Life would be simpler if just being smarter made you better: if more education translated into a life of more kindness and generosity and respect for others.
The formula for improving the human condition would be clear: get more people more education and we will stop doing terrible things to one another. Every year at this time, across the country, we would send into the world thousands of graduates who would, after being handed that diploma, be good, having studied four or more years of philosophy and math and chemistry and music.
Except, of course, life isn’t that simple.
Don’t misunderstand me. I do believe—in fact my career is founded on the belief—that reading Plato or Toni Morrison, studying the formation of the cosmos, listening to Mozart’s Requiem, understanding the history of racism, performing in a play—will greatly increase the likelihood that you will become not just smarter, but also a wiser, more empathetic, and more just person.
But there is no guarantee. Plenty of people with Ivy League degrees do awful things. Plenty of bad people are fans of Mozart. Plenty of scientists direct their brilliance toward horrific uses.
There is no guarantee.
So listen closely, and as you leave Macalester let me impart to you the formula for living a good life.
There is no formula.
You might have noticed that I’m older than you, and while age does not necessarily bring wisdom, it inescapably brings experience, and here is what my experience has taught me.
Goodness has to be created anew each day. Just because you were kind yesterday or patient and generous last week does not guarantee you will be so tomorrow. Being civil when speaking with people face to face does not grant you the freedom to be incivil online. Life is a continuous process of rededicating oneself to doing the right thing, always and in all places.
Don’t hide behind anonymity, and be wary of those who do.
You will screw up. You—even the very best of you—will at times fail to live up to your own ideals and behave in ways of which you are not proud.
Forgive yourself. We are imperfect creatures, and one of our imperfections is a powerful tendency to be hard on ourselves. This doesn’t lead down a good road. A wise young man said to me recently that you cannot love another until you first learn to love yourself. Loving yourself, like loving others, means practicing generosity of spirit. Trust me—because I have lived this: when you are angry at yourself you will also be angry at others. Don’t hold on to that anger or it will eat away at you.
What do I want you to take away from Macalester? I want you to keep in mind the distinction drawn by Dickens—you know I must occasionally work him into my remarks—between “knowledge of the head” and “knowledge of the heart.” I am certain that we have filled you with plenty of the former; I hope we have provided you with some of the latter as well.
I want you to love this place, which is not the same as asking you to accept it uncritically. Remember what I said about imperfection and forgiveness. What is true of each of us is equally true of institutions: they do things well and poorly, wisely and mistakenly. They are, inescapably, fallible. But I truly believe that Macalester is doing essential good in the world and that its continued ability to do that work will depend upon the people who care about it. If you are like most Macalester alumni I have met—and they number in the thousands—you will look back 10 years from now and realize what a special community this is. I suspect many of you realize it already.
I want you to remember that one of the highest compliments you can receive is not that you are among the best speakers someone has ever met, but that you are among the best listeners.
I want you to read Marlon James’s next novel because, you know, Marlon doesn’t get enough attention and he probably needs the plug.
I want you to watch the movie Logan because it is the only superhero movie that ever made me cry.
I want you to listen to the band Bad, Bad Hats because they are wonderful and Mac alumni and how neat would it be for Mac alumni to someday headline Coachella?
I want you to spend one day eating nothing but ice cream (unless you’re vegan or lactose intolerant, of course).
For those of you who choose to marry, I want you to wear a Macalester T-shirt at your wedding. For those of you who elect to remain single, I want you to wear a Macalester T-shirt at someone else’s wedding. Tell your family and friends it’s a college tradition.
I want you to live, and work, and change the world, and be happy.
August 1 2017Back to top