Over the past twenty-eight years serving as
Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester I have been occasionally charged by
my esteemed colleagues to offer the Valediction, quite literally,
the “words of farewell” as our class of senior majors graduates.
I’ve done this plenty of times but I
thought this time the words might be of some interest to others. No one really remembers the speeches
they heard at college graduation.
I think they might remember if
somehow those words struck a chord but I’ve no
such pretentions. I read the great
work of Steve Jobs and David Foster Wallace, and of course I consulted the
remarkable rhetoric of the late Christopher Hitchens. Added a little Zen.
Voila. But what really
happened was this: Last week I saw an interview with Bruce Springsteen. The Boss was asked why he still did this, go on the road, write new songs, keep going. After all he’s richer than the gods and sixty-four years
old, what compels him? He said
something like this: Things still bother me. Things have to come out. Why does a man my age do this? Because he has to.
I got that.
Loud and clear.
So that’s what I told them.
Here. We. Go.
The Valediction for
the Graduating Class of Religion and Classics Majors, 2014
Congratulations graduates, it is truly your day. And you did earn it. Yesterday in the NYTimes there was a
column from a professor who’s also the president of the American Enterprise
Institute. That’s a think tank but
in this case you can reserve the word “think” for something more useful. His principal commendation was “earn
everything”, which you must realize is fatuous nonsense, a fantasy of redolent
seduction that means to juxtapose your sense of independence to entitlement, as
false a contrast as the purported existence of a sacred is to the profane. Remember Eliade? He was making things up too.
So while I will
not purport to tell you that my own platitudes are less trite, I will instead
do something familiar to your education.
I will make an argument. What
is best about arguments
is that they aren’t quarrels. Rather, as Orwell put it: an argument is the art of telling someone else what they don’t want to hear. This is because everything not
grounded in strife and rooted in well-founded bias is merely public relations. Argument
is not optional to a well-lived life, in fact the reason it is essential is because
it rises to that rarest level of worth: it is valuable for its own sake.
Religion majors learn this in every class, in fact it might
be the point of every single class you’ve taken. Did you know that?
In Classics it is Plato’s
reason to be, not merely his method. But just in case, here’s the reason why this argument about
argument is true. It’s provides
the reason you can graduate today with the confidence you will need to survive
the questions that will follow you around the rest of your life (and not
excluding today): You majored in what? What are you going to do with that?
As students of religion you know that conversion plays a
role, we forget that in some sense all religious persons were at one point
converted to if not from. Most people skip conversion because they have forgotten that
fact of heritage and so never had a chance: they were indoctrinated. Religions
prefer to indoctrinate rather than argue, and that makes studying religion
decidedly different than being religious. Those asking the uncomfortable question ---what are you going
to do with that major?---not only fear for your future economic well-being,
they wonder about indoctrination. Little
do they know, argument is itself another way to live life with conviction, the
conviction of doubt as the best gift of learning. But rather than begin your reply with an argument, my first
suggestion would be to lull them into thinking you are confirming their
opinions---since one of the most important things you have learned studying
religion is that people love their opinions more than they care about the possibility
that others also have theirs.
Tell them a story. Now you’ve got’em right where you want’em. The conversation can go something like
“What are you going to do with that degree?”
“And how is that?”
“Well once there was a seeker on
the path who came upon the obstacle of a great river that ran wide, deep, and
fast, the kind of river that would daunt any sensible person from
crossing. Continuing along she
gets a moment of lucky, seeing another person on the other side. She notices that this person is holding
a staff, which suggests a fellow traveler, or cripple, a wizard, perhaps
retired hockey player, it’s not clear.
But it so happens that this is a teacher, the spiritual kind.
He shouts across, “Can you tell me how
to get to the other side?”
teacher ponders a moment and replies, “You are already on the other side.”
If the questioner took our class, From Confucius to Zen,
you may now be at a disadvantage but I doubt it. And don’t fret: you don’t make arguments to win them anymore
than you stand a chance at conversion by arguing. If religions were arguments, we’d all be Buddhists but we
know that’s not an option. The
Rabbis of the Mishnah have made that perfectly clear. What you’re facing in this ‘what are you doing with your life
conversation’ is a religious
situation: minds are made up in advance and, at the same time. confused by the
necessity to change, just a little, but only if your reply warrants a reply. The story of the journey gives you an
out, the questioner isn’t sure why you told it much less what it means to
convey. Wait. The reply is coming.
“So you did something you really
wanted to do. That takes courage.”
Your answer is obvious to you, less
to the questioner.
“Umm, I don’t think so. It was neither just what I wanted to do
nor did it take much courage.”
“You did something you didn’t want
to do? Leave it to religion.”
“Not exactly. Of course I wanted to do this but some things you find out aren’t just wants, some things you just have to do. That’s how you find out who you are: you find out you have
to do it.”
College really happened for you when no one else was looking
but you. Now you are being asked
to explain that. Consider it a
privilege. As personal a choice as
it has been to choose your majors,
it’s just as true that your necessities now implicate everyone, especially
those who really care because they ask discomforting questions.
Your self-esteem, even your pride is up for grabs (Are you
being tacitly insulted
you recognize that there is something more here than a point of argument, there is near-religious
concern for your well-being and
a challenge to your self-allegiance.
You don’t win arguments by converting
the other; you feel the ground beneath you move in ways that also compels the
other to realize that he too must make concessions, refinements, forced to
adjust opinions rather than revel in the safe and familiar atrophies of self-complaisance.
Everyone leaves a
little differently than they came.
To ask for
more is to seek a conversion, an indoctrination, and that is something you learned about, but not the something you learned.
Knowing how to think---what we purport to teach you when you
are fledglings here in college---must give way as adults to what you choose to
think about. For as many choices
in life as we can imagine, the important ones become necessities. As enterprising as you will be is
already evident in the enterprise you have completed today. But do remember: you will earn and
indeed achieve important goals (graduating college today is exactly that) but you
will not earn everything. Instead
you will gain an advantage by virtue of a privileged life of education and
participate in creating opportunities for yourself---and should you choose greatness,
for others too. Frederick Douglass
reminds us that those who expect truth or justice without a struggle only imagine
the sea without a tempest.
Conflict may be painful but there are no painless solutions. Strangely enough, that was meant to be
When the semester’s toil seemed like it would never end, much like our
Rochester winter, you understood how the evolution of learning can be tenebrous
and equivocal, but that it never fails to incite real demand for more.
There will be no simple explanations that cleanse the ambiguities of
meaning to life precisely because meaning itself has been assailed, understood
as a human invention that arises from considering whatever is meant by the word
“divine.” What you have gathered
from the classics and the study of religion is that there's something sentient
in the relationship between the primal and the purposeful that threatens sanity
with something better than complacency.
Facts are necessary and replaceable with better facts, but people are
not. And that takes us again to
The liberal arts cliché about learning to think is true and
not just because that’s what makes clichés what they are: necessary
truths. What you have before you
are not infinite possibilities since possibilities are, by definition,
finite. What you have before you
is the honest opportunity to answer to your inner necessity. Not to choose who you want to be but rather
to become what you must.
You’ll go make a living, you’ll do things you don’t want to
do, sometimes to make money, but you’ll also have another kind of necessity. Not
the sort that the world demands of you but the one that you create in
yourself. Answer to that and you will live, not seduced by
irrational wants but rather by forging ahead knowing you are always in the
middle of things. You aren’t only
self-made even as you realize you must make yourself. In the process, take Christopher Hitchens’ advice: don’t
subordinate or annihilate yourself just because you fear being called arrogant
or selfish. Prefer dignity and
give that to others rather than mere
argument. Then have a lived life,
not just a career. Pay attention
and complain precisely when there is something worth arguing about. Don’t
expect to come out the same when your antagonist is just as convicted as you
are. A good argument is one that
changes who you are, even when you can’t quite tell what’s changed.
I was standing in the Port Authority once awaiting a bus
home to New Jersey after a long stint in India. A young woman came up to me with copies of the Bhagavadgita,
the great Indian classic. She was
a member of the Gone East movement called the Hari Krsnas. They aren’t so popular anymore, not
since George Harrison died and they’ve been banned from stalking bus
stands. But there I was. She hands me the book and explains that
this is the portal to divine truth.
That in this book, written in the holy language of Sanskrit, nearly
impenetrable for its recondite grammar as it is for meaning, I would find all
that life has to offer. Oh really,
I replied. I would positively know
who I am? Oh yes, she
insisted. She pushed the book into
my hands as the bus approached.
“I gotta go,” I said.
“But this…this is The Truth! This is the answer!”
Handing her back the book, I began to recite the familiar
opening verse in the original Sanskrit..dhamaksetre
kuruksetre samaveta…She halted.
“Wait. What? Who are
you? And how did you know that?”
“Well,” I replied, “you never know in what form the Lord
And so onto to
New Jersey I went. I suspect that
this woman is still wondering from her home in the Hamptons about how she met
Lord Krsna in the Port Authority.
But be that as it may.
What you want to know is who you are. That you’ll find in necessity, not just
in desire. The answers aren’t
nearly as interesting as the questions.
Being daunted doesn’t mean you can’t also be undaunted, it means you
don’t have to go it alone. Find
good company, keep good company, you know already that you become the company
you keep. And go with this blessing:
come back but don’t look back. You
will not solve the world’s problems but you will change the world by the way
you answer to your own necessity.
I leave you with another saying from Sanskrit and a poetic translation,
purosuo vyuvaasa devyatho adyedam vyaavo maghonaa |
vyuchaad-uttaraananu dyuunajaraamrtaa carati svadhaabhih||:
well, therefore, to this day. For today, well lived will make every yesterday a
dream of happiness And every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this
luck, good bye, come see us again when you have a moment.