(The Commencement Address by Anna Quindlen P’07 also is on video.)
When I was first asked to give the commencement address to the Wesleyan class of 2009, I knew I was going to have to begin with an apology: I am not, as you can see, Barack Obama.
But as the months passed between the invitation and this event, prevailing wisdom was that I was not only going to have say I was sorry for not being last year’s speaker, but for so much else.
On behalf of your elders and the entire nation, I was expected to say I was sorry that the economy had failed, the job market dried up, the housing market become uncertain—in other words, that we who came before you were handing off an unmitigated disaster.
I’m not going to do that. I can’t do that here. I’m not going to say that I’m sorry for all of you because I’m not. I think, perhaps more than any generation in memory, this Wesleyan class before me today, all of you, have an unparalleled opportunity to remake this nation so that it is stronger, smarter and makes more sense.
When generations past felt dissatisfaction with the prevailing culture, with corporations estranged from both line workers and consumers, with politics held prisoner by polls and personal ambition, they had to fight a comfortable and deeply entrenched, as you heard from your president, status quo. During the peace movement, the civil rights movement, and the beginning of a second wave of feminism in the 1960s, there was a pushback from millions of average Americans who believed that world dominance, military might, segregation and old familiar gender roles worked just fine. They didn’t want anyone blowing up the old ways.
You don’t have to worry about that because during the years you’ve been here, the old ways have blown up all by themselves, they’ve fallen under the weight of a system that was a Potemkin village of alleged prosperity and progress based on easy credit and crazed consumerism. A financial system in which it somehow became possible to become rich and powerful while investing in and trading nothing at all. An information system paralyzed by the technology that outstripped it. A political system for which many Americans had open contempt. A consumer culture making things that didn’t really work, and didn’t really need.
What happens to a nation that has developed the peculiar habit of shopping for recreation when it suddenly has no money? Well, it can either screech to a halt, or it can discover that its priorities need to be recalibrated, and that stuff is not salvation.
It is as though America was a house, and at a certain point the roof became so leaky, the walls so bowed, the termites so widespread, that it began to crumble.
Now, don’t misunderstand me: the bedrock is still fine, the bedrock which too often America honors in the breach but which we honor just the same, the bedrock of a free and fair society based on the constant, open exchange of ideas. A bedrock which, as I describe it, sounds very much like Wesleyan.
But it would be a tragedy, and a lost opportunity, if you rebuilt and constructed something that looked just like what we had before, tried to build the same old house, which we now know was in part a house of cards.
Your parents, and their parents before them, understood a simple equation for success: your children would do better than you had. Ditch digger to cop to lawyer to judge: that’s how I learned it growing up as an Irish Catholic kid.
We are supposed to apologize to you because it seems that that is no longer how things work, that you will not inherit the SUV, the McMansion, the corner office really ought to mean that you will not do better than we did. But I suggest that maybe this is a moment to consider what “doing better” means.
If you become the first generation of Americans who genuinely see race and ethnicity as attributes, not stereotypes, will you not have done better than we did?
If you become the first generation of Americans with the clear understanding that gay men and lesbians are entitled to be full citizens of this nation, will you not have done better than we did?
If you become the first generation of Americans who accord women full equality instead of grudging acceptance, will you not have done better than we did?
And on a more personal level, if you become the generation that ditches the 80 hour work week and returns to a sane investment in your professional lives, if you become the first generation in which young women no longer agonize over how to balance work and family and young men stop thinking they will balance work and family by getting married, won’t you have done better than we did?
Believe me when I say that we have made a grave error in thinking doing better is merely mathematical, a matter of the number at the bottom of your tax returns. At the end of their lives people assess them, not in terms of their income but in terms of their spirit, and I beg you to do the same from the beginning even if we who came before often failed to do so.
Frankly, I already think of your generation as better than my own as a group. You’re more tolerant, more creative, less hidebound and uptight. You’ve done more community service than any other generation in the history of this country. It is no accident that as all of you finally became old enough to vote we finally became brave enough to have an election process in which Americans were really engaged.
And all this despite the fact that you’ve been bombarded by a culture that sends you so many confusing messages. Let’s see, you’re supposed to live clean, to drink Bud, to be Zen, to work tirelessly, to have sex without guilt but seek enduring love. And maybe because of that you have had to figure out for yourself what matters in a way past generations, with their bright lines of behavior, did not. In the first full sentences she ever uttered, Maggie Simpson took the pacifier out of her mouth and spoke of herself in the voice of all of you, “She did not live to earn approval stickers. She lived for herself.”
You’re the children of the new technology and the new tolerance, of gigabytes and gay marriage, the first generation of Americans who assume the secretary of state will be female, and the huggiest group of people who have ever lived. You are totally qualified to be and create the next great new thing.
So if you have bright ideas about how to save newspapers, restore confidence in Wall Street, get books into the hands of readers or make movies that aren’t merely comic book spin-offs, then we need to hear from you. We need you to make this a fairer place, a more unified nation, a country that wipes out the bright lines of class and race that have created an apartheid, an apartheid too long denied. I know you hate to hear your parents say it even when we’re driving to Great Adventure, but we’re lost. We’re counting on you to direct us. The tide has turned. We’re looking for you to direct us.
The president of this college recently was asked by The Wall Street Journal to write an admissions essay for Wesleyan. He wrote a moving account of his brother, who died before he was born, and how during all his life he felt like he was a surrogate for this boy who never got to be a man, how he was born to fill a void and what a sense of weight and responsibility that gave him.
The truth is he captured something important about all of our lives, and that’s that at some level we all live in place of others, fill a void, an empty chair. I stand here today, for example, in place of, in tribute to, generations of women denied the right to the pen and the podium. Each of you is here at Wesleyan because of countless others who didn’t get admitted. Some of you are here in lieu of parents or grandparents who couldn’t afford to go to college.
As a proud Wesleyan mother, I suspect there are some like me out there who are keenly aware that they sit here today in the place another woman, a woman whose daughter was violently and senselessly snuffed out, a woman who will never see her child come down Foss Hill in a bright red gown. In a world in which tragedy seems to strike too often and too randomly, we who have our children close to us today are, without question, extraordinarily lucky.
But as President Roth suggested in his essay, being the lucky one confers great responsibility and even a moral obligation. But it is not simply the obligation to live an examined life, to embrace each moment as though it might be the last. It is also to live each moment as though it were the first, to throw your arms wide to the new, the unexplored, even to those which may be afraid, as Ravid said.
So I beg you all today not to yield to the status quo. Don’t trade happiness for deferred gratification. Don’t give up adventure for safety and security, tempting as those things might have sometimes seemed these last few weeks. The safe is the enemy of the satisfying. Deferred gratification has a way of being deferred forever. And the status quo, business as usual, the way things have always been done has failed us.
How will this new audacious and authentic world work? I don’t know. Helpful, right? Except that “I don’t know” is one of the most exciting sentences in the English language because in the right hands it suggests, not ignorance, but discovery. It’s the beginning of news reporting, of medical research, of stage preparation, of business creation, of legislations. I don’t know.
I don’t know the answer to so many questions: can Twitter ever be more than dopey haiku for the mini-mind? Can government ever really see beyond the bombastic fog that hangs over Washington? Can family life ever really be egalitarian and prejudice ever become a distant cultural artifact? Can we ever learn to value the wealth of our spirit more than the size of our salaries?
I don’t know, but you do. Or you will. With the old house in ruins and the new one still to be built, you are the people who must have the creativity, the audacity, the ideals to answer these questions and so many more. Samuel Beckett once said, “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” The mess, the mess. That’s, finally, what we’re leaving you today. We leave you a mess. And I won’t apologize for that. Instead I want you to see it for what it is: an engraved invitation to transformation. Certainty is dead. Long live the flying leap. Take it. Use it. Bring it. Congratulations!