The Necessity of Making Mental Peace
Remarks to Graduates at Commencement - April 18, 2021
This is not the end of the journey, but it is a happy interlude, despite the unimaginable terms of this senior year at St. Lawrence. I am obligated to assure you that after the triumph of this effort to be on campus or to take part online, loftier expectations and the availability of rewarding work will await you in the decisive decade ahead.
Until then, we begin with the fact that no St. Lawrence student ever makes this trek to graduation alone. Moreover, whatever mental peace we have made with this watershed year, it is because we are bound together and forever connected as Laurentians in the class of 2021. I also graduate this year after completing my second St. Lawrence education. I am one of you facing a fresh start that remains unknown and uncharted in the issues of life.
To our commencement guests watching this ceremony on screens around the world, perhaps you can also feel today something simple and sublime in our Laurentian habits of belonging. I know many of you have seldom or never seen this campus, but I extend to you a standing invitation to visit on the other side of the pandemic.
You have invested wisely and bravely by long distance; you and this place have built together a lengthy bridge connecting two homes in the lives of your children. You have known their worries, listened to their imaginations, sometimes wild and sometimes mature, while you encouraged them to push ahead in the trial and error of an educated life. Thank you for trusting us and believing in what we do.
To summarize my family perspective in this ceremony, you in the graduating class of 2021 have benefitted from quiet, often distant, but ever-present sources of strength for the journey you have taken to arrive at this crossing. The support of your parents, families, and guardian angels, who believed in you from the first instant, has made all the difference, culminating in a profound moment for all of us. It is an hour that shines like silver light in a hemlock forest.
I cannot leave unsaid a few other comments tailored quite specifically to the class of 2021. When we first gathered four years ago on your first day in the St. Lawrence tradition of matriculation, I pointed out that there were two questions hanging over you. The first one was the individual private matter of what kind of student do you want to be? That question, I advised, takes some time to ponder, but it is both reasonable and answerable.
At the time, I said, it’s ok to play it safe, but just don’t overplay it. Measure your choices, but make them, and make them stick. By the end of your first year, you undoubtedly passed through three critical check-points on the way to figuring out what kind of student you hoped to be: involvement, discernment, and commitment. Each one of you, I am confident, found a path to the joy and freedom of college life known best by feeling “all-in,” a moment of commitment to yourself, to others, to this place.
On that first day, I told you there was another question hovering in the air: what kind of person do you want to be? I did not address it beyond brief mention and I said at the time that it is much too large and too abstract for your first year. It is simply out of reach at the beginning. I did forewarn you that the issue of who you wish to become as a person is a question that won’t leave you alone at St. Lawrence or leave you alone as a class that coheres in friendship over your allotted four years.
Let me offer some small affirmation or guidance about the persons, not merely the students, I have watched you become, particularly in an unthinkable and unforgettable senior year. There is a vital lesson to mark from this difficult world we have just endured together over many months of suffering, sacrifice, and uncertainty. It is learning to become a person who can see it through.
All of us have personally, even directly, been touched by worry and sadness, unfairness and disappointment, loss and grief. You are changed, you are becoming a different person, a different self, from what you may have imagined before the global sweep of disease entered the picture of 2020 and 2021.
And yet, I have watched you dance and play and turn up the music this spring. I have seen you running on the Avenue of the Elms, seen you sitting at the outdoor café tables, and seen the soccer balls and Frisbees floating in the air across the Quad. You must never concede that your ultimate joy, happiness, hope, confidence, and serenity will fall apart beneath the forbidding weather of the Corona virus.
You are becoming stronger and better for all the awful tribulation you have witnessed. The power of belonging to the Class of 2021, belonging to St. Lawrence, will carry and gain your desires to become a certain kind of person I wish for you to seek.
A very wise teacher at Harvard once said to another college generation when faced with the task of rebuilding a world that had been careening out of control for a good while that it must learn the necessity of making mental peace. I brought this teacher’s words with me today: “By making our mental peace with the fact of a fast-changing world, I do not mean necessarily liking it, or approving of it, or thinking of it as final, much less being defeated and broken by it. But I do mean accepting it as a fact. For no one can do anything with hard facts who tries to pretend that they are not there.” (Willard L. Sperry)
We have learned that with mental peace we can be unintimidated to do our work or the business of getting on. But first, we also had to learn just how vulnerable every one of us is to mental turmoil in the grinding monotony of extreme caution. Powering through in disregard to hard facts, if we have learned anything this year, is the fool’s strategy of running through a stone wall.
Strength is not enough. It turns out that making a priority out of being strong, if we define its criteria as stamina and decisiveness, also as a means to achieve mental peace, gets the order wrong. What I hope we have learned is that strength does not generate serenity, is not the source of mental peace, but rather, out of serenity, out of inner calm, comes the strength to keep going.
If you ever visit a little parish church in the English village of Staunton Harold, you will see over the door an inscribed tablet that commemorates a brutal time of war, destruction, and deprivation. Here is how that troubling moment turned out and was summarized succinctly by a small community this way:
“In the year 1643/ When all things sacred were/ Either demolished or profaned/ Sir Robert Shirley Barret,/ Founded this church/ Whose singular praise it is/ To have done the best things in the/ Worst times/ and Hoped them in the most calamitous.”
The Class of 2021 departs St. Lawrence in a year of devastation and difficulty, but unlike many classes before you, you graduate with the charge at Commencement to do the best things in the worst time, and to hope beyond calamity. The kind of person you are each becoming, based on the acceptance of these hard terms, must also understand the essential necessity of first making mental peace. I will never forget your poise and calm to see it through together. Well done, friends.