News Senior Speaker Address
My people, my people. I cannot express clearly enough how honored I am to stand before you today as the senior commencement speaker for the class of 2008. I am especially honored because I was selected by that class to stand here, and I know this group of people to be an impressive mix of committed yet playful geniuses. It’s a mixed bag I represent today, a group of idealists, cynics, optimists, academics, athletes, artists, writers, dancers… it goes on. In my time here at Marlboro I have discovered and rediscovered both their power and their influence as we, as a class of many, came together and broke apart throughout the years drawing on ourselves and one another to progress forward in the best and worst times. Tom Toleno said to me yesterday that he thought that the extent that students here at Marlboro motivate, support, and educate one another, is too often overlooked. I agree. There is great potential here, and more often than not it is provoked through the experiences, conversations, classes, projects and those breathtakingly honest moments between friends in this place. Today we come together as one group, one body, for one last time—celebrating with our families and one another the accomplishments, spoken and unspoken, that have brought us to this point. Without the love and support of those friends who come together into impromptu families in this bold and challenging place, and without the shared knowledge and wisdom that is ever moving between us, we may not have gotten so far—and so, I wish to begin by recognizing the collective power and potential of this group of people who I am so proud today to represent.
Marlboro College, this place—its good things and its bad—is what we, as a class of students have shared and will continue to share even after we’ve left for the final time. Though small and intimate, we came and, over the course of a few rapid years, managed to clear our own paths through, relying as much on our own abilities and motivations as the friends we surrounded ourselves with. We arrive in hopes of finding that specific niche we’ve been told again and again is somewhere out there—and yet so often in forging our way through this place and its processes we are forced to realize that there is no such single niche—that the world we live in is not this sort of formulaic categorization, but limitless possibility; if only we could harness that.
In creating our distinctive paths through Marlboro, we come to many places—some bright—lending clarity and peace; others quite dark—drawing us deep within ourselves as we struggle to find meaning or purpose in our actions and choices. We suffered the seasons shoulder to shoulder, learning that community means more than just showing up, that participation and responsibility are not just words—but ideals. For (roughly) four years—some took longer, others seemed to breeze through in just three or so—we moved forward. And even when it felt as though we were stagnating or in full reverse, we pushed ourselves and each other onward until, sitting on some green hill in the sunshine, fighting off black flies and premature nostalgia—we awaited the affirmation of our efforts in the swinging of a door so that we might stand and cheer in recognition of friends—close as family somehow—who have found the opening in the path and, with one final step, pushed through to a clearing in one dramatic moment we all simply call “finishing.”
So we too, all of us, had our moments—that final step outside to the cheering or just the clear blue silence we’d awaited and worked toward. A great conclusion it seems—a death of something truly unique that was in turns beautiful and unbearable; enlightening and discouraging; empowering and agonizing.
But here’s the thing. That moment was not the end—nor will this moment be. The opening in the path, the step into the clearing is not all that is expected of us, and the full results of our education here did not find their actualization in our oral exams or our final grades. What purpose four years for a single letter? There is more road to walk, more ground to discover, more bright and dark places to explore. We are not unarmed in our journey and, as we “enter the world,” whatever that really means, we bring with us all those bright and dark things, every method and byway we encountered here, every lesson we learned—willingly or painfully—every book and page, every late night and early morning, every face, voice, and insight we engaged—all of these we bring from this place to that one, from these experiences to the next.
The world we enter is far from perfect. Of course, to say that we are only just now entering this imperfect world is more of that signature pomp that ceremonies such as this one are known for. But all the same—from this high hilltop we descend to places untold; scattering ourselves around the globe as far as Laos, China, Africa, and as near as Brattleboro, New York, Massachusetts. But no matter where we go, in what basement or on what couch or cot or sleeping pad we may rest on, we still carry with us this place, its trials, and one another. Good thing, too… because wherever we go, and whatever form the next step of our lives takes, we will need all the support and confidence we can get.
Here’s some perspective.
In China and Burma, tens of thousands of people are dead as the result of devastating natural disasters—the earthquake in China killing almost 10,000 people and leaving over 5 million homeless while in Burma, the military junta continues to delay the efforts of world aid and relief workers, leaving the victims of the May 2nd cyclone which left over 78,000 people dead, another 56,000 missing and countless homeless—with nothing.
As the Olympic torch circles the globe, protests continue, calling international attention to China’s human rights record, while in the Middle East, the rights of millions are jeopardized daily as sectarian warfare goes on and on. Israel builds its wall as Palestine grumbles and in Iraq, over 4000 American soldiers have been killed since the start of US operations there some five years ago. Another 91,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of that ongoing conflict, and the numbers continue to rise. Right here at home our own media is turning itself inside out trying to predict the outcome of what has turned out to be a historical presidential race, and as the candidates fight on, promising a better life for everyone, a global food and fuel crisis affects us all as the cost of these rise, leaving an estimated 1 million people who last year could feed themselves now in need of aid to provide them even the most basic of sustenance. All the while of course, the ice caps are melting and the Amazon burns, bio fuels aren’t looking so promising as they once were and carbon emissions keep going up—it looks like we’ve worked ourselves into quite the pickle.
This is the world we are “entering,” and these are just a small sampling of the problems we face as citizens of this global community. But we must not shoulder this burden with spite, nor can we afford to write off these problems and this world as a lost cause. Instead, we must understand that perfection is not a given—nor is it something we’ve earned. We didn’t come to college to be rewarded but to be taught, and we do not now leave college to languish in the mistakes of others, but to work to correct them for the good of all. Disillusionment is just another step on the path, and, as gradually as it may begin, seeing things as they actually are will never cease to be a jarring and at times disorienting experience. But we cannot allow ourselves to become jaded, and we must not become bitter; for spite and malice are the dominate traits which rule this fractured world today, and if we allow ourselves to succumb to their influence we will only undo what good we set out to enact.
This is no small task, but we are not alone in engaging this world or the problems in it. Around the country and the globe people, young and old are working to improve our world; whether academically, physically, or spiritually, all around us they are exerting their own precious energies in the hopes of building a better life for themselves and a better world for us all. When we join them, as we now join them—we bring with us all the grit and rigor we were forced to absorb if we ever thought we were going to complete a plan. And we must bring with us the optimism and motivation necessary to commit to such a task, a task that has no clear-cut result or reward, but only the ongoing efforts of strong, decent people who continue to push this world and our human culture forward.
I think we’ve all heard before what Gandhi thought good to remind us, that we should be the change we wish to see in the world. “Change,” no doubt—is a big buzz word right now, and in all its popularity runs the risk, as all absolutes do, of losing its meaning entirely. This cannot happen.
It looks as though we stand on the cusp of a ground-breaking paradigm shift… and yet we hesitate to act; to take it upon ourselves to affect the processes and activities necessary to begin the movement we, as a human culture, so desperately need. We cannot afford to hesitate much longer, and must make a decision, chose what path to cut forward into the uncertain, unformed darkness of our futures and the future of our world. All past mistakes, malicious or well meaning, must not be forgotten but understood if we are to move ahead with insight—shining a light into the darkness we find so intimidating. This is not a time for uncertainty or apathy, not a time for anger or fear but a time for action: good, perpetual, enlightened action; something we’ve all managed to harness before, if only in short bursts, as we struggled to commit and then to act on the topics and themes we found worth throwing all our energy behind in order to start, progress, and complete our plans—more than just a bound product in some library, but a process through which we at least approached the actualization of some of our truest skills and energies.
If we truly are at the edge of one era and positively leaning into the uncertainty of the next—then it is time to act. There is no clarity or insight into what lies before us, and no polls or pundits can foretell what will happen, or what awaits us on the road ahead, cloaked in darkness. But what do you expect? As people, as individuals possessed of minds and motivations we must understand that our greatest potential is not found in our desire to predict the future, but in our capacity and responsibility to create the future. In a world so distorted by corruption and lackluster media, greed and meaningless banter, we must emerge with greatest authority, patience, and optimism; willing to continue learning—for we are far, far, far from knowing everything—and ready to begin working in and for a world and a human culture that needs positive energy returned to it if it is to progress and survive.
This would be the point where I should say: “the time is now,” but to what end? The time is always now, has always been now. There is no future until we create it, and the past, though it returns to us in ripples and waves, is nothing we can change. The time is certainly now, as it has always been, will always be—and the task is great, the responsibility huge. Up here on this hill, we have not learned and lived and worked in a vacuum, but have been effecting our world through our thoughts and actions for longer and to greater extents than we may ever realize but now—now we step down from this high view and, taking with us those skills and energies we fostered here, step forward again onto the paths we forge, sometimes together as family, often on our own; not completed at the slamming of the door behind us as we exited our orals, nor affirmed in the degree we today receive, but utilized, actualized, in the lives we now begin away from this bittersweet place and away from one another.
Most paths will diverge, and we walk now away from here and each other into a vague and undefined future. But we walk with purpose; confident in our skills and the power we find within; and we walk with patience; aware that the answers exist, that we need only seek them out; and even when we are farthest from each other, we walk but never alone; for in our time here, together, we have forged bonds that transcend time and circumstance—relationships that endure through their endless influence, regardless of when our paths next cross; if ever.
So, now, class of 2008—my people, my friends, my family: I promise this much: there is no certainty ahead, but there is wisdom behind and there is strength within and all around you today, there is power in this company you keep—have kept these few trying years in this place. And so I encourage you all to harness that wisdom, your own strength, and the power of those with whom you have shared this unique and mostly indescribable experience and with these three blessings continue forward on your path. Though you alone must forge your way forward, you walk abreast of these great people and with the sweetly nostalgic wind of this strange place always at your back.
Good luck, God bless, and thank you again for this wonderful opportunity.