~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 …
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
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.
accepted, Pandora opened the jar, scattering the evils contained within across
land and sea. Only one thing remained in the jar: Hope.
are a number of interpretations of this myth, especially centered on this
question – what is the significance of hope remaining in Pandora’s jar?
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.
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.
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.
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.
two-fold encouragement suggests that there were two temptations that the exiles
were falling to.
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
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
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:
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
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
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.
will close by asking you to do some self-assessment. I am going to ask each of
us to consider these questions:
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?
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?
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.