Assistant Professor of Classics
9:30 a.m., May 18, 2008
President Osgood; members of the Grinnell community; families and friends of the graduating seniors; and members of the class of 2008:
I am very happy to be here this morning, and I am deeply honored for the invitation to speak to you. When I was asked to speak at Baccalaureate a couple of months ago, my mind turned immediately to what I might say. Within twenty-four hours, a few vivid thoughts, in a precise order, crystallized in my mind. And in the intervening weeks they have stoutly resisted any revision, expansion, or deletion.
And so, graduates, I am going to tell you this morning the only things I know to say to you on an occasion such as this.
First, life is hard. It can be arbitrary and unpredictable. Certainly it is often unfair. On easier days it merely requires effort; in tougher spells it can be a relentless struggle. At times you will feel that your back is against the wall and it will be. Since this is the case, do not be carried along by life, but choose, as much as you can, the terms of your effort and struggle.
Find something you love, and embrace it. Enter a profession, adopt a cause, devote yourself to a family. Effort and struggle in the service of something you love is a great, great joy. Having chosen your work, deploy every gift you have. Be shrewd, tough, and energetic in pursuing the good you have identified. In this work do not be afraid to lead; do not assume that someone else can lead better than you.
In the midst of your own efforts and struggles, always be generous toward others. They are struggling too. Act compassionately-not out of a sense of superiority, but in the sure conviction that you too are in need of the generosity of others. Resolve that your corner of the world will be a place of kindness, civility, and forbearance.
Finally, as much as you can, be humble. Remember, as you are pouring forth your energies and talents, that you are finite, that your tenure will end, that you do not control everything, that, in fact, you control very little. A little distance -- even from the things we love most -- affords us some relief from their intensity, the space to laugh and play.
Some of you may be thinking, "Well, it's all very well and good to say 'pursue the thing you love,' but what if you don't know what you love? Then what?"
Then I would say to you, "You are not special." A few people may know early in their lives what they love and want to do, but many of us-I think-discern this only gradually over time. Our self-knowledge evolves. Put a little less elegantly, we bumble along. But paradoxically you must bumble along in a purposeful way. Strike out on a reasonable course; do the best work you can at whatever you do; plan intelligently and patiently as life gradually reveals itself to you. Then, whatever comes, you will be ready for it -- without regrets and without fears.
In the end, the comforting thing is that life is much bigger than any of our efforts can ever be. We cannot anticipate it or plan it; we must simply live it. And in the living I, at least, have discovered that life is more rigorous, more joyous, and much richer than I could ever have imagined. This morning I wish for each of you the felicity of this same discovery.