Good afternoon, everybody. The day has arrived.
I will not bore you with platitudes about unprecedented, uncertain times, or how far this is from what you had expected. I imagine you are very aware already. (It’s just that people are not always very good at striking the appropriate emotional tone when life’s contrasts are on undeniable display: when graduation and a pandemic and a bunch of other Bad Stuff all happen simultaneously, for example.)
A lot of people are congratulating you, a lot of people are pitying you, a lot of people are opining about the various ways that you, as an individual, might surmount the challenges of massive unemployment and online college and continued contagion (and let’s not forget climate change, which will definitely get worse), and they are talking about the job skills you need for this new economy (what new economy!?) and what knowledge you need to collect in your places of higher education and what apps or scheduling systems or fitness and skincare routines will optimize all of that. It is exhausting to watch this happen. I imagine it is much more exhausting to be the subject of it, when you are in the middle of so many other emotions already.
I’m here to tell you that you need two things—just two—to meet the challenges ahead:
and moral courage.
I take this wisdom from two very different sources. The first: the late, luminous Mary Oliver, a poet who wrote about the exquisite and awful beauty of the natural world, mostly around her home on Cape Cod, and then in Florida. She gives three “instructions for living a life”—
- Pay attention
- Be astonished
- Tell about it.
The second of these sources is my mom. She outlawed the word “bored” in my childhood home, and was known to say, if we dared to use it, that “bored people are boring people.” In other words, the problem is not the world, which has failed to entertain you. The problem is that you have not mustered the internal resources to create meaning in it. This can be difficult, as you probably know, having spent an unexpected stretch of time stuck at home this spring. Sometimes we need help; often we need a habit that will lean us in the direction of meaning, and of delight. I ask my students, sometimes, what they would find interesting about the reading if they found it interesting—or what would you like about it if you liked it? Curiosity requires imagination because we have to create for ourselves the possibility that unfamiliar topics or ideas matter, intrinsically, before we learn what makes them useful to us.
But new ideas and questions and learning and imagination are not in themselves good things—they need direction. And that’s why I’ve commended two things to you. Curiosity, and moral courage.
Curiosity requires moral courage because there is a very good chance you will learn things you did not want to know—about yourself or the world or people you care about—and that knowledge will demand something of you. You will need courage to face it. Moral courage requires curiosity because there are many other things that masquerade as courage. You have seen many of them in these times. Foolishness can masquerade as “courage.” Anger can masquerade as courage. Dogmatism can masquerade as courage. There is no honor in standing boldly on unexamined convictions.
Curiosity and moral courage, moral courage and curiosity. Moral courage and curiosity means listening to the perspectives of others in order to understand them because you want to do what is right, but you also know you are not the only person with ideas about what that is. Moral courage and curiosity means listening to yourself: where did this idea come from? Why am I moved to defend it? And, in this particular moment, is it more important to be right or to be kind? Moral courage is most necessary when you come to realize that you are in the wrong—and you will be wrong, often, and egregiously, because we all are, because there is no living without error, and we are every one of us tangled up in evils larger than our own particular sins.
It looks pretty bleak out there, y’all, I’m not going to lie. These have not been good months, and we are still in the thick of all of it. I am not giving you guidance that will make life easy—anyone who says it will be easy is selling you something, or hiding the truth. I am not telling you how to find academic or professional success, though I’m sure many of you will; I am not even telling you how far you’ve already come or lauding your many achievements to date (which is something of a departure from the genre of commencement speech). I am only giving the very best wisdom I have about living a good and honest life in these (dare I say it) uncertain and unprecedented times, which are, in that sense, not so different from all other times: you will need curiosity and moral courage.
I hope that your curiosity guides you to things that will bring you delight and astonishment (Mary Oliver’s second rule of living). I hope that your moral courage strengthens you to pursue all that is good in this world, and to make even more of it.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.