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 this:
“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?”
The 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 and loved?) so 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. That’s success. 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 encouragement.
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 you.
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. Eyes agape.
“Wait. What? Who are you? And how did you know that?”
“Well,” I replied, “you never know in what form the Lord might come.”
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,
shashvat purosuo vyuvaasa devyatho adyedam vyaavo maghonaa |
atho vyuchaad-uttaraananu dyuunajaraamrtaa carati svadhaabhih||:
“Look 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 day.”
Good luck, good bye, come see us again when you have a moment.