Greetings, Class of 2015!
What a privilege it is to be with you here today. Four years ago at your convocation, under a cloudless sky, when we came together for the very first time, I mentioned this day and suggested that you would be different people, changed by what you had learned and done. And now here we are, gathered for the last time as you prepare to enter the company of educated women and men, dressed in robes for a contemplative moment called the Baccalaureate during a week of celebration more suited to bacchanalia. You, packed into pews, are to listen to me, perched at a podium, as I transmit the sober wisdom of age to the semi-sober impatience of youth. I understand there is now an app that actually estimates how old we are, but there is no adequate app for wisdom — though I would not be surprised if you were working on it.
You are a distinctive group.
You entered as the most diverse class in the history of the College. By your first October you were dancing in the mud at Harvard’s 375th birthday party, affirming that you belonged here. You were the first to receive a class color since 1963, and over the years you came to honor tradition in your own inimitable ways: not the first class to run a joke ticket for the Undergraduate Council, but the first to actually elect one. Not the first to run naked through the Yard for Primal Scream, but the first to call for a moment of silence at the same time, in a protest for social justice.
You were still settling in when Occupy pitched tents outside your windows, protesting economic injustice and chanting “another world is possible.” Before long you were helping to draft Harvard’s first-ever honor code after a cheating scandal shook the College. You were bound, it seemed, to confront life’s larger questions together. Or at least on your smartphones. Who imagined when you arrived that you’d be sharing rides on Uber and splitting the fare on VENMO?
For four years you encountered extraordinary people. You watched a professor cyber-chat with Edward Snowden, and you saw Henry Kissinger declare his loyalty to Adams House during the Great House War of 2012; you heard Toni Morrison explore the nature of goodness, Wynton Marsalis trumpet and teach, and Herbie Hancock riff on the ethics of jazz. You explored Gangnam Style with Psy in this very place. You gave a standing ovation to Malala, who risked her life for the equal education of women and girls. And you were wowed when Mark Zuckerberg leaned over your shoulder to check out the app you were inventing in the iLab. You found each other, in evolving spaces—like Snapchat and Tinder — swiping left and swiping right, in the new Art Museums café or over lobster mac and cheese from a food truck on the plaza.
You came together to organize relief aid in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. You did so again when a typhoon hit the Philippines. And you have rallied to help address the devastation in Nepal.
And you were serious innovators. You invented a low-cost, disposable skin patch to deliver chemotherapy drugs on cue, you made the Forbes list of “30 under 30” for helping launch a tech talent marketplace, and after many hours in Lamont designing algorithms, you proved the power of math by predicting 18 of 21 wins at the 2015 Academy Awards.
You also predicted, in a parody of the Huffington Post — a parody produced, by the way, by the first female top executives at the Harvard Lampoon — that this winter would be, and I quote, “like summer except much, much colder.”
You then survived a winter on Planet Hoth — we tried to get Tauntauns for the Quad, only J.J. Abrams already had them all booked — and you learned many new terms for “snow:” Snowmageddon, Snowpocalypse, SnOMG. Harvard shut down three times in three weeks, tying the total number of snow days for the entire 20th century.
Undaunted, you directed “Hamlet” at the Loeb and produced prize-winning theses on subjects ranging from adolescent risk taking to poison frogs to the sublimation of ice on new stars and planets.
You ignited the campus and the city of Boston by taking the Harvard men’s basketball team to the NCAA tournament for an unprecedented four straight years. And with 55 seconds on the clock, you scored the final touchdown to secure a victory over Yale in The Game for the eighth year in a row. Women were crowned Ivy League champions in golf, indoor and outdoor track and field, and hockey, reaching the coveted Frozen Four for the first time since 2008. Now that’s precedent.
For four years, you made Harvard yours.
What has distinguished you most has been your willingness to speak out — whether by pressing for greater support for BGLTQ students or creating the powerful message of “I, Too, Am Harvard,” or starting a campus magazine on feminism, race, and religion. Harvard has a long tradition of activism. You continued that tradition, in the most activist year in recent Harvard memory, from the calls for gender-neutral housing, to the marches of “Black lives matter,” to vigils for survivors of sexual assault, to protests for divestment.
You’ve been served up national headlines of blizzards, droughts, and superstorms, police shootings, campus rape, and riotous protest. Closer to home, you felt the tragic aftershocks of the Boston Marathon bombings, heard the sirens, and experienced the lockdown of the ensuing manhunt. You were shaken by threatening emails, targeting members of our community, and you crowded into Annenberg in response to an exam-day bomb scare.
Many American college students — no doubt many of you — report high levels of fear and anxiety, and listening to that list, it is no wonder.
Beyond events themselves, fear and anger infuse our media. Epidemics are hyped before they happen. The weather channel is a daily parade of impending catastrophe, like the old Jerry Seinfeld line about the forecast: “partly cloudy with a chance of total regional destruction.” Social media and smartphones induce their own anxieties, from the constant stream of crises at our fingertips to shear meanness. The online blood sport of public shaming, where people find the worst thing someone ever did or said and use it to define them. And there is no respite. One of you said recently: “The world is an ethical emergency, and I worry about it literally all the time.”
Fear is not all bad. It can save us from danger. But it also can endanger us, by paralyzing us and shutting down our ability to think and to act. Fear of what offends or challenges us can stifle debate, the essential conversation of diverse opinions, and ideas that make us uncomfortable. Campuses can become cloisters. As The Onion recently put it in a mock headline: “College Encourages Lively Exchange of Idea … students, faculty invited to freely express single viewpoint.”
I want to talk for a few minutes about fear. I want to talk about what you’ve done to combat it, and how your liberal arts education has armed you to acknowledge it, but to live beyond it.
You are a class of experienced activists. Activism is, at its core, a way of saying: I don’t like what I see, I may be scared or threatened by what I see, but I am not going to cower. I am going to raise my voice, lend my time, and take some risk in attempting to change frightening realities.
Fear will be with us, but what do we make of it? One learns to manage fear, the way we learn any task, and I believe the education you have received over the past four years can not only contribute to addressing your own fears, but has given you tools to lessen the larger sense of fear that grips society as a whole.
So, how do we live beyond fear and anger, especially in a media culture that saturates our lives?
First is the capacity to discern. Socrates defined courage as “knowing what to fear and what not to fear.” In other words, courage is a kind of knowledge, a kind of truth. Education does not make us fearless. It teaches us to pause and to assess fear — to know what is worth fearing. This is what universities do: When the headlines get scary, we battle Ebola in Liberian hospitals and in the genome-sequencing lab. We invent whole new sources of energy, and new ways of harnessing it. When irrational fear keeps problems at a distance, we go to where the trouble is, to understand. This can become a habit, a way of being, what congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis described last fall in Sanders Theater as, and I quote, “getting in the way of trouble.” If you find yourself living this way, Harvard is partly responsible. Because your education here has taught you that the search for truth requires the capacity to listen and debate openly, to deliberate and weigh evidence, to entertain ambiguity — the habits of mind that make us humane.
Bryan Stevenson, an alumnus of the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School, has spent three decades advocating for the poor, the condemned, the wrongly accused. He told us last month at the IOP [Institute of Politics] that changing the narrative of fear and anger — rewriting the stories that justify genocide, oppression and abuse — requires proximity, understanding close up what we fear. As Stevenson puts it, “You can’t make the decisions if you don’t know the nuances, the subtleties of the problem.” Fear polarizes. Knowledge and understanding reconcile. They point a way forward, restore a sense of agency that challenges the terror of helplessness. They allow time and space for complexity, for subtlety. One of you said Harvard had “softened” you, helped you be imperfect in the face of uncertainty. That is what Franklin Delano Roosevelt meant when he said, in the heart of the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Which leads me to my next point.
Your education gives you the capacity to harness fear using imagination: to treat sources of fear as a problem to be solved with creativity, thought, and daring. A famous case study is Wagner Dodge, the Forest Service smokejumper who in 1949 saved himself from a Montana forest fire. As his crew of 15 ran in terror up the ridge, fleeing a charging wall of flame, Dodge had an exquisite moment of insight. He lit the patch of grass in front of him on fire, burned off the vegetation and then jumped into the ash, an island of safety as the inferno roared up the hill around him. Dodge was not trained to make an escape fire. He was knowledgeable, ready to imagine it, in a burst of creativity that saved his life, and now saves the lives of others who use the same technique.
Improvisation in the face of the unexpected: You do similar things every day — on stage, in the lab, in your Houses. Doing something original, or what we believe is right, can take courage. It can be risky, and isolating. Howard Aiken, Harvard’s pioneering computer scientist, once quipped, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” Your education here has also prepared you to act on your convictions. It gives you, as one of you put it, “a bigger responsibility to imagine the world as it might be.”
And to imagine yourselves as you might be: The poet E.E. Cummings, of the Class of 1915, wrote, “Fear no fate.” Or as Eleanor Roosevelt put it: “Do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Every year I describe what I have come to call the Parking Space Theory of Life. I tell students, and now I’m telling you: Don’t park 10 blocks away from your destination because there’s an available spot. Go to where you want to be. There is always a chance to double back later. The point is, do what you love, do what matters to you, whether it is drama or physics or finance. And don’t be afraid to reimagine yourselves. Conan O’Brien thought he was going to devote his life to politics until he discovered the Lampoon, thus launching a brilliant career in comedy. Digress. Wander. I bet you’ll find a parking space will open that you never knew was there.
Finally, rise above fear and anger by connecting with others, with compassion and with understanding. The world needs connection, not just virtual contact: renewed bonds between police and their communities; doctors and patients; teachers and students, Wall Street and Main Street. Your education has taught you the value of that broader vision — that we are all connected, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “in a single garment of destiny.” At your convocation, four years ago, Dean Michael Smith urged that you “don’t compare, connect,” and you have taken those words to heart. For four years you have linked your lives with others. You have reminded us that diversity does not automatically mean inclusion, that we need to work harder to make sure that our ideal of a community of such varied individuals is one in which each of you feels you belong, regardless of your race, your ethnicity, your gender. Regardless of your nationality, your sexual orientation, your financial circumstances. Regardless of whether you are the first or tenth generation in your family to go to college.
The day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy stood in Indianapolis — on the back of a flatbed truck in a parking lot, where police could not guarantee his safety — and delivered to a crowd a moving meditation on anger and fear. He said this, and I quote: “We can move in … great polarization … filled with hatred and distrust … or we can make an effort … to understand and to comprehend … one another … with love and wisdom and compassion … to live together, … to improve the quality of our life, … and [to] want justice for all human beings.”
Class of 2015, there is no group I would rather entrust with that effort. What a pleasure it is to wish you a marvelous future. Stay connected. Swipe right. Fear no fate. Carry other hearts in your heart. Do the thing you think you cannot do.