Commencement Address – Fall 2019

~1800 words, ~9 min reading time

Congratulations, graduates! This afternoon we are here to celebrate your accomplishments with you. You have worked hard to master the skills and the content that we have thrown at you, and today you receive the evidence of what you have achieved. So, on the behalf of the faculty, let me say “well done.”

When I was asked to give this talk, I naturally thought back to my own college commencement. Do you know what my commencement speaker spoke about? Well, neither do I. However, I am hopeful that what I say may have some positive impact on you today, even if you don’t remember a word a decade and a half from now. Reflecting on this sense of hopefulness, it felt appropriate to make the theme of my talk the value of hope.

To explore the idea of hope, consider this story from ancient Greece, recorded by Hesiod …

After Zeus ascended to claim kingship over the gods and men, the Titan Prometheus – who had sided with Zeus against his fellow titans – was convinced that Zeus was a tyrant – Zeus probably deserved this reputation, as he decided to deny humanity access to fire. In response, Prometheus snuck to Mount Olympus – home of the gods – and stole fire, which he brought back down to earth to be shared with humanity.

Zeus, naturally, was not too happy about Prometheus’s rebelliousness, and set the Olympians about crafting revenge. Working together, they created the woman Pandora, who was gifted with a sealed jar – often mistranslated “box”. Inside that jar lay burdensome toil, sickness that brings death, diseases, and a myriad of other pains.  Pandora was offered to Prometheus’s foolish brother Epimetheus as a wife – despite Prometheus’s warnings to never accept a gift from Zeus, Epimetheus accepted her.

On being accepted, Pandora opened the jar, scattering the evils contained within across land and sea. Only one thing remained in the jar: Hope.

Now, there are a number of interpretations of this myth, especially centered on this question – what is the significance of hope remaining in Pandora’s jar?

Here’s my suggestion: Hope is at hand, ever near, and hope is in our control. While we have little choice but to face a number of troubles in this world, we can choose to face them with hope in hand.

When I graduated from high school and from college, I received cards containing a passage from the Jewish prophet Jeremiah. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you are going to be opening cards with the same passage sometime soon, if you haven’t already. The passage goes like this: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” And this passage sounds very nice, but I fear that, taken out of its historical context, it loses a great deal of its meaning. When considered in context, Jeremiah has a lot to tell us about what hope means.

The situation was this: Jeremiah watched as his home was invaded by Babylon, and he watched as the Babylonians carried many of the nobility and skilled workers off into exile – leaving only a remnant in Jerusalem and the surrounding area.

In short, things weren’t looking good. But, things were even worse than it first seemed, as there were two emotional forces fighting against Jeremiah, and his message of hope. It turns out that this “graduation card” passage is part of a letter that Jeremiah sent to the exiles in Babylon. The beginning of that letter encouraged the exiles first, to settle in their new home in Babylon, and, second, to seek to prosper there.

This two-fold encouragement suggests that there were two temptations that the exiles were falling to.

The first temptation was one of denial. One set of exiles, driven by wishful thinking, was just waiting to be sent back home. Thus wishful thinking was paralyzing. A second set of exiles were tempted to despair. That is, they accepted the reality that they were in exile in Babylon and would continue to be, but they felt no drive to prosper under these circumstances. Thus, we see two enemies of hope: denial and despair. And both of these prevent us from taking action.

Hope – true, active, invigorating hope, hope that drives us to courage, requires that we first recognize our circumstances, and then choose to act out of a belief that our actions will improve things. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways–either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.”

Psychologist Charles Snyder suggests that hope consists of two elements – which Scott Kaufman has dubbed the “will” and the “ways” of hope. That is, hope contains, first, the will – the determination – to achieve goals. Second, hope includes the “ways” that the goal will be achieved.

A number of studies have shown that those with hope – that is with a sense of determination and a belief that they have multiple ways of achieving their goals – are more successful, even when you control for other factors influencing success. Students who have a sense of hope when they start college are much more likely to perform well and to graduate, despite what their high school GPA, IQ, or ACT scores might suggest. Interestingly, Kevin Rand found that performance in law school is better predicted by a measure of hope than by your LSAT scores.

Now, you may be thinking that this all sounds great, but that you’re just not a very hopeful person by nature. After all, not everyone can walk around with a smile on their face all the time, feeling totally in control of the world around them.

To you I say: choose hope!

Now, this may seem silly to just tell you to be hopeful. But, it turns out that doing exactly that can make a difference. Psychologist Rebecca Goerres found that simply telling people to be hopeful led them to perform better at divergent thinking – the kind of thinking that includes brainstorming – that is, thinking up multiple ways to tackle a problem or handle a situation. And remember: one of the key elements of hope is believing that there are multiple ways to solve a problem. What better way to do that than to actually discover those multiple ways!

This suggests that hope feeds on itself. Simply telling people to be hopeful results in them doing those things that justify that hopefulness.

Now, I know that many of you are facing challenges of which you’re painfully aware. I also know that all of us will face challenges of which, like Jon Snow, we know nothing. But, in hope, we can say not just that things will get better, but that we can make them better. This sentiment is beautifully captured in this poem, author unknown. It reads:

Look to this day,

For it is life,

The very life of life.

In its brief course lie all the truths

And realities of your existence;

The bliss of growth

The glory of action, and

The splendor of beauty;

For yesterday is but a dream

And tomorrow is only a vision,

But today well lived makes

Every yesterday a dream of happiness

And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

In this passage, we are reminded that, each day, we are given the opportunity to act anew. The opportunity to live that day well, and in so doing move us forward toward the vision of hope that is tomorrow. In the words of the Roman playwright Terence – Where there’s life, there’s hope.

Now, let me share some statistical reasons for hope about the world in which we live. Within your lifetimes, you have seen tremendous improvements – though we are often unaware of them.

According to the World Bank, in 1999, 28.6% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty – living on just $1.90 per day or less. The most recent data suggests that percentage has fallen to just 10%, even after adjusting for inflation.

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of homeless in the US has fallen by about 15% over the past 20 years.

According to FBI data, the number of reported violent crimes in the US has fallen by 20% in the past 20 years – which, given the increase in population, means that violent crime rates have fallen by about 35% over that same time. Property crimes have fallen even more than that.

According to the UN, life expectancy in the US has increased by about 2 years since 1999.

According to the US Census Bureau, median household income in the US, after accounting for inflation, has increased by about 3% since 1999, despite the fact that we faced a serious financial crisis halfway between 1999 and today. If you measure from the depths of the financial crisis about 10 years ago, median household income has increased about 13% in that time, again after accounting for inflation.

In brief, in the past 20 years, we have gotten safer, healthier, and wealthier – and this increase in wealth has extended to the homeless in the US and the extremely poor around the world. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that everything is getting better. But, in the time you have been alive – or even less than that – we have made some significant strides toward solving some of the serious problems that we have faced. Problems remain, yes. And some problems are getting worse. But, we should keep in mind that we have a great track record – and that should give us reasons for hope.

I will close by asking you to do some self-assessment. I am going to ask each of us to consider these questions:

Are you hopeful about the future? Do you consider each new day as an opportunity to build toward the vision of a better tomorrow? Do you recognize that there are multiple ways to bring about that tomorrow?

Do you cultivate hope in yourself? When you see problems, do you resist the twin temptations of despair and denial, and instead choose to imagine solutions?

Do you cultivate hope in others? Do you remind those who surround you of their own successes, of their abilities to overcome the obstacles they have faced?

As you go through life, you will face uncertainty. You will face troubles. You will face obstacles. In those times, think back on the things that you have accomplished. Think back on this day, and look to the future with a renewed faith, and a hope that, together, we have and will build a brighter tomorrow.

Thank you.

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