Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Commencement Remarks

May 16, 2010


Ladies and Gentlemen, and particularly candidates in the class of 2010.  I came by my degree a lot easier than you did.  I have not spent a single winter here.  But I do know what it means, and I am honored to be counted among you. Forever will I be a member of your class. Wherever we go in the world, we will go together.  I will bear your honors, and you will bear mine.  I will bear your embarrassment, and you will bear mine. Together we will have forged a bond that will last as long as any of us lasts.  And I am thrilled to be an honorary member of your class.  I hope you will be as pleased with me as I am with you. 

Now, I am obliged to say a few things to you. Otherwise, you wouldn't think me worthy of the degree that has just been given me. And so, I have given some thought as to what to say to candidates for degrees on this very happy occasion. I love occasions like this. They remind those of us who live in the University, as I do, that there is a greater and a wider world out there.  And from time to time we must go into it. This is the day in which you must go into it, for better or worse.  I salute my colleagues in the faculty, for we don't have to go anywhere.  That is one of the glories of academia. 

Now,  as  I look at you candidates I am very much reminded that you are smarter than we are.  We hear it every year from the admissions department:  the smartest class ever has been admitted. We know it. We know that we couldn't compete in the same way that you have to compete in order to get here. And for that I think we are grateful. You are smarter than we, but we know more.  And that is an interesting arrangement.  And when you get to know as much as we know, we get rid of you by graduation. And we start all over again in the fall.

The great question you may want to ask yourselves is:  will you be able to survive outside of this little hothouse called St. Lawrence University? Will you be able to make it?  And those  who remain here, the teachers and others responsible for this place, will have to ask:  have we prepared you well?  Or have we set you up for disaster and failure?  Well I have, like all fairy godmothers, three things to wish for you as you leave this place. 

The first thing is a dangerous thing.  But I wish for you happiness.  College graduates, I am told, are not supposed to be happy. That is a frivolous sentiment reserved for other people. But I wish for each of you true and genuine happiness.  And there is a substantial definition drawn from that old dead white male Aristotle.  Happiness, Aristotle says, is "the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope."   Who can ask for more than that?  You are all possessed of vital powers, you are all attuned to excellence, and you now have a life affording these vital powers scope.  Each of you will do interesting things. You may not know what they are.  You may not be able to imagine them even as we sit here. But you each will do interesting things, and genuine happiness will come from doing those things well for the rest of your life. 

Now, as I look out over you I recognize that there are some of you who are surprised to find yourselves here this morning, and you are testimony to the fact that you can still fool a lot of the people a lot of the time.  But you can't stay here, I understand. There's no room for you.  They've already admitted the next class, which is four times smarter than you are.  Your poor parents can't afford another dime in tuition, and it is time that the experiment of your education was proven in the real world, and so out into it you must go.  So, in addition to happiness, I wish you success.  A very strange word, too often uttered on this occasion, but success, in the words of Abbott Lawrence Lowell,  president of Harvard University a hundred years ago, is not achieving what you want to do.  Success consists in achieving something worth doing.  So I wish that kind of success for each of you -- that you will find something worth the doing in your life.  And that you will do it well.  That is true and genuine success. 

The third thing I wish for you is the capacity for endurance. You may think you're going through an exercise in endurance right now. This is a piece of cake. I hope you will be able to stand up to the pressures and the troubles that invariably will come your way.  You as college graduates are marked people. Somebody thinks you're smart. Somebody thinks you will do some good, and somebody is determined to mess you up. My great hope is that you will endure the worst that can happen to you and that you will come out all right on the other side.  Some of you will have to endure the curse of success.  People expect more and more and more of you, and you'll reach a point where you can't deliver the goods. Others of you will have to endure the curse of failure. But as so many of you know, we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.  When I failed an examination I always wanted to know what was wrong with the professor. And so I explored all the issues. I learned a lot.  When I succeeded I knew it was all due to me, and I didn't pay any attention to it at all.  We learn from our failures, and my great hope is that on occasion you will each have glorious failures from which you can learn great things and that throughout them you will endure.

Remember this, that education is what you know when you will have forgotten all that you have been taught here. Education is that sole quality that will help you get from point A to point B with imagination, with integrity, and with courage.  We who love higher education and love this institution in particular could wish no more than that for each of you. You leave with our deep affection, our respect, and our high hopes.  And we will still love you even if you don't deliver the goods on every possible occasion.  You should remember that.

My hope is for you that you will love learning, not the kind that has been sweated out of you here, but new ideas, new ways of thinking; that you will be excited by things yet to be discovered.  My other hope for you is that you will love people.  The friendships you have formed are only the beginning of your love affair with the human family and my hope is that each of you will become ambassadors of love in a world that so desperately needs it. And, my dear young people, I hope you will love life. I hope you live it to the hilt with all of its terrors, all of its mistakes, all of its anxieties. Oh, I hope that you will love life and teach others to do so as well.

If you will have done these things you will have given value to the time you have spent here. You'll have justified the efforts of your friends, your families, and your teachers.  And we all will live in a world made better by your presence in it.

And now I have one final practical word of advice to each of you.  The day may come when you have to prove to somebody that you have a college degree.  And this advice is to remember: it is not who you know.  It's whom.