First, I want to take a minute to celebrate those who are not here. So many people who love you and who made this day possible couldn’t be here because of Covid restrictions. They are watching online. Think about your grandparents, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles. They are filled with joy today because you are happy. They are proud of everything you do and everything you are going to do. How about we take a second give them some applause, for those online.
We are all coming out of something hard. For many of us there has been grief and loss, and fear and dread. For almost all of us there was exhaustion, stress and memory loss. I don’t know about you, but during the peak of Covid, I’d wander into rooms wondering why I went there. I spent an awesome amount of time wondering where my ear buds were. I became more touchy, fragile, vulnerable doing all of this. I think it was because of all the emotional nourishment that we missed - dance parties, spring break, sitting around a bar late at night and laughing. Before Covid, 25% of Americans said they were lonely. Now it’s 35% and 61% of young people.
But here’s the good thing about enduring a hard thing when you are young. Forever after, you’ll now know you have the capacity to survive hard things. And you don’t need to be terrified of them.
Today, the power Covid had over our lives is shrinking and the power we have over our lives is growing. The image that comes to my mind is recess. Think of a bunch of kids stuck for months and months inside. Suddenly they get to burst through the doors of the playground and they sprint out into the playground of life. That’s us right now. We’re on the brink of having a lot of fun.
Spring is here. The economy is probably going to be smoking hot. We’re moving from restraint to release, from absence to presence, from distance to communion, and the only question is are we going to let old anxieties hold us back or are we going to seize to the abundance that is actually available starting today.
I don’t know about you, but I am going to try to be the world’s best appreciator. I’m going to try to deeply appreciate all the things I took for granted. All the things that didn’t used to seem fun are suddenly going to seem fun: Not being able to catch the bartender’s attention because the bar is packed. That will seem fun! I’m a Mets fan, but going to a Yankees game will seem fun—so long as they lose. Going to weddings will be fun, even when we think the couple is making a mistake. Going to age inappropriate concerts will be fun. I don’t care if you don’t want a damn boomer at your Cardi B concert. I’m going anyway.
The problem in the month ahead is not distance but probably over-stimulation, too many options, frazzle. The hard part will be choosing wisely how to spend our time, so that we spend our time on the things we really love and not the distractions we sort of like.
We all love a lot of things, but as St. Augustine said, some desires are higher than other desires. In a world of plenty, it’s probably going to necessary to sit down with a piece of paper and rank the desires of your heart, and then make sure your schedule matches your rankings.
This is actually a surprisingly hard exercise: What do you want more than anything else in the world? What is the ultimate truth to which you surrender? What are you doing when you feel most alive? What is your ultimate desire? If you can’t rank your loves you’ll scatter your talents and your life won’t accumulate into anything. And you will lead an aesthetic life of pleasure, displeasure, and boredom, but it will not be an accumulation of accomplishments. How you spend your days is how you spend your life, said Annie Dillard.
This is the part when I give you practical advice. So, write this down or at least try to remember one of these things:
1. Form a giving circle. Take 10 of your best BC friends. All of you commit to put money in a pot every year. Then gather every year for a few days to decide how to give it away. The charity piece of this exercise is nice, but that’s really just a pretext so you can live life side by side with a group of lifelong friends.
2. Divide your life into chapters. Sad people experience their lives as just a progression of days and before long they realize their life has sort of drifted away. Happy people stop at crossroad moments like today and say, “Okay, this next three to five years is a chapter of my life. What do I want this chapter to be about? What is my life task right now?” And then after the next three to five years, do it again. And then do it again.
3. Identity Capital. Your job in your 20s is to build what Meg Jay calls identity capital. This is having some wild experience that people at dinner parties and job interviews are going to want to ask you about for the rest of your life. Maybe its salmon fishing in Alaska or teaching kindergarten in Mongolia. But do something that will both make you more interesting and widen your horizon of risk.
4. The gem statement. When you are fighting with someone about something, there is always something deep down that we agree on. We siblings may disagree about our father’s medical care, but we both want the best for our father. When you are in the middle of a disagreement, you can save a lot of relationships by focusing on the gem statement.
5. You need to think about marriage long before you think you need to think about marriage. I don’t mean you have to get married this week. But you have to practice making romantic commitments, so you have some experience when it comes time to make the biggest decision of your life: who to marry. And remember, a marriage is a 50-year conversation. Pick somebody you can talk to for the rest of your life. Love waxes and wanes but admiration endures. Pick someone you admire.
6. How to find your purpose. The wrong thing to do is to ask, “What do I want from life?” The right question, as Victor Frankl put it, is “What does life ask of me?” What problem is out there that I’m equipped to tackle? The answer to your life’s deepest questions are not inside, they are outside.
I’ll end by talking about the most important process we’re all going to go through over the next couple of months: The Great Unmasking.
For 15 months we’ve been wearing masks. People wear masks when they feel unsafe. It filters out the virus but it also filters out each other. Two people wearing masks find it easier to walk by each other on the street without recognizing the presence of another human being.
But of course, we don’t only wear physical masks, but also psychological ones. Productivity is a mask. I’m too busy to stop and see you. The meritocracy is a mask. I judge you by what school you went to and what job you got. Essentialism is a mask. I can make all sorts of assumptions about you based on what racial or ethnic group you are in. Fear is a mask. I don’t show you myself because I’m afraid you won’t like me. Emotional avoidance is a mask. I hide parts of myself because I’m afraid to confront my own feelings.
Worst and most serious of all, distrust is a mask. I wall myself in because I’m suspicious you will hurt me. Distrust is at record levels in America today. It is the cancer eating away at our relationships, our politics, and our society. And I have to admit a lot of this distrust is earned distrust. People felt betrayed they have been betrayed. But distrust breeds distrust. When somebody is distrusting of me, I am distrusting toward them and we spiral into a distrust doom loop. That is the state we are in now. This is how nations fail, families fail, organizations fail.
But in the weeks and months ahead we will be unmaking. As we take off the physical masks, it seems important that we also take off some of the emotional ones.
One of my goals in the months ahead is to try to undo what Covid tried to do to me. Covid tried to distance me, isolate me, and it did the same to you. I hope to show I wasn’t broken by this hard season of life, I was broken open; that social distance will be replaced by social closeness and social courage.
I hope to practice what a friend calls “aggressive friendship”: being the one to issue the invitations, willing to see and treasure the singularity of each human person, approaching each person with the certain knowledge that the he or she is made in the image of God.
I’m hoping to just be available a little more. There are just random times when a friend or maybe a stranger on a plane wants to connect. I’m hoping that if someone knocks on my door they will find it already open.
It was said of the novelist E.M. Forster, “To speak to him was to be seduced by an inverse charisma, a sense of being listened to with such intensity that you had to be your most honest, sharpest best self.” Who wouldn’t want to be that guy?
People talk about emotional intelligence. But being a respectful and considerate person is not an intelligence; it’s a skill you learn by practice. It’s the skill of taking the time to label your emotions as you feel them. It’s the skill that the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett calls “emotional granularity,” understanding your emotions and being able to tell them apart. That’s knowing the difference between angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy. It’s the skill of knowing how to express your emotions openly, and in that naming, to regulate them.
I don’t know if getting older gives you any wisdom. I probably had as much wisdom at your age as I do at mine. But there is one hard thing that I have learned, and I hope that you remember this if nothing else. You have more to fear from your inhibitions than you do from your vulnerabilities. More lives are wrecked by the slow and frigid death of emotional closedness than by the short and glowing risk of emotional openness. And as we unmask, I am hoping emotional openness will be the order of the day.
This was a school built on a resurrection. The stone moved. The tomb was empty. This was a school built on a death, a waiting, and a risen Christ. Maybe I shouldn’t quote a Presbyterian here, but my friend Tim Keller points out that this resurrection story is a story of hope and awakening—glorious hope, certain hope, subversive hope, hope in the presence of joy and hope in the presence of suffering. The resurrection story is a story that we are guided by, inspired by, and given hope by in a moment of national recovery and reawakening.
After a resurrection, things have a tendency to not go back to the way they used to be. The teaching of the resurrection is that everything gets inverted: to find yourself you have to lose yourself, to gain power you have to give yourself up, salvation comes through the weakness of repentance, success leads to the greatest failure which is pride, and failure leads to the greatest success which is humility. Inversion follows inversion. God chooses the poor over the rich, the foolish over the wise, the meek over the proud.
You entered BC during one historical era which had one set of values. You graduate from BC at the start of a different historical era, with a new set of values, which you will write with the book of your lives.
A year ago, when everything shut down, I thought about your generation and I thought you are really the unluckiest generation.
But now, I look at you and I look at what is about to happen in all our lives. I think you are the luckiest generation. We are going to have a roaring 20s. And the quality of this decade and the decades to come will depend on how well you roar.
So, I salute you, Eagles. Have a blast. God bless you.