I am so excited to be with you today. I am honored and grateful to be a guest on the lands of the Tongva people.
I am honored and humbled to be here to celebrate with you, your family, friends and loved ones all that you have achieved as you embark on the next leg of your journey. Congratulations!
When I was asked to participate in this celebration, I asked my family and friends what I should say. I told mom – they want me to speak for 10 minutes – she replied she didn’t think that would be much of a problem for me.
I asked my friends, many of whom are themselves Scripps alums, what I should say, and they told me to speak from my experience and my heart. They advised me to definitely stay under 10 minutes.
I thought of the many, many graduations I have been a part of between my own and my brothers – 13 in total – graduations, not brothers. Then I thought better of it – I’ve been to some incredible and not so incredible commencement speeches; either way, the prospect was intimidating.
I went for a hike down Buttermilk Trail overlooking the Yuba River, hugged by the granite of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains not too far from where I live in Sacramento. I thought of geologic time, of communities of plants and rocks, of a time before and after our species. I thought of other people’s words stamped on my heart. Like Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese, that I first encountered here at Scripps, which begins
“You do not have to be good,
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.”
I thought of my experiences. My own experiences have taught me much. Experiences here of the wisteria growing wild across the Margaret Fowler Garden in spring; the experience of living in Toll Hall off the Rose Garden and letting my roommate in through the window – a peter pan of sorts – because she had lost her key card, again. Experiences of Denison Library and a double shot mocha from the Motley at closing time, 11:45 pm – and what an experience that is! Only someone in their early 20s could handle all that caffeine and sugar in the middle of the night and a) think it’s a good idea and b) still sleep after! These are just some of the experiences here that have seeped into my bones and my being, that i carry with me.
Experiences of a different sort have also taught me much. The experiences of others that they graciously shared with me in my research on stress, resilience, disaster, and environmental justice. My research has taught me that people, ordinary individuals, live through extraordinary events – thru pandemic, hurricanes, wildfire, daily pollution and discrimination – and that by and large, as individuals we are quite resilient – we withstand the shocks and the stressors, we bounce back. But what the research has taught me is that people shouldn’t have to be resilient – people shouldn’t have to put their lives back together on their own, shouldn’t be faced with multiple kinds of disasters or daily harms.
But what the research also tells us is that our communities can help to reduce the burdens we face and strengthen our resilience. Communities like the ones you all have forged here. Like the ones you will no doubt build wherever you go next. And today, as your Scripps community, we are all gathered to celebrate you and all that you have accomplished!
I think often of these lessons I’ve learned through experience and research. Particularly as my wife and I expect our first child this fall. Our child makes me think of the spirit and the boundless capacity for creativity and imagination of our species; she makes me think of the world in which she will be born and of the present moment.
And, This is an unprecedented moment in time, a moment filled with disappointment and loss; AND one of radical possibility. It calls you to it. This moment filled with imperiled rights, the resurgence of a fight for freedoms long thought won; continuing a fight for freedoms not-yet-achieved – for reproductive justice and racial equity, for reparations and the right to live your gender and sex; a moment that necessitates vigilance – vigilance for our rights, our democracy, for each other. It is a moment we all must meet. How will you choose to meet it?
How I choose to meet this moment is informed by my experiences here. This place changed my life. The friends I made, the professors I learned from, the experiences I had.
And, This place may have changed your life, too – perhaps in ways yet to be discovered.
And you may find, may have already found – the uncertainty of this moment destabilizing – and as the Class of 2020 you’ve had more than your share of facing uncertainty. That already the time after graduation is frequently a very difficult time for many – a time of transition and change; from this place to that one. That this time, in particular, is one filled with uncertainty, socially, politically – in the wider context of the world in pandemic, at war, and in crisis – coupled with a time of great personal uncertainty – still figuring out who you are and who you want to be in the wide open sea of the world; our world, where anything is possible.
And think of what already has been – the friends you’ve made here; the relationships you’ve built; the community you’ve grown. All that you have accomplished; all the difficult and wondrous things you’ve done – the math exam you never thought you’d ace; that match, with everything on the line, you won; that language you spent years learning – you have grown immeasurably in your time here; you have made the impossible, possible. You have faced great uncertainty before – perhaps when you walked through Denison’s gates for the first time – and you’ve emerged different, the same, changed.
In short, this life will surprise you. Let it. Let it fill you with awe and amazement and a deep love for the world around you – and not just for the BIG stuff – like the job you’ve worked so hard for or that promotion you’ve earned or your first, second, or third GREAT loves, but also for the everyday sorts of things – for your walk to the bus or the train or from the parking lot, for the person making your coffee in the morning or afternoon or evening – if you are still brave enough to face caffeine at that late hour – for the trees that line our streets and the rivers that power our lives. Let this one, imperfect miraculous life surprise you. And may you choose to meet the surprise of life with compassion and care – for yourselves and each other, for our plant and animal relations, for the great, wide world, and the only planet we have and share.
In short, you each have the power to transform the world. You already are; so don’t stop! Keep going!
I think at last of Oliver’s poem, it concludes:
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.”
What world will you imagine? What will grow if we let it?