May 14, 2011
Baccalaureate, part of Smith's commencement weekend, is an opportunity for seniors to pause, reflect upon and rejoice in their accomplishments, challenges and friendships. President Christ delivered remarks to the Class of 2011 in Helen Hills Hills Chapel.
I very much value the opportunity to talk with you today, before all the festivity and public celebration of Ivy Day and Commencement. You’ve reached an important milestone, a stepping-off place, when on Monday you’ll begin — perhaps with some trepidation — Life After College.
You’ve been at Smith during momentous years in history — the financial collapse of 2008, leading to the most severe recession since the Great Depression; the election of the country’s first African American president, who battled for his party’s nomination with the strongest woman candidate for president in our history; catastrophic natural disasters — cyclones, tornadoes, devastating earthquakes in China, in Haiti and in Japan, with the tsunami that followed; manmade disasters — Deepwater Horizon and the nuclear meltdown in Japan; and the revolutions in the Middle East. Our country has been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and has struggled with both high unemployment and continuing financial challenges. This set of world events can create a sense of helplessness, at the futility of any one person’s efforts in the face of such forces, and of hope that people banding together, in elective politics, in social movements or in revolution, can change the course of history. As you consider the kind of life you want to lead, you face a daunting environment in which to consider that decision. The college has told you that you’re a woman of promise whom Smith has educated for a life of distinction. What exactly does that mean? What will you make it mean? Does it start on May 16th? How do the more mundane tasks of finding a job, a place to live, connect to these lofty and rhetorical predictions and aspirations?
As I’ve been reflecting on what I wanted to say to you today, I found myself thinking about Voltaire’s satire Candide, published in 1759. Candide tells the story of a young man who has been leading an ideal life in an Edenic paradise — perhaps by his own Paradise Pond — educated by Dr. Pangloss. This tutor is a philosophical optimist, believing that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Thrown out of this paradise for kissing the baron’s daughter, Candide then wanders the world. He is captured by army recruiters and forced into military service. He fights in one of the biggest and most deadly battles of the Seven Years’ War; escapes the army and reconnects with Dr. Pangloss, who has also been dismissed by the baron and is suffering from syphilis. Right after Dr. Pangloss is miraculously cured of his syphilis, but only after losing an eye and an ear, they set sail for Lisbon only to arrive right before the great Lisbon earthquake, tsunami and fire of 1755 — one of the deadliest natural disasters in the history of the world. They barely escape the religious persecution that follows — the Inquisition — and set sail for the “New World.” At this point we’re about a third of the way through the book (and I have really simplified this plot). Finally, after twenty more chapters of similar catastrophic suffering, they wind up on a farm in Turkey. Dr. Pangloss continues to believe that all has been for the best in this best of all possible worlds; Candide concludes that we must simply cultivate our own gardens.
I tell you about Voltaire’s fable because it raises in provocative terms the question of how to live in a world of war, political upheaval and natural disaster, where extreme suffering is continually apparent. Is the answer to cultivate your own garden, live locally, close to the ground? This hardly makes for a rousing commencement speech.
But are we in a world today in which the local has a very different meaning than it did for Voltaire? Voltaire lived before the advent of elective democracy, indeed before the idea of democratic revolt and before transportation and communication had shrunk the globe. Now we live in a world in which the global and the local are very tightly intertwined, in which the choices we make about our garden — our earthly footprint — have a collective global impact.
So what kind of garden can you cultivate? What kind of garden will you cultivate?
You may feel at this point that you should have it all figured out, that you should know exactly where every plant should go — to drop the metaphor for a moment, to know exactly how that life of distinction that Smith has promised you should unfold — but you haven’t even gotten around to ordering the seed catalogue.
But let’s think for a moment about gardens. They have a cyclical, not a linear rhythm. They’re made up of annuals and perennials. They’re subject to the weather — changes you can’t anticipate or control (just as I have no direct line to the weather gods this weekend). And you can always change them.
Even though I’m a student of the novel, I’ve often thought that the linear narrative of the conventional novel, so deeply engrained in our sensibility, can create false hopes and expectations for our own lives. Mary Catherine Bateson’s book, Composing a Life, speaks eloquently of these false paradigms. She argues that in telling life stories — both our own life story and those of others — we have over-focused on the idea of life as a quest, a journey toward a single goal, rather than on the fluid, the protean, the improvisatory.
Many years ago now, I had an experience teaching a seminar on Jane Austen that has become symbolic to me of the mistake of thinking your life will unfold like a novel. I was talking to the class about the design of Jane Austen’s plots, specifically about the way in which they must offer multiple possibilities for the heroine’s fortune, creating the illusion of freedom. These possibilities make the marriage that ends the novel seem the inevitable and perfect resolution whose design, in retrospect, seems implicit from the beginning. Despite the false suitors along the way — the Mr. Collins, the Mr. Eltons, the Willoughbys and the Wickhams — Elizabeth will always marry Darcy and Emma, Mr. Knightly. A young woman in the front row eagerly raised her hand. “I know just what you mean,” she said. “If I knew who I was going to marry, everything in my life would be clear.” It’s easy to laugh at her naiveté, but embedded in it is an assumption about the design of life’s narratives that reinforces Bateson’s point: that our lives will not have a simple story line leading inevitably to a single event but are instead a complex, multiform set of stories that will encompass many experiences and discoveries. Or, to return to the metaphor with which I started, you will cultivate many gardens, and each year will hold new possibilities.
So, as you look for your first job, don’t worry that it has to define your course in life. Most women that I know in their thirties and forties have taken a while to figure out what suits and fulfills them best. You don’t need to be afraid that by taking a step in one direction, you’re cutting off options, wasting time or making a mistake. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
In the same spirit, don’t be afraid to give up that first job if you discover it isn’t taking you in a direction that you like.
And if you have decided where to go — beginning graduate or professional school — understand it’s a new path. It will be different from undergraduate work, and it will be different from Smith.
In exploring possibilities, wherever they take you, make as much use as you can of networks. Seek out people to learn from, and remember what a great resource the Smith network can be.
And remember that the personal relationships in your life — your friends, your family, your partner, ultimately your children if you choose to have them — will be as important in providing fulfillment and meaning as your career. Give time to your relationships; don’t expect that they will grow without your attention and care.
I think I can trust that not many of you will leave this particular garden as Panglossian optimists; the world presses too hard upon us for that. But I also trust that the local can be the global, that the garden you grow can contribute to the world’s good.
As you leave to choose the first of many gardens that you will cultivate, I hope that this place — Smith — if not the original garden of paradise, is still one to which you will return, not just for reunions but in your mind and heart, finding seed corn in your experiences that you can use again and again.