I once heard someone say that intellect was one’s response to one’s environment: not how many degrees you have, not all the A’s or the best GPA ever, but rather how one works, lives and thrives in the world in which they live. If that’s the case, then all of you, now holding a Spence diploma, are just about the smartest group of young human beings we know.
During this pandemic, you studied, zoomed, lived in your rooms, your kitchens, your dining rooms, for days in a row, and you built a way out of no way. You not only survived, you thrived, made the most out of it, created new ways of being. In 1910 Clara Spence wrote that “thinking means the adding of something not previously present.” In ways far beyond Clara’s intention, the something added this year made you think, indeed, and in different and important ways. It made you think. But you did something else as well. You found a certain harmony in yourself, in others…and all together. I’m not speaking of the moony world of “all-is-goodness” because seeking harmony does not necessarily mean making happiness.
Instead, seeking harmony means finding, in its Greek origins, harmos, a beautiful Greek word defined as parallel passages. Nicely said, that…parallel passages: not the same passage, but parallel ones. You can see the other path, you can even appreciate it: you’re just not on it. Making harmony has to begin with a good understanding of self, a sort of inward beholding, coming from the hard work of a disciplined reflection. The Irish have a great word for this: they call it a “stirabout”… something soul-waking and world shifting, and always with self as the agent. Sometimes harmony comes from a philosophical or religious grounding echoed in the words of Plato who said, “the soul knows who we are from the beginning” or from the Confessions of St. Augustine who asked, “where can my heart hide from my heart?”
Whatever the source, however, without that self-understanding, you can become vulnerable to your own obsessions: you make your particular path, the only possible one. This, of course, is the making of great literature, and the illustrations of which are legion. Listen, for example, to what the irrepressible Stubb from Moby Dick whispers to his shipmate, Flash, about the far-from-harmonious Captain Ahab: “D’ye mark him, Flash? The chick that’s in him pecks the shell.” And once you begin to understand and to reflect on yourself, then, and perhaps only then, are you ready to put yourself aside and move towards empathy…the ability to have an understanding that has the full force of you behind it but, without it actually being about you.
In the middle of her years, writer and philosopher, George Eliot, bravely left her traditional religious beliefs and sought spiritual fields of her own. This was not an easy breaking away. On the contrary, it was extremely difficult with family, friends and social standing all in the balance. But it did free her mind to imagine different ways of knowing. Ultimately, she came to categorize three levels of knowledge, each one more significant than the one preceding it. The lowest level of knowing is opinion, assumptions made through observations; the second is fact, something provable, concrete, real. The last, and the highest, is empathy, that hard-to-achieve understanding of others, allowing for that harmony of many paths, not just the one you’re on. To Eliot, empathy was both an inspiration and an aspiration. This is hard work, she tells us.
Le-Young Lee, one of my favorite poets writes, “the moon from any window is one part whoever’s looking.” So, seeing the moon, the sun, literature, injustice, history or the world calls for an abiding understanding of different perspectives before you can even have a prayer of a common one.
And, oh, what you can do with this harmony. You can give back, you can help others, you can make small differences that can add up. You can do good…or at least try to.
This, too, is the stuff of literature. As my class knows, one of my all-time favorite characters is the ever-faithful man-in-arms, Kent, who never leaves King Lear’s side, even after Lear makes fatal mistake after fatal mistake, even after Lear banishes him and threatens him with his own life. With pure love and deep empathy, Kent, lovingly challenging Lear, telling him, “See better Lear.” Simple as that. See better. We all need a Kent in our lives, and hopefully we’ll be more ready than Lear to listen to him, her or they. Hopefully, we’ll be able to harness a little harmony, together, while on two different paths.
And to each of you, as you leave Spence, the world you have been part of…even when you had to be together while apart…think about paths beyond the literal ones you will travel, and think about watching that moon while knowing that everyone here today will be looking at it, too…but from a different window with a different perspective.Two parallel paths, together: harmony.
And know, too, that you will be missed and cherished as members of the Class of 2021 in a year like no other…ever. We will never forget you. How could we, ever?
I close with a poem by Linda Pastan—a poem in the voice of a parent, celebrating the years-in-the-making departure ahead of you—a poem of two truths living in harmony: you are ready, and you will be dearly missed.
“To a Daughter Leaving Home”—Linda Pastan
When I taught you
at eight to ride
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
for your life, screaming
the hair flapping
behind you like a
I thank you all for the wonderful years all coming together today. May we all seek harmony and love all the days ahead.