Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Commencement Awe

[warning: it's another long ramble that's more of a journal entry than a communication]

I debated for a while whether I was going to walk at commencement this May. I eventually decided that, if my committee were around during the summer so that I could actually graduate before September, I would feel close enough to done that it would be fine. But given that my committee won't be back in town until late Sept/early Oct for my defense, it just didn't feel close enough, and if I'm going to be here two more years anyway, I might as well walk next time.

It's not for the speeches that I want to go. I am a big fan of Dave Barry's and Garrison Keillor's takes on commencement addresses: full of cliches and pipe dreams, signifying nothing. But there are now two commencement addresses I've found that I think are immensely powerful. I got one of them, and I just finished reading the other.

I loved BYU's commencement. I loved the thrill of the march to Pomp and Circumstance. It felt like I had really accomplished something deeply significant - and I had. Our first speaker was Pres. Bush's secretary of education. I only remember one thing he said. He opened his address by walking with us down nostalgia lane (another commencement staple), as we remembered our fond times meeting new people at the Cougareat (Cougar Eat), studying late at night at the Harold B. Lee library, or visiting with friends after class at some other campus landmark with a proper name. Some of the folk around me were impressed that he "really knew our campus!" Clearly, these folks were insufficiently trained in either public speaking, political science, or cynicism. I thought, "It would be more impressive if he could recite those place names without pausing slightly to look down at his notes." I have no idea of anything else he said.

I remember our other speaker very well. Then-Elder Henry B. Eyring's talk changed my life. The one rub about graduating was that I was graduating alone. Like everyone else, I had been certain of finding Sister Watson there at BYU. Leaving not only without her, but without even ever having a girlfriend was intensely disappointing. Elder Eyring told us, however, (in his *snicker* pink gown) that in life we do our best and leave the residual in God's hands.

Now from economics I know what a residual is. You have a bunch of control variables. You own those. You can manipulate those. But then you have all the stuff you can't control ... the residual. I had done everything in my power. I had given marriage a very high priority in my time, planning, ambitions, and work, and done everything in my power to find her (including being only one or two classes short of minors in three departments that were different from the two that gave me my major and minor!). And here was an apostle of God, telling me that it was enough. I did everything I could, and I could safely leave the rest in God's capable hands. It was such a sweet comfort to me then. It has still been a touchstone of hope and reality in the last difficult six years through one scholastic failure or disappointment after another.

May I now be privileged to introduce to you the other excellent commencement address? It was given this month to the graduating class of Harvard by J. K. Rowling - you know, that gal who wants to "destroy the moral fiber of society" by writing amazing Christian metaphors they don't teach anymore, also known as the Harry Potter books. Of all the things that would best sum up my time here, she hit a number of them dead on in discussing "The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination." You can find the full address easily enough, but I'll briefly highlight my favorite parts for you.
I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates ... . However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. ... Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person's idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one... . I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

For those who don't know, Cornell has been an incredible drain on my psyche. In the first two years -- when I still had good grades to bolster me -- the dating life I had built at BYU disintegrated here, bringing on depression and 40 pounds in one year of 3am ice cream binges. When my idea for my dissertation went down in flames at the end of my third year (and about to be married to Joy), I began a manic scramble to find a committee and topic to "justify my existence" while undergoing some major, heartrending repentance in other areas of my life. Even with my committee and a topic in hand by the middle of my 4th year [I hear tell in the rest of the school we're supposed to have our committees together by the 3rd SEMESTER, and some departments won't let you into the school without an adviser], everything seemed to drag and to slow, and writing this dissertation has been one of the most miserable experiences of my life. (I can write all this primarily because in the last couple months I've been making more progress on it daily than I did sometimes in months, and I'm sitting on the cusp of banging out a major draft of the end of it, so I'm actually feeling pretty good about it.) This is the real reason I can't wait to get out of Ithaca, in case you ever hear me making disparaging comments.

Rowling points out a number of good things here: I am far from spectacular failure, no matter how disappointed I was by my own too-high standards. It's not only inevitable, it really has been good for me.

There are times when I'm too inclined to see all the bumps in the road over the last six years, instead of seeing how God redirected my path through them. Each of them provided major direction adjustments that have finally landed me doing work that I am deeply passionate about; that is important; with an adviser I admire and respect and who has had nothing but encouragement for me; in a real job that will be ideal for the next steps of my journey.

Rowling talks about the friends she gained in college who stood by her through that hard time, friends so good they didn't even sue her when she used their names for Death Eaters. My struggles have taught me so much about the depth of my parents' and wife's love. I knew my parents were proud of me before, and I had the grades to "deserve" it. But they have still been proud of me as 4 years became 5 and then 6 and now 6.05-6.25. A few weeks ago as I tucked Joy into bed as I prepared to pull yet another all-nighter trying to get the second chapter of my dissertation done, I said to her that hopefully when she woke up, I'd have a paper written. She beamed at me, "Now there's the man I married!" We've counseled together a lot about my "newfound" lack of confidence, so that was so wonderful to hear. Without knowing what I'm writing right now, she just said, "I'm so proud of my economist" as she kindly offers to make me breakfast after another all-night session.

But it's about time for me to wrap up this therapy session and finish getting ready for the day. On imagination, Rowling is fairly surprising:

Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

She then describes working for Amnesty International, which she admits had a profound influence on her work, and the letters and work she did there for people who were oppressed brutally for daring to disagree with their government. That weighs heavily on a fellow who's writing a dissertation on political will and a chapter on good governance. She then says

But how much more are you, Harvard [Cornell] graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people's lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world's only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better.

And that's the other half of the why question. Why go through all this? Why all this work? The first half is so I can provide for my family in a manner that I would find personally fulfilling so that Joy doesn't have to. But back at the Y, the reason I chose economics over German as my major was to help the poor of the world, an inspiration that came while reading the Doctrine and Covenants. And in Per I've found how to do that, and that came through failure.

I think I'll adopt this as my second commencement address, just in case the speakers here in 09 decide to reminisce with me about lunches at ... um ... The Two Naked Guys Cafe.


Shelly said...

make sure you read my post on the Medela posting.

Jenny said...

Hi guys!
Nick didn't walk either. He wasn't finished until Aug. He was like, "What if something happens and I don't finish it in time." It sort of felt weird to go to a graduation with so much still hanging over him.
I feel for you Joy! It is so hard to know how to support a husband in these difficult times. You'd like to help do their work. But usually there is nothing you can do.
Good luck! Hang in there! It's almost over!
Jenny G.