“Who Will Tell Your Story?”
May 24, 2016
Greetings, Class of 2016.
And so it is here—the week of your Commencement. The days of miracle and wonder when your theses are written, classes have ended, and you still have free HBO. And so it may seem strange to be gathered here today, as we pause for this ancient and curious custom called the Baccalaureate—but here we are, me in a pulpit and you in pews, dressed for a sermon in which I am to impart the sober wisdom of age to the semi-sober impatience of youth. Now, it is a daunting task. Especially since over the course of four years I have succeeded in disconcerting people on all sides of the many issues that you will soon be discussing with parents and grandparents over dinner—so in addition to a speech, for handy reference I’ve created a Placemat for Commencement, filled with useful phrases. Such as, “It’s ‘final club,’ without an ‘s.’”
Now, I am truly privileged today, for you are an extraordinary group. Your 80 countries of origin do not begin to describe you.
You may remember the day when we escaped the rain at your Freshman Convocation, and you heard from me and a phalanx of elders in dark robes: Connect, we said, make Harvard part of your narrative. Take risks, we told you. Don’t always listen to us.
And for four years you have distinguished yourselves with dazzling variety: In what may be Harvard’s most divergent dozen, you produced six Rhodes Scholars, including one who broke the world record for standing on a “Swiss” exercise ball, plus six athletes invited to the National Football League to play ball, players whose interests range from the ministry to curing infectious diseases.
You were good at long distances: You probed the atmosphere of an exoplanet; researched antibiotic use on a pig farm in Denmark; and you created a pilot program that cut shuttle times from the Quad by half.
You experienced old traditions: The mumps. A class color, orange. And the time-honored Lampoon theft of the Crimson president’s chair—this time transporting it across state lines to Manhattan’s Trump Tower, for a staged photo op with a then dark-horse presidential candidate.
You found your way: on campus, through a maze of renovations and swing housing; onstage, doing stand-up comedy on NBC, dancing in Bogota, and mounting Black Magic at the Loeb; through the halls of business and finance, running an intercollegiate investment fund; and exposing a privacy issue with Facebook’s Messenger app.
You won, with style and grace: as you captured the first national trophy for Harvard Mock Trial—by being funnier than Yale; and then you shellacked the Bulldogs in The Game for—yes—the 9th straight year; you produced the first Ivy “three-peats” in football and women’s track; and brought home the first Ivy crown in women’s rugby—how “Fierce and Beautiful” was that!
And, of course, all this was powered by HUDS, since 2012, powered with ceaseless servings of swai.
And you were just plain good: You wrote prize-winning theses on sea level change, a water crisis in Detroit; you engineered a better barbecue smoker—and tested it in a blizzard; you joined the fight to end malaria; and earned the award for best hockey player in the NCAA for strength of character as well as skill; you became well connected—to Alzheimer’s patients, to kids in Kenya, to homeless youth; and, as the inaugural class of Ed School Teacher Fellows, 20 of you are preparing to help high-need students rise.
And I understand you even rested with ambition, as you tried to “Netflix and chill.”
You made it all look easy—all while facing blows to the spirit that have tempered and tested you. You arrived just after a breach of academic trust that, by your senior year, produced the first honor code in Harvard’s history, events that raised hard questions for all of us: What is success? What is integrity? To whom, or what, are we accountable?
When a hurricane prompted the first Harvard closing in 34 years, you rallied with generosity and goodwill—and did so again when we closed for snowstorm Nemo—the fifth largest in Boston history. And that was just a warm up, so to speak, for the Winter of Our Misery—the worst in Boston history—when you sledded the slopes of Widener in a kayak.
And when the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, in just your second semester, we considered still larger questions: Who are we? What matters most? What do we owe to one another? You told me that you became Bostonians that day, bonded to a city beyond Harvard Square, and to each other during the manhunt and lockdown, when the University closed for an unprecedented third time in 6 months.
Who can forget the images—of the mayhem, of the people who ran, not for safety, buttoward the danger, into the chaos? The Army veteran, who smelled cordite, and expecting more bombs, saved a college student’s life; the man in the cowboy hat, who ripped away fencing in order to reach the most injured. And who can forget the moment when Red Sox first baseman David Ortiz stood in the center of Fenway Park and said in eleven words of fellowship and defiance that the FCC chose not to censor, though I will today—“this is our [bleeping] city and nobody[’s] gonna dictate our freedom.”
A few months ago as I was lucky enough to be sitting in a Broadway theater, absorbing the final number of the musical Hamilton, I thought of you, and that fierce spirit of inclusion and self-determination. I watched as Eliza, center stage, sang, “I put myself back in the narrative,” and asked the question in the title of her song, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?,” the spirited summation of a production that, like you, has broken records. Like you, has created a new drama inside a very old one.
Harvard, one might say, is a bastion of opportunity and unimaginable good fortune—for all of us, who find a place, with varying degrees of comfort, at the center of its long and successful narrative. And yet the burden is on us—to locate the discomfort, to act on the restless spirit of that legacy. As I thought about speaking to you here today, it occurred to me how much the question in that final song has framed your time here, and how much it will continue to affect your lives, as college graduates, as Harvard alumni, as citizens and as leaders. Who will tell your story?
You. You will tell your story. That is the point that I want to leave you with today. Telling your own story, a fresh story, full of possibility and a new order of things, is the task of every generation, and the task before you. And that task is exactly what your liberal arts education has prepared you to do, in three vital ways:
First, telling your own story means discovering who you are, and not what others think you should be. It means being mindful of others, but deciding for yourself. It’s easy to tell a tale that others define, the one they expect to hear. A moment ago I sketched your Harvard history. But what did I leave out? One of Harvard’s legendary figures and Reverend Walton’s predecessor, the Reverend Peter Gomes, used to put it this way: “Don’t let anyone finish your sentences for you.” He loved being a paradox, an unpredictable surprise, but always true to himself: a Republican in Cambridge; a gay Baptist preacher; black president of the Pilgrim Society—Afro-Saxon, as he sometimes put it. Playful. Unapologetic. Unbounded by others’ expectations. “My anomalies,” he once said, “make it possible to advance the conversation.”
Advance the conversation. This is my next point. Telling our own stories is not just about us. It is a conversation with others, exploring larger purposes and other worlds and different ways of thinking. Your education is not a bubble. Think of it as an escape hatch, from what Nigerian novelist and former Radcliffe Fellow Chimamanda Adichie calls “The Danger of a Single Story.” She has observed, “[h]ow impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.” Not because it may be untrue, but because, in her words, “[stories] are incomplete. They make one story become the only story,” even though “[m]any stories matter.” For four years you have learned the rewards of other stories, and the risk of critical misunderstandings when they go unheard—whether those stories emerge from the Office for LGBTQ Life, or the Black Lives Matter movement, or the international conversation on sexual assault—and perhaps most powerfully, from one another. This is precious knowledge. Only by knowing that other stories are possible can we imagine a different future. What will medicine look like in the 21st century? Energy? Migration? How will cities be designed? The question, as one of you wrote in the Crimson, is not “What am [I] going to be,” but “What problem do [I] solve?”
Which brings me to my final point: keep revising. Every story is only a draft. We re-tell even our oldest sagas—whether of Hamilton and the American Revolution or of Harvard itself. The best education prepares you because it is unsettling, an obstacle course that forces us to question and push and reinvent ourselves, and the world, in a new way. Steven Spielberg, who will speak to us on Thursday, has explained the foundation of his powerful storytelling. He says: “Fear is my fuel. I get to the brink of not knowing what to do and that’s when I get my best ideas.”
What is a university but a place where everyone should feel equally sure to be unsure? Our best discoveries can start out as mistakes. As Herbie Hancock told us, his mentor jazz legend Miles Davis, said there is no playing a “wrong” note, only a surprising one, whose meaning depends on whatever you play next.
In the evolving universe of profiles and hashtags and selfies, it seems no accident that you are the class of Snapchat—a platform that took hold when you were freshmen and developed with you, from showing “snaps” to telling and sharing “stories”—stories that vanish every day, to be replaced by new stories, free of “likes” or “followers.” An app that, in the words of a founder, “isn’t about capturing … what[’s] pretty or perfect … but … creates a space to … communicat[e] with the full range of human emotion.”
And so for four years you have been learning to re-tell things: finding your voices, putting yourself in a narrative, whether that was demanding action against climate change, discovering that you love statistics, or creating the powerful message of “I, Too, Am Harvard.” You have seen things re-told. Even Harvard’s story. Last month one of my heroes, Congressman John Lewis, came to Harvard Yard to unveil a plaque on Wadsworth House, documenting the presence of four enslaved individuals who lived in the households of two Harvard presidents. John Lewis said, “We try to forget but the voices of generations have been calling us to remember.” Titus, Venus, Bilhah and Juba—their lives change our story. After three centuries, they have a voice. They, too, are Harvard.
Telling a new story isn’t easy. It can take courage, and resolve. It often means leaving the safe path for the unknown, compelled, as John Lewis put it, to “disturb the order of things.” And during your years here you have learned to make, as he urged, “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
For years I have been telling students: Find what you love. Do what matters to you. It might be physics or neuroscience, or film making or finance. But don’t settle for Plot B, the safe story, the expected story, until you have tried Plot A, even if it might require a miracle. I call this the Parking Space Theory of Life. Don’t park 10 blocks away from your destination because you are afraid you won’t find a closer space. Don’t miss your spot—Don’t throw away your shot. Go to where you think you want to be. You can always circle back to where you have to be. This can require patience and determination. Steven Spielberg was, in fact, late to class his first day as a student at California State University, because, as he put it, “I had to park so far away.” He went on to sneak onto movie sets, no matter how many times he got thrown off.
“You shouldn't dream your film,” he has said, “you should make it!”
Perhaps this is the new Jurassic Parking Space Theory of Life—don’t just tell your story, live it. Your future is not a script. It’s an attitude, a way of being that can create a new narrative no one may have thought possible, let alone probable:
Jeremy Lin—Harvard graduate, Asian-American—changed the narrative of professional basketball, still sizzling with “Linsanity” when you arrived as freshmen.
Think about Stephen Hawking, who spoke to us last month through a speech synthesizer. He changed the narrative of the universe, a story about what ultimately will become of all our stories—one he has been revising since he was your age, when he was given three years to live.
And you are already changing the story:
Think of the astrophysics and mythology concentrator who started a mentorship program for women of color to change the narrative of who enters STEM fields, and she wrote a science fiction novel to tell a new research-based story about the galaxy.
Or think of the Second Lieutenant—one of 12 new Harvard officers—who will serve her country in the U.S. Marines, battling not only the enemy, but persistent gender divides. “How will that change,” she says, “unless we start now?”
And think about the pre-med student who found himself literally running away from campus, fleeing in misery, until he suddenly stopped in his tracks and turned back, because he remembered he needed to be at a theater rehearsal where he had stage managing responsibilities. Some 20 productions later, he has a theater directing fellowship for next year, and even his parents, as he puts it, now believe “that I am an artist.”
Value the ballast of custom, the foundations of knowledge, the weight of expectation. They, too, are important. But don’t be afraid to defy them.
And don’t worry, as you feel the tug of these final days together. I am here to tell you that your Harvard story is never done. In 1978, two freshmen watched a screening of the movieLove Story in the Science Center. Three decades later, they met for the first time. And their wedding story appeared last month in The New York Times.
So, congratulations, Class of 2016. Don’t forget from whence you came. Change the narrative. Rewrite the story. There is no one I would rather trust with that task.
Go well, 2016.