The Accidental American Renaissance
Thank you, to President Crawford, to the Board of Trustees, faculty, students, lovers of education. Happy Mother’s Day!
It’s a great and lasting gift, for me -- this honorary doctorate. (I’m sure, now that I hold this title, that United Airlines will never throw me off an overbooked plane. Don’t you know who you’re dealing with? A Doctor of Humane letters. Honorary!)
To you parents, good afternoon, and nice going. Take a deep inhalation of pride. Do you feel lighter – at least in the pocketbook? About $60,000 a year lighter? It’s a good feeling, I know from experience.
To you students. Congratulations! This is your day. Amazing feat. From here on out, you will fly away, as Dave Niehaus used to say about the rare home run in Safeco Field. Many of you, perhaps most of you, will stay here, in our beautiful corner of the world, others will take to the farthest reaches of this fragile planet of ours. You will fly away to life. Some of you will become doctors and lawyers. Some of you will be scientists and entrepreneurs. Some of you will sell stuff for Amazon. Some of you will sell fresh air in portable canisters (don’t laugh, Canadian air a big thing in China, and a lucrative business) Many of you will become mothers and fathers – which, you will learn, is your most important role.
Don’t worry if the Grand Plan isn’t mapped out yet. Don’t worry about the doubts Don’t worry if the road is foggy and obstructed, or if you can’t see any road at all. (Well, OK, worry just a little)
People ask me how I come up with my book ideas. I don’t. Most were pure chance. I buried my grandfather’s ashes on Mount Rainier – that led to my first book. I listened to people in their 90s tell an extraordinary story of the Dust Bowl. That led to a book called the “Worst Hard Time.” I asked the governor of Montana about a statue in front of their capitol – a guy on a horse. That led to the “Immortal Irishman,” my last book.
I believe that if you’re open to serendipity, good things can happen.
So, briefly today, I want to talk about this moment in American life – our accidental renaissance.
The writer David Foster Wallace once told a story of two younger fish swimming past an older fish. “Morning, boys,” said the solo fish. “How’s the water?
The two fish were puzzled by the question. One fish turned to other: “What’s water?”
So, we’re at a moment now when we – many of us -- did not know what water was. Or at least didn’t know until this momentous year.
I was stuck in bed not long ago with a truly bad cold. Lucky for me, it was during March Madness, so I could watch great basketball. But also, some particularly crazy stuff was going on outside of hoops.
So, while sniffling and coughing and checking my March Madness brackets, I started to feel like I’d been asleep for months, maybe years. That a lot of us had been asleep. That we had become a lazy, aging, fairly ignorant democracy. Even in the most turbulent election in modern history, about 90 million eligible voters didn’t bother to cast a ballot — the basic task of citizenship! We checked out. Went missing.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
Now, as a writer of history, I spend many hours, many days, time-travelling. But I couldn’t recall something like this before – that is, an assault on our shared values. I had taken so many things for granted. Not just politics.
But also, on a spiritual level -- my soul was rusty. When I graduated from a Jesuit high school in Spokane, I was given one lifelong guidance:
“Be in constant search of yourself and your God.”
I’d let that search, that innate curiosity, that love of challenge, of fresh knowledge, defense of our principles….lapse. And I was not alone. I’d become lazy in the head, lazy in the heart, lazy in the soul.
About the same time -- recovered now from my cold -- I went to a Search for Meaning festival on another college campus. That’s what it was called, Search for Meaning. And I thought, well this is going to be a sad affair: a handful of the usual Search for Meaning suspects would be huddled under drippy tents looking at obscure books and muttering to themselves about the meaninglessness of it all.
But nooooooooo! The place was sold out. ….Packed. A Surge in Search for Meaning!
In the winter of the American soul, people thronged to hear advice on how to “live a life of significance and impact” and to “find meaning in times of change, challenge and chaos.”
At the same time, monasteries – here – report a surge in lay people seeking a monastic experience. No cable, no wifi– for starters. You would never know Mike Zunino went 0 for 4 again.
You are familiar, many of you, with the Great Awakening. It refers to a religious revival, early 19th century United States.
I say we are experiencing a Great Awakening now. And, so -- yes—you leave this campus at a very scary moment: when all we hold dear is challenged.
But you also graduate at an opportune time, in the midst of another Great Awakening – our Accidental American Renaissance. I call it accidental, because, of course, it was never planned, like so much of life itself. Or, as John Lennon put it: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
Look around. Talk to your friends and family. Go into a bookstore, a theater, a neighborhood meeting, a church, a trail in the Cascade Mountains. People are going inward, to find something bigger than the hard chaos of the moment. And people are going outward, to show they care, and they will fight for this democracy.
Bestselling books right now are scary dystopian novels George Orwell’s 1984 is sailing out of bookstores and headed for Broadway. “Brave New World” has been rediscovered. , The Handmaid’s Tale, about a world gone authoritarian and patriarchal is a hut on Hulu Television.
And then, the renaissance, the positive revivals. Hamilton, of course, which precedes the awakening, a musical about our founding principles, all centered around –an immigrant! Alexander Hamilton himself, the guy on the ten dollar bill, one of our most brilliant founders, an immigrant.
But spiritual as well, as I mentioned. The “Book of Joy,” by Archbishop Tutu and the Dali Lama is selling more than any diet book.
The women’s march this past January was the largest in our history. It doesn’t matter if you agree with the politics or not, it was part of the Awakening. The Renaissance. The right of people to freely assemble in protest – banned, of course, in many a country, a death sentence in others.
Look around the workplace. People are switching careers. Making life changes they never thought they’d make. There’s an urgency to life. A quickness in our step. We’re alive. We’re no longer sleepwalking through history.
Recently, we had the March of Science: Nerd Pride on display in every city of America. I loved all the signs, easily the best of any demonstration.
One said, “Society Should Worry when Geeks have to Demonstrate.”
No, society should applaud, and welcome geeks to our polarized political world.
Another sign: “Got Plague? Me neither. Thanks, science.”
Another sign: “More peer review, fewer alternative facts.”
And my personal favorite: “No science. No beer.”
And these are people who didn’t major in humanities.
Finally, here’s my argument for jumping in.
Most of you have probably heard the inscription on many a high school yearbook from Teddy Roosevelt, a personal hero of mine. It was called the, Man in the Arena speech. It always bears repeating:
He said, in part, “It is not the critic who counts…The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes up short again and again.“
You notice he didn’t say it’s about losers or winners – which is what too much our society values have been reduced to. It’s about those who dare…
Now, here, on this lovely campus, on this remarkable day in your lives, I may be preaching to the choir. And if that’s so, you send me away a happier man, with a University of Puget Sound honorary doctorate. For Puget Sound ranks among highest in nation for community service, for people joining the Peace Corps.
You are awake! In that sense, you’re ahead of the rest of the country. But, in case you aren’t -- Don’t go to sleep. Your generation will save the next. Don’t rest on your sense of duty. Stay in the fight. Become a (citizen activist)
Don’t ever allow yourself to be in a position – like those two fish in the David Foster Wallace story, where you say, what’s water?
Thank you! And enjoy the flight to your new life.
Looking Back and Moving Forward
It’s not uncommon to frame “commencement” as a beginning. This approach is supported by everything from the name of the ceremony itself to the fact that we will, arbitrarily and suddenly, set forth from this temporary home and answer that all-too-familiar question about what we’ll be doing next. But then we’re left to grapple with the tension between an inevitable fresh start in a moment that feels very much like an end. It’s an odd feeling, to stand in the space before a next step, pausing with one foot raised while you survey the roads diverging before you.
My own route to the University of Puget Sound began as a wrong turn. Although I’d heard of this university, I had no intention of coming to school only forty-five minutes away from home. Then, my dad hijacked a family vacation – he pulled the car off the freeway as we were passing through Tacoma, “coincidentally” piloted us right up to Jones fountain, and towed me around campus insisting that we might as well give it a look since we were “here anyway.” Of course, this virtually guaranteed that when I set out from home, my final destination wouldn’t be Tacoma. But over the next year the university grew on me.
A year later, in August of 2013, we were back to campus for a different reason; to move me into a dorm and drop me off for college. Like today, that day felt like a pivotal turning point when an end meets a beginning. You might have had a pretty good idea that you would do a set of certain things: maybe you were already planning a major, or knew what club you were going to be a part of, or had a spot on a team lined up. I certainly had clear expectations about what my life would look like for the next four years. And then I embarked on four years of twists and turns.
Today I feel pretty similar to how I felt four years ago as an eighteen-year-old on her first day of college. I sort of have a plan, and I really don’t know what my next stop will be. The good news, is that while today is indisputably about the future, it is also about being in the moment, about celebrating an accomplishment, and about thanking the people who have brought us here.
The last time we were all together it was at the beginning, the starting line, when we gathered in this stadium and we listened to President-Emeritus Thomas give a speech. Famously, he talked about home. About leaving one home and finding another, and about Huckleberry Finn and how even a raft and a journey could be a home -- if you cared to make it one. We all made different homes here. We had different experiences, and we found different passions. Some of us might use the word home to describe this place, some of us would choose different adjectives. But despite that variety we intersect, once again, at today.
This year, a different president welcomed the class at the foot of the mountain. As an Orientation leader, I heard President Crawford when he too spoke about the different places we come from and about the communities that we find or build here. He also mentioned a statistic that stuck with me. Less than 7% of the world’s population, he said, will pursue higher education. With every term paper, and late-night lab or rehearsal, and every cup of coffee, we have been claiming our place in the seven percent. And with all the background noise of everyday life, it is easy to lose sight of what a rarity higher education is, and what an extraordinary accomplishment we are celebrating here today.
For both a college freshman and a college graduate one of the great and terrifying things about not being able to predict the future is that it means anything is possible. It means that our lives and our voices and our bravery will matter in ways that we can’t predict, and that others will be better for it. It means that any one of us here today could become the scientist who discovers a better cancer treatment. Or the entrepreneur who invents the next internet, or builds the next Amazon. Or an award-winning author and New York Times columnist. Any one of us could also be the little league coach, or the twelfth-grade teacher, or the neighbor down the street that changes someone’s life. Some of us have already begun to do that, and all of us know those figures from our own lives, because they have signposted our way to today.
In short, when we follow our collective path across this stage in a few moments we are claiming the opportunity to become our heroes, both professional and personal, and maybe both. Today – this end, this beginning – today is a day for gratitude, and it is a day for pride. It’s days like this that remind us what it really feels like to go pros te akra – to the heights – and that remind us that it feels like coming home.