Patricia Armstrong Johnson Professor of Biological Chemistry, Professor of Biology
9:30 a.m., May 16, 2004
Thank you Margaret and Meggie and the rest of the Commencement Committee for inviting me to share a few words with you today.
I am honored to be asked to participate as you "reflect on the past and prepare for the future" as you are graduated from Grinnell College. I must confess to some puzzlement, however, at another quote from the letter; "The depth of education, inspiration, commitment and accomplishments you have achieved and shared with your students during our four years at this Institution are appreciated." Really? Why didn't you ever say those sorts of things on my end of course evaluations?
I've been thinking a lot about what I might say to you at this ceremonial occasion, this important transition in your lives. I thought that I should find a couple of pithy little quotes to use as my text but I didn't have much luck. From my point of view as a mcriobiologist, statements like Pythagoras's "Man is the measure of all things." or Pope's "The only proper subject of mankind is man" are rubbish. A microbiologist has a rather different perspective of humankind' importance. The bacteria have been on earth for at least 3 1/2 billion years. On that time scale, all of the life that you see around you consists of mere newcomers. And more importantly, if all of the life that you see around you were to disappear in the next instant, and that includes all of us by the way, the bacteria would go on quite happily without even noticing that we are gone. In contrast, if the bacteria were suddenly to disappear from earth, all the life you see around you would be toast! We depend absolutely on them for our continued existence, while to them we are essentially irrelevant. Now doesn't that make you feel important!
So what is a person to do, in view of this new perspective? Well, I hope in your studies at Grinnell you have been given many ideas and tools for living your lives well. I'd like to add one more, probably from a source somewhat less elevated than that of your course readings and discourse. The little epigram I wish to share with you is from a book, a play, and one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. It is the life philosophy of a woman who might be described as an "original," someone larger-than-life, and someone more than just a little zany. This vibrant woman suddenly finds herself, in her middle years, the guardian of her 10-year-old nephew, whom she regards as a sadly stuffy little nerd. Her story centers around teaching this nephew how to live his life well. Perhaps some of you recognize his aunt: the redoubtable Auntie Mame! She tells her nephew "life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!"
Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death. This may not be the most elevated of language, but there is wisdom in it nonetheless. Life is a banquet -- what is the banquet? At this point those of you who have had me for a class should be beginning to sweat, because I'm starting with those damn questions again! Never fear, while I may have no compunction about embarrassing you in front of a couple of dozen of your friends, I won't do it in front of hundreds!
So what is a banquet? Well, obviously it is a meal. It is, one would hope, food that is a delight to eye, the nose, the fingers, the lips, the tongue, and finally the belly. It is food carefully prepared and beautifully presented. It is food for the soul as well as the stomach. But is such food enough to make a banquet? No, of course not. I am, without false modesty, an excellent cook. I can prepare food that meets all of these criteria for my wife and me. But that does not make our enjoyment of that food into a banquet? No. So what else is needed?
More people, for one thing. A banquet is a meal shared by a number of people, not just a select few. But a kegger with take out from China Sea is not exactly what Auntie Mame had in mind as life's banquet.
Another essential element of a banquet is its ceremonial structure -- it is a fine meal, eaten in community, and characterized, just like this baccalaureate ceremony, by high-minded speeches that probably go on too long.
There is one final criterion that transforms a ceremonial public meal into a banquet. A purpose -- a reason for the gathering. The kegger may have a purpose but we won't go into what it might be with your parents here. Let's just say that the purpose of a banquet is on a more refined level. The people at a banquet generally gather to honor or celebrate a person or achievement. This is the real purpose of the event, not the food. In fact, even if the food is dreadful (and it probably will be) and the speeches stultifying (and they almost certainly will be), it is still a banquet. It is the purpose that gives the banquet meaning.
So when Auntie Mame says life is a banquet, she is really saying that we should live our lives delighting in all that the senses can offer us. We should live our lives in community and not in isolation, whether it is physical or emotional. We should realize that life has rules, expectations that make it possible for even strangers to interact with one another in a civilized manner. And finally, life greater than all these things. A life, well lived, is directed at a purpose that is larger than just you yourself and your little group of friends and family.
Life is a banquet -- so for God's sake don't be one of those suckers who is starving to death rather than sharing in the feast. Auntie Mame lived and died with gusto, savoring every moment and every experience and every person she met. We can't all be Auntie Mames, but we can keep her advice in mind. Take a chance on life. Live it as a banquet. And one final suggestion -- you might be truly radical for a Grinnellian and vote for a Republican!