are you really? Who would you be? What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

It is a question that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, tomorrow’s Class Day speaker, has asked when she talks about gender equality in the workplace. She means, “embrace your ambition.” Seize the leading role, for example, by dispelling doubts: What will happen if I speak up? What if I am judged? What if I fail? Or, sometimes just as scary, what if I actually succeed? 

It is a question that our late Reverend Peter Gomes asked—and you were the last Harvard class to know him—when he confounded categorization, a gay Baptist preacher, a black Pilgrim Society president from Plymouth, or, as he used to say, an “Afro-Saxon.” He meant, “embrace your own identity.”

And it is a question I ask students every year, when I describe my Parking Space Theory of Life: How would you go about parking, if you weren’t afraid there was no parking space? You wouldn’t park ten blocks away from your destination. You would go to where you want to be. Live with an attitude that will keep you focused on what you really care about.

Each way of asking and answering this question is about imagining something, and then acting on it, no matter the hurdles, no matter what the fears. So it is a useful question. But how does it produce a ruthless meth dealer?

It occurred to me that many of the things I asked you to do at your convocation, and much of what you have done during these past four years, are the same things Walter White, of all people, does in Breaking Bad: He takes risks. He tries something new. He is an innovator, an entrepreneur. He commits himself. He develops confidence and conviction. He experiences life more fully. And yet—and yet the more he does these things, the more selfish, and cruel, and depraved he becomes. He rationalizes his behavior, lies to himself and others, and becomes a moral failure.

What have I been encouraging?

I certainly hope no Walter Whites, though I confess to having been addicted—if that is the appropriate word—to Breaking Bad. In the final episode, Walter puts his finger on the key to his moral demise. It is not when he says, “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really … alive.” But instead when he confesses, “I did it for me.”

Your undergraduate education has, of course, been for you. In your time at Harvard, you have learned about yourselves—and I, along with your mentors, parents, and friends, have watched with joy as you discovered purposes and passions you could not have imagined four years ago. You have been encouraged to take risks, and you have taken some. But as you take that capacity for risk beyond the library and the lab and out into the world, what happens to your moral compass? How do you end up “breaking good”? 

Learning is partly about taking risks for the sake of achievement and excellence. These are values we share and celebrate. But more important, these past four years have also been designed to teach you about facing outward, acting for the sake of a better human community. 

Nelson Mandela once told writer Richard Stengel that, and I quote him, “courage is not the absence of fear—it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.” Every performer, every teacher, every first responder, every team member has experienced this—being drawn through challenge by a larger purpose—by an audience to touch, a person to lift up, a team to rally, a community to serve. Mandela said, “Of course I was afraid!” During most of his life, it would have been crazy not to be. But through the act of appearing fearless, he said, he inspired others, and they in turn, as Stengel put it, “gave him the strength to triumph over his own fear.” We are interdependent. Our work and our lives depend on others as theirs do upon us.

At the heart of this is empathy, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Whether you have taught the Second Amendment to Boston fifth-graders or studied water transportation in Brazil or run the Harvard Square homeless shelter or worked to develop a vaccine for AIDS, you have realized that one of our greatest challenges is to understand the perspective of another person, another society, another religion, another nation, other universes, another time. But there is a paradox about empathy. In a lecture here last month, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, suggested that empathy is not saying, “I understand how you feel.” Rather, empathy is the capacity to say, “I have no idea how you feel.” A moment of humility, and of curiosity, and of awe—the knowledge that we must, in his words, “go on learning and re-learning” who others are, and “who we are and what we actually care about.”

That is exactly what a liberal arts education has prepared you for—for opening yourselves to that kind of learning, reaching for that kind of connecting. The most important thing for you to have learned here at Harvard is that far from ending with your degrees on Thursday, your education, and the service to others that is its greatest purpose, has only begun.

In the words of John Cotton, a 17th-century founder of Harvard College, one’s life work is “a calling, ayming at the publique good.” Work found not “by deceit and undermining of others … [but through] an open door.” 

And so, Class of 2014, with the right combination of luck and learning, humility and compassion, we do not break bad. Instead we can create moments of grace with and for one another. The great Herbie Hancock, in one of his Norton Lectures on the Ethics of Jazz this spring, described a performance onstage with the Miles Davis quintet. The band was in a groove, the music building to a climax, when Hancock played a chord he described as “100 percent, completely, entirely wrong.” “Time stood still,” he said, until Miles took a breath and played a phrase that made that chord right. “It was some kind of magic,” Hancock said. “Miles didn’t hear what I played as a wrong chord. He merely heard it as an unexpected chord.” A lesson about human harmonies and musical empathy—a lesson about the improvisation and creativity that you have so marvelously taken to heart.

Visitas gets cancelled—so you reinvent it. The 375th is hit by a deluge, so you dance in the mud. A cheating scandal rocks the College so you successfully advocate for an honor code. Bombs strike the marathon, so you take care of one another and you run again.

The story is about being transported back, from a moment of fear, to something larger than yourself. That is the magic. To reach beyond what you do for yourselves to what you do for one another. If any class can do this, it is yours. The world has never needed you more.

Keep on defining yourselves, and defining Harvard. Find the happiness of that room without a roof. Come back often. Keep reminding us of who we need to be. And may you all have lives as good as they are great. 

Thank you very much.