Skip to main content

Lulu Miller '05

You guys rock so hard. You give me so much hope. 

It is such a huge honor to be here. I am very pregnant, and when you all walked in — maybe it's the hormones, but maybe it's the moment — I truly started crying. I am so proud of you all. I want to congratulate you all and your families for getting you here, for getting you the ceremony you deserve, exactly as it's been playing out.

All right, last speech. You made it to the last speech. So I've only got five minutes to speak, so I'm going to tell you a really good secret.

I, like probably many of you, am not always impressed with humanity, and so I spend a lot of time looking at nature, trying to learn how other organisms live in harmony and flourish on this planet. And it turns out that back on campus, there is a grove of sassafras trees. It's right near Crumhenge and it holds a tremendous secret, a kind of North Star that I think can help guide you in darkness.

Okay, so sassafras trees, they're the ones that go into root beer, they give it that spicy taste. Another cool factoid is that they on one branch will have three different leaves. I went and visited it this morning, so that's fun. The trees themselves, they look a little scrappy, they're kind of skinny, and the grove at Swarthmore looks like it has 11 trees.

But the truth, the secret is that, hiding underneath the dirt, they're all connected through their roots. They're one organism. It is one organism, respiring and growing as one. And the more I have interviewed scientists over the last 20 years about human nature, from neurology to pulmonology, the more I have been convinced that we are so like these trees. Even though we march around on top of the dirt in our little outfits thinking we are distinct individuals, our ideas, our moods, our fears, even the pace of our breath, is made up of those around us. For instance, right now, whether you want to be or not, whether you agree with or disagree with the person sitting next to you, you are slowly becoming locked in a kind of synchrony with them.

Scientists have found that over time, groups will begin to breathe as one. And if you were sitting talking to a friend looking at them, over time, you would begin to blink as one. If I were to stutter, the tiny muscles on your mouth will begin to twitch. And because emotions — like fear or joy or grief — leak out of the face in these reliable movements called micro-expressions, this involuntary synchronized dancing has an odd effect. The emotions of the people nearby you are produced inside you.

Learning this, reading through hundreds of scientific studies that show how breathtakingly permeable we are, has convinced me that the individual is a myth, just a lie that we tell ourselves. And while on one hand being connected like trees might be some philosophy major in this audience's definition of Nirvana, on the other hand, be wary who you stand near. This seepage of other people into you is real. It builds the content of your thoughts, the flavor of your feelings, it loosens or pulls the reins on your courage.

Time and time again when I've been lost, I have found that the way forward did not come through sheer grit, through sitting alone and furrowing my way toward a breakthrough — though trust me, I tried to do it that way. Society encourages us to do this. We are coached to believe in ourselves alone, in our children's book, "I think I can, I think can, I think I can," on our billboards, "Just do it" (alone).

In our history books, the power of one is the power to change the world. We are rewarded for not being a burden, and we are awarded prizes and medals and honorary degrees for appearing singular. But of course, we are not. When I look back on what got me to this stage, it is other people pressing books into my hands, or pressing their hands into my shoulders during my hardest hours, reminding me to laugh hard enough that I forgot to hate myself.

Given these five minutes to speak, this is the one thing, the one thing I would leave you with, the most important thing that I have learned in the 20 years since graduating: note and nurture the relationships that make you feel big and warm and whole. Surround yourself with people who make you laugh hard, who fill in what you lack, who show you a model of how you want to be in the world. The shine of their heart will begin shining from yours. Sounds like Care Bears, but it's just science. Surround yourself with people who reignite a sense of play, who pop the cap off your fear, and make ideas pour out. Camp near them, perhaps even on Parrish Lawn, and grow more courageous with them.

When I look back on what has carried me forward, what has influenced me for the better, it is these people in my life. My best parts are made up of them, their jokes, their ethics, their wisdom. Believe in the root system connecting you, even if you can't see it. The organisms you keep close are what will hold you time and time again, and either shrink you or grow you. Thank you, congrats. Go kick some sassafras!