Class of 2021,
How to say farewell to you after this momentous, heavy, sobering year… over 590, 000 deaths in this country and over 3.5 million worldwide due to the pandemic. As we read about India and see pictures of people cremating their loved ones in public squares, as the conflict in the Middle East once again flares up, as nations are struggling to cooperate over vaccines, as newspapers are running articles about whether humans are about to destroy the planet, and when this country remains wounded in its continued quest for social justice and equity for those suffering from racism, it is difficult to recap this year.
But, I am grateful for us to be able to be here today together – even though it might not fit our exact imaginations of it, this moment still offers us an opportunity for connection and happiness. On the note of gratitude, I am truly honored you have trusted me with these few minutes.
This is a special moment. You are graduating from one of the top institutions in the country, and you are in your twenties – either of these suffice on their own for a celebration. So, breathe in the moment and let it sit with you for a while.
I was told that my last Commencement speech, back in 2014, was unexpected and surprising to some because I talked about the importance of love. It was unexpected, I was told, because as an International Relations professor, the wager was on me to talk about subjects such as war, tariffs on imported goods, and whether the international liberal order will survive. So, during this speech, I wanted to pick one of those themes – and I decided to go with the prospects for the international liberal order.
I am joking, it is a Sunday morning, you are exhausted from the semester and from this week’s celebrations. By the way, I am really funny in Turkish.
In all seriousness, though, I want to answer a quintessential Swarthmore question that a member of your cohort asked me:: “As an adult who lives in the Real World, what things became more important to you after college that you wouldn’t have expected as a college student?”
I love this question, and I would like to offer four observations in an attempt to respond. I don’t want you to think that I am capable of executing my own advice well or consistently or even at all. Hence, these are just my observations.
Observation 1: As wonderful as the great achievements of our life taste, happiness lies in being able to draw satisfaction from the smaller moments.
When I was much younger, I equated happiness with grand moments. As I have grown older, I understand happiness as being able to enjoy the small moments: it is being outside and looking up to the sky, seeing leaves dance before a storm, it is about having a wonderful conversation with an old friend, it is about seeing a stranger doing an act of kindness, it is about blasting one of your favorite songs with the windows rolled down on a road trip. I do not deny that you might need some big moments, like this very one, to get you to the small ones, but happiness lies in being able to capture the specialness of a completely mundane seeming moment and being grateful for life.
Observation 2: Being loyal to your values and ideas is important, but being open-minded is also crucial.
As you enter the “real world”, one of the things you may find difficult is balancing being intellectually open-minded and nimble with non-neutrality. Being objective without being neutral can be an incredibly challenging task at times. We cannot, for instance, be expected to be neutral in the face of human rights violations or democratic backsliding or systemic injustice. I am not suggesting that it is straightforward to channel that non-neutrality into meaningful action. There might also be moments when objectivity is not meaningful. In the face of mass atrocities, for instance, objectivity does not have as much value as non-neutrality. But, in normal day-to-day interactions, without compromising our ethics and values in the name of neutrality, how can we – in most of our interactions – nonetheless be objective and open-minded?
Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (from Cosmopolitanism, pages 98-99) helps us with this question:
[quote, emphasis added] “You are asking us, the skeptic says, to care about all human beings. But we care only about people with whom we share an identity-national, familial, religious, or the like. And those identities get their psychological energy from the fact that to every in-group there’s an out-group. Loving America has, in part, to be about hating, or anyway disliking, America’s enemies…And the trouble with humanity, as an identity, is that…there is no out-group to generate the binding energy that every in-group needs.
Appiah goes on to explain that
[quote] “The force of the objection is not that we can’t take a moral interest in strangers, but that the interest is bound to be abstract, lacking in the warmth and power that comes from shared identity.” [unquote]
In overcoming this problem of the abstract human being, Appiah goes on to suggest that we need to learn about others to transform them from abstract beings to real individuals. When we do so, we turn imaginary strangers into real human beings, and even if we end up not liking them, we can still try to make sense of them.
Don’t give up on your values, but be as open-minded as possible. To be able to do so, you might need to converse with those, who you know you will disagree with, and communicate with those, who will not always endorse your actions and thinking.
Observation 3: Time is unexpected: it goes faster when you want it slower, and slower when you want it faster.
At your age, I reasonably expected good and bad things, but they have rarely come in the form I envisioned they would. That is the problem with challenges – they come in forms you don’t expect. You expect the difficulties of being a minority, for instance. You foresee the lifelong difficulty of being an immigrant. You expect the difficulties of raising kids in a competitive world, where you prioritize kindness but also want them to succeed and so push them to be competitive. You expect to run out of time for some things and have ample time for others, but life makes you run out of time when you don’t expect it and asks you wait long hours when you least want to.
At this moment, you may be restless to go grab the next phase of your life especially after a difficult year like this. In all likelihood (because I am a social scientist, I cannot in good conscience say I assure you), you have plenty of time not just to choose your path, but also to change it. When things get really tough, remember these two lines the Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, wrote from his prison cell due to political persecution:
[quote] “It's this way:
being captured is beside the point,
the point is not to surrender.” [unquote]
Observation 4: Motivation comes from within but inspiration comes from the outside.
I think, here, Swarthmore students really stand out; you are way ahead of many of us here: you are good at finding the inspiration to keep bridging over the gaps in our systems. Production, consumption, and goal-seeking which remain only individualistic create literal and emotional waste. You are naturally inclined to know we need to marry our quest for individual recognition, acceptance, and equality with larger goals that transcend our individual moments, our particular societies, and even our lifespans. These thoughts took me to a poem by Mary Oliver, from which I will read selectively:
[quote] You can
die for it--
or the world. People
have done so,
their small bodies be bound
to the stake,
fury of light. But
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought
how the sun
for everyone …
as it rises
under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?
What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? …[unquote]
Class of 2021, you are now guardians and custodians of this institution and no longer its students. Remember the kind of institution that you want others to inherit from your efforts. Take small opportunities, such as talking to a prospective student to tell them about this place, but use that opportunity to make it even stronger. See this institution lovingly but not unrealistically, remember its wonderful moments but also its imperfections and shortcomings, and do what I know you are good at doing: making it better.
I know you will be great in the real world, just as you were in this one.
Wishing you the best for the next phase of your life. Congratulations.