A Word to Graduates: Organize!
But hope isn't a choice, it's a moral obligation, a human obligation, an obligation to the cells in your body. Hope is a function of those cells, it's a bodily function the same as breathing and eating and sleeping. Hope is not naïve, hope grapples endlessly with despair. Real, vivid, powerful, thunderclap hope, like the soul, is at home in darkness, is divided; but lose your hope and you lose your soul, and you don't want to do that, trust me, even if you haven't got a soul, and who knows, you shouldn't be careless about it. Will the world end if you act? Who can say? Will you lose your soul, your democratic-citizen soul, if you don't act, if you don't organize? I guarantee it. And you will feel really embarrassed at your ten-year class reunion. People will point, I promise you; people always know when a person has lost his soul. And no one likes a zombie, even if, from time to time, people will date them.
The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz has a poem titled "On Angels"--you can imagine why I was drawn to it--and it concludes by articulating the best possible answer to What am I doing here and Why me. The poet is haunted by a voice:
I have heard that voice many a time when asleep
and, what is strange, I understood more or less
an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:
day draws near
do what you can.
The first time I had to give a commencement speech I was so nervous. I'd been dating this guy, not a zombie, a nice guy, a grad student in Victorian literature--here's another piece of advice, only date people who have read a different set of books than you have read, it will save you lots of time in the library--and I told him I didn't know what to say in this commencement speech, and he said, "You ought to look at Emerson's commencement address to the Harvard Divinity School," and I said, "Oh of course, I love that." And here's my last piece of advice: Never admit to not having read something. So I went home and read it, and it's so beautiful and so true that I was blocked from writing for several weeks. It's so beautiful and true that after Emerson delivered it, Harvard refused to let him back on campus for thirty years.
The address begins so beautifully I must to read it to you:
In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm of Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never more happily displayed.
And even in rough, tough, butch Poughkeepsie, even under stormy skies, 127 years of additional environmental despoliation later, we still know what Emerson is talking about. And then he goes on to say many, many extraordinary things, and you should all read Emerson, all the time--talk about a soul divided, talk about a bright soul living in darkness. But I thought this would make a perfect way to conclude, for what better advice could one offer to graduates, to citizen souls, than this:
But speak the truth [says Ralph Waldo Emerson], and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness.... Good is positive. Evil is merely privative.... It is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity. Benevolence is absolute and real.... The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul.... The dawn of the sentiment of virtue on the heart, gives and is the assurance that Law is sovereign over all natures. [But speak the truth] and the worlds, time, space, eternity, do seem to break out into joy.
It's time to stop talking. Oh, it always goes like this. I start out not knowing what to say, and before I know it I can't shut up. So commence already! A million billion mazels to you and your parents and your teachers and Vassar for having done so self-evidently magnificent a job. I am certain you are aflame. Hurry hurry hurry, now now now, damn the critics and the bad reviews: The world is waiting for you! Organize. Speak the truth.