Vivian Susko '20 - 2020 Commencement Speech

I heard a story once that I would like to share with you all today. It’s about a woman with two large pots, which she would bring to the river daily to fill with water for her garden. Each pot hung on the ends of a pole that she would carry across her shoulders for the journey. One of the pots was perfectly shaped and always delivered a full portion of water to her garden. The other, however, had a deep crack in it that leaked water out they walked, and only ever arrived at her house half full. 

After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, the cracked pot spoke to the woman one day and said, “Forgive me, for I have failed you. I will never be able to deliver the right amount of water to your garden to grow the flowers you need. This crack in my side makes it impossible for me to fulfill my purpose.”

The old woman smiled and replied, “Did you notice that there are flowers on only your side of the path? I have always known about your crack so I planted seeds along your side, and every day you watered them and made them grow.”

There are three themes from this story that have stuck with me to this day. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is that perfection is just a rumor. The definition of “perfect” changes depending on the situation and the circumstance. Sometimes, it’s the “cracks,” or what we perceive to be imperfections, that are exactly what are needed to create something beautiful.

While writing this speech during a quarantine, I have had more than enough time to search through countless quotes from humanitarians who have touched upon this illusion of perfection. I have also been able to watch all of the Marvel movies in chronological order and in order of release. Having done both, I can unapologetically say that no person has broached this topic of perfection better than Frigga, Thor’s mother from the movie, Avengers: Endgame. She said, “Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be, Thor. The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.” 

If that little pot had tried to cover its crack, or worse, had given up on carrying water altogether, it never would have seen the impact it could make on the world. Its failure to complete one task could have blinded it completely from the larger purpose it was meant to serve. And, as a result, the world would be that many flowers less beautiful.

Which leads us to number two: Accomplishing the goal is the least important part. One of the many beautiful ironies of life is that as we achieve, and subsequently grow as a result of that achievement, the finish lines that we set for ourselves will constantly move ahead. While the attainment of a goal will certainly result in satisfaction for a period of time, the desire to reach higher will inevitably ensue. If we’re forever chasing this elusive caliber, measuring ourselves by a standard of perfection that doesn’t even exist, how can we expect to ever truly feel “accomplished”?

Imagine how that story would have changed if, determined to accomplish the goal of watering her garden, the woman viewed the cracked pot as a disadvantage rather than an opportunity? What if she never planted those seeds because she never bothered to look around and see the unique potential of her circumstances?  The result would have been a flowerless path that she was forced to walk every single day, only to still end up with an under-watered garden.

Now, I’m in no way proposing that the solution is to never set any goals in your life. I am simply suggesting that more often than not, the very thing that we are seeking to achieve is found in the journey rather than the outcome. The woman ended up with the same amount of flowers only because she wasn’t fixated on where they needed to be planted. This is what I mean when I say that accomplishing the goal is the least important part. Do not compromise what you want out of life, but be flexible in your approach and open-minded to finding the beauty in the process.

The third and final piece of wisdom is this: Life is fragile, but it is also resilient. Ever since I found out I would be carrying in the Canadian Flag at this ceremony today, I’ve been thinking of my friend Emily Middagh. Emily and I met during our First-Year Program here at St. Lawrence, became friends, and later roommates. Whenever Emily wasn’t talking about how much she loved her hockey teammates or her dog, the topic of conversation was usually art. Emily was an art major, and any time we would spend together in the arts Annex would be filled with her explanation of paint and pottery. She’d use big eccentric words like “kinsukatori” that I’d have to put in the notes of my phone and google later. Because Emily was from Canada and she loved pottery, I think she would have gotten a real kick out of watching this ceremony today.

But Emily passed away six months ago, and like many of you who have lost someone over the past twelve months or earlier,  I’m still learning how loss colors our experience over time. At first, it’s bright, deafening. It nearly swallows the painting whole. But over time, it’s quieter. It becomes the shading and smudging around the edges of the sketch, or the small notches carved into the watch of a statue. Small details that, to the naked eye, might not appear to be there at all. But when the light hits the picture differently, on days like today, there’s a whole new depth and context to what’s in front of you. What’s there matters as much as what is not, and for those who know to look for it, there is a whole new appreciation for the beauty of the artwork.

Class of 2020, unfortunately, I know I don’t have to tell many of you how it feels to lose someone. And I know for a fact that I don’t have to tell ANY of you what it feels like to have to say goodbye without warning. Our senior year was imperfect. It was cut short, flawed, complicated, and, at points, it was heartbreaking. 

Vivian Susko.

And this graduation ceremony, while beautiful, is imperfect. There are classmates who aren’t here with us today. Students who had to start working immediately after graduation who couldn’t take the time off to be here. International students who took the same tests and courses we did, but did so thousands of miles away from their families while navigating time changes and language barriers. They deserve to be here today. And there are friends, loved ones, and family members who COVID-19 has prevented from being here today. Yes, there has been a lot lost over the past twelve months, but let me tell you what I’ve seen.

I’ve seen a group of students enter the workforce during a global pandemic and take my LinkedIn page by storm. I’ve seen people start careers, and put careers on hold to travel with their best friends. Through the lens of social media, I’ve seen many of you fall in love, adopt your first pet, and even start families. I’ve watched the runners train for marathons, the artists find new mediums, the educators begin shaping minds, and the healthcare workers jump into action with no hesitation to save lives.

Above all else, I’ve seen a group of human beings enter into a world that on pause, a world that was fragile and live and breathe resiliency. I’ve seen individuals who understand what it means to appreciate a moment before it’s gone go out into a broken world and plant seeds.

Class of 2020, as we enter into a world that is in need of our healing, of our kindness, of our flaws, and of our unique gifts, may we continue to fill our future with flowers.

Oh, and I looked up Kinsukatori: The Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. By definition, becoming more beautiful for having been broken in the first place.

Thank you.