Commencement address by the Rev. Peter J. Gomes
Plummer professor of Christian morals
and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church
of Harvard University
Sunday, May 15, 2005
Mr. Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, fellow members of the oldest public university in the United States.
I stand before you today as the evidence of a remarkable miracle. When I entered this stadium today for the first time, I was clad in the crimson gown of another ancient institution, called Harvard College. Before your very eyes, you see this crimson transformed into Carolina Blue.
I’m very much aware of the honor that is done me, not only by this degree, but by the privilege of addressing all of you, but most particularly those of you who are candidates for the first degree in the arts and sciences. This remarkable sea of blue that faces us all at the proper end of the stadium.
In the event that anyone is confused as to who the youngest members of our company are today, they are the ones who until a few seconds ago were bouncing balls merrily amongst themselves in the stadium.
I do not discourage such youthful enthusiasm because the days in which you can do this now are sadly numbered and are fast behind you. My advice to you is toss your balls while you can.
I also know that it’s true, some of you, I may not be what you either expected or desired on this particular occasion. I read the papers, even your papers, and I discovered that the speaker whom you really wanted was Oprah Winfrey.
I resemble her only slightly. I recognize that. But I join you in admiration of her great achievements.
But there is one thing she does not have, and I do, and that is a Carolina degree.
And perhaps my presence here is itself a teachable moment, and that lesson that perhaps ought to be learned sooner rather than later is that you cannot always get what you want. But you’ve got me, and I’ve got my degree, and I’m thrilled to be here.
I can say almost anything that I want, because within an hour or so, I will be history. I will be gone. I will be a footnote in the long history of this institution.
But right now, it is my job to speak. It is your job to listen. And if you finish your job before I finish mine, I hope you’ll be kind enough to wait for me.
Now I could give you the shortest commencement address on record, which I happened to hear. It was the address given by George Plimpton, to a Harvard College class 25 years ago. This is what he said. “Don’t go.”
But like so much advice on this occasion, it is easier to say than to follow. You must go. There’s no more room for you here.
In fact, your rooms have already been rented.
Your poor parents, not to mention the state, can no longer afford to subsidize you. You must leave. And you will do so whether you wish to or not.
But before you do, you are obliged to endure one more obligation and that is to hear me out.
First, let me say I know full well that congratulations are in order. You will be kissed, your hands will be shaken, your bodies will be embraced by hundreds of people before this day is out.
All of them will congratulate you on your stellar accomplishments and your bright promise and the great future that awaits you. I, of course, join them.
But I have been in this university business long enough to know that many of you represent the truth of that old aphorism, “It is still possible to fool a lot of the people a lot of the time.”
Many of you are surprised to find yourselves here today.
Many of the faculty are surprised to find many of you here today.
But under these favoring Carolina skies, all is forgiven. All secrets are kept. Truth-telling is kept only for those of us who are paid to tell the truth.
So off you will go. You will be embraced by your family, your parents, your friends, your spouses, your neighbors, as you should be, and by the good people of the state of North Carolina who have paid so much that you might receive so much.
They have invested in you, as they have over 200 years, presumably because they believe that an educated citizenry is a good citizenry. That education and virtue somehow go together.
There is something naïve and optimistic about that hope, but my great hope is that you will live into it and not prove it false.
You and I know a lot of very smart people who are not very nice people. And we know that those who know the most are not necessarily capable of doing the best.
The great hope each year is that the rising generation of graduates across this country, and particularly out of this university, will prove that there continues to be a connection between virtue and knowledge. Between goodness and opportunity. Between knowing it all and doing the right thing.
Alas, the examples are not brilliant and are not many before us of those who are capable of blending these qualities together. But we live in constant hope, and the commencement ceremony is the annual renewal of this hope that perhaps this time, and perhaps in your class, we will get it right.
That is why we invest so much in you. That is why we hope so much for you. That is why we expect so much from you. Now, an occasion such as this would be incomplete without three bits of unsolicited advice.
I am the bearer of that unsolicited advice, and I am about to give it to you. I preface that with an allusion to T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time. The end is where we start from.” And so it is.
The first piece of advice I have may come as something of a downer. You may not like to receive it. But receive it you will. And it is this: I encourage you – particularly the youngest of you in the blue up there – cherish your failures. Cherish the things that have not gone right with you. Cherish the mistakes that you have made and that you are certainly likely to make.
Why? Because my sense is that most of us learn more from our failures than from our successes. When we succeed at anything, we take it either as for granted or as a bit of unmerited luck. But we don’t think a great deal about it, and we go on to the next mountain or the next victory or the next prize.
But when we fail, when we stumble, when things do not go as they ought, we take the time to wonder what went wrong. What happened.
In those moments may well occur the time for truth and genuine reflection. Not just analysis, but reflection.
I invite you into the realm of reflection, especially when you don’t get the job, you don’t get the promotion, you don’t get the guy or you don’t get the girl; when things just don’t work out the way the playbook said it would work out.
Those are the occasions that invite the kind of inner reflection for which your education in this great place has prepared you.
Now, I know that’s hard advice to take in the community that cherishes its capacity for winning. I understand that.
But you will not always win. You will not always be first. And in those moments will come the great challenge of your life. Not how to rack up your successes, but how to manage your failures.
That’s the first bit of advice for you. Failure in life is inevitable, so learn from it.
The second bit of advice I have for you is this: Redefine what you mean by success.
For some of you, just being here today in a cap and gown is a success. And we congratulate you on that indeed. But I want you to know that that is not success. That is merely survival. You got through. That is all right, but that is not enough.
True success requires a more ample definition. And I shall share one with you that I have appreciated for many years. It comes from A. Lawrence Lowell, former president of Harvard University.
This is what he says: True success does not consist in doing what we set forth to do, nor what we had hoped to do, not even in doing what we have struggled to do. True success consists in doing something that is worth doing.
I realize that this is a public and a secular institution. But I dare pray for you that you will discover something in life that is worth doing, not simply something that you’re good at or something from which you make a large profit. That would be nice, too.
But I pray that each of you will find something that is worth doing, a true and genuine vocation, which is – as Fred Buechner describes it – where your great joy meets the world’s great need.
Oh, I pray for each of you that you will find such a meaning in your lives.
I realize in an age of the National Enquirer and ready-made icons – morning, noon and night – that the signs of false success abound on every hand. But I realize that you are smart enough to distinguish between the apparent and the real.
Don’t bet on celebrity; rather, invest in character. It lasts a lot longer.
Now, my third bit of advice is both easy to give, and – I hope – even easier to receive.
I want to suggest that you all try a little happiness. That’s right. That’s the word I used. Happiness. An unfamiliar word on solemn occasions such as this, but one that is absolutely essential for the well being of your lives.
I don’t mean momentary pleasure or sensation or even satisfaction.
I mean happiness in the sense that that old dead white man Aristotle defined it – the exercise of the vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.
Think of those constituent parts. Vital powers. I can sense it way down here. What vitality, what energy is there beneath those blue caps and gowns. It’s surging through you. I feel it rising. It is almost, well, it’s pretty powerful stuff.
Great question is what do you do with all of that energy?
Do you know, young graduates, that you are now at your intellectual peak? Your brains are so sharp now they will never be as sharp as this again.
The faculty know more but their brains are nowhere as sharp and acute as you are. That’s why we get rid of you after four years.
So we don’t have to compete with you. Your intellectual powers have never been acuter.
Do you know that you are at your sexual peak. Of course you know that.
And it will be downhill from now on.
Look at your parents; that is your future.
You are even less vital and acute now than when I began to speak.
But you have still this incredible vitality; a great question is what will you do with it? How will you channel it?
Vital powers along lines of excellence.
That means doing the very best that you can to conquer this culture of mediocrity, to destroy the mendacious second-class set of values that permeate our culture. Excellence is what you have been called to exercise, and you have the capacity to do so.
In a life affording them scope, oh, what opportunities you have! If we all up here could only start again. Oh to be 22 again!
I vaguely remember what it was like. It was wasted on me as it doubtless is on you. And when you discover how wonderful it was, it will be too late.
That’s why I’m telling you now: This is the moment, dear young friends. Seize it. That will bring you happiness.
The exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.
Perhaps you will remember the last line of the so-called Confederate Prayer: I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
Think about it. It’s true.
Now I know very well – from my own experience 40 years ago, almost to the day, sitting in a place not dissimilar from this one – that very few of you will remember a single word that I have said today.
Most of you won’t remember it through lunch.
That’s the way it is. I didn’t remember a single word from my own commencement address.
But all of your life has been a mere prelude to the day after tomorrow. I won’t say tomorrow, because you will be busy packing and getting stuck in traffic and going home tomorrow.
But the day after tomorrow, it will hit you. It will dawn upon you that you are no longer an undergraduate. You are no longer a candidate for anything.
Life has hit you full on and, by God, you better live it or die. All of this has been a mere preparation for that.
So how do we sum this all up? Again, three things:
Get over it. Get over it; it’s time to go.
Get used to it. This is your life. Whatever it is, it’s yours.
And get on with it.
Life is to be lived and loved and not merely anticipated.
We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all of our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time. The end is where we start from.
Good luck and God bless you as you make that glorious start that’s the beginning of the rest of your lives.
You also can listen to Dr. Gomes’ address to UNC’s class of 2005.