Humility, Hope & Nuance
Last week, my younger daughter graduated from high school. It was, to say the least, an unusual graduation, taking place entirely online. In an effort to replicate at least a smidgen of the typical pomp and circumstance, my daughter asked me to write her a graduation speech. This is what I delivered:
Commencement speeches are a tough genre. It is extremely difficult to offer up anything even remotely original. Everything has been said before, usually many times over.
The world is your oyster…Follow your passion…The generations before you have screwed things up so we need you to help fix the world…Blah blah blah.
Instead of repeating these clichés, I want to encourage you to embrace three simple values: humility, hope, and nuance.
First, humility. You have probably noticed that the world is pretty messed up right now. Many of you will be understandably outraged by the continued existence of poverty, oppression, and violence, among other urgent problems.
Here’s the bad news: the odds are very slim that you are going to solve these problems.
It is estimated that over 100 billion people have come before you. I’m here to tell you that a great many of them were not morons or racists or indifferent to the suffering of others. Indeed, quite a few were geniuses who sought to solve the problems they saw all around them. They did not succeed for a simple reason: the world does not easily conform to our dreams and desires, however noble they may be. Too many things can get in the way, including bad luck and our own propensity for self-sabotage through error or avarice or other means.
So I encourage you to proceed with humility. I encourage you to learn from the partial successes of those who have preceded you. And I encourage you to set realistic expectations for yourself, your peers, and the institutions that you are a part of.
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that while you might not eradicate problems that have been with us for millennia, you almost certainly will change the world.
I know there is nothing that young people love more than an older person telling them how different the world was back in the day. But please indulge me just for a minute, because the political, technological, and cultural changes that have occurred since I was born in 1967 have been nothing less than staggering.
This is important to underline because there are those who will tell you that nothing has changed, that we have made no progress. So, to pick just a few things off the top of my head: when I was born, the following would have been difficult, if not impossible, to conceive: the Internet, marriage equality, a black President, female Supreme Court justices, the winding-down of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the reduction of murders in New York City, and the birth of hip-hop.
I could go on, but you get the picture. I would argue that these developments amount to far more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Lord knows, there are plenty of dragons left to slay. But let’s acknowledge and celebrate the battles that we have won. These victories should give us hope that we can in fact make the world a better, less cruel place in the days to come.
Speaking of dragons, let’s talk about our current propensity to find them lurking in every corner.
Now, sometimes the world does cough up genuine villains. But the truth is that there are very few Hitlers out there. Mostly what the world offers us are complicated characters.
Take for example a guy that I once met on a train going down to Washington DC – Craig Newmark. Seemed like a nice enough guy. It was only afterwards, when I went home and Googled his name, that I figured out that I had spent the past four hours talking to a billionaire.
Anyway, for those who don’t know him, Newmark is the visionary who created Craigslist. His website was one of the original transformative successes of the Internet. For millions of people, Craigslist has been an unalloyed positive, enabling them to make friends, organize events, and save millions of dollars.
But if you talk to the average journalist about Craig Newmark, you are likely to get a very different response. “Craig Newmark has probably done more than anything to destroy newspapers,” wrote The Economist.
You see, even as Craigslist was going about its mission to “restore the human voice to the Internet, in a humane, non-commercial environment,” it was also decimating the business model that supported journalism across the United States. Local newspapers relied on classified advertisements to survive. They simply couldn’t compete with Craigslist. And so we have seen hundreds of local papers go out of business, depriving cities across the country of an important source of information, employment, and connection.
So are Newmark’s critics right? Is he a monster responsible for hastening the decline of professional journalism? Or is he to be celebrated for improving the lives of millions of Craigslist users?
The correct answer is: its complicated.
Seeing the world in black and white is child’s play. Understanding complexity and nuance and figuring out how to navigate the grey areas – that is a sign of true maturity.
Aside from the aforementioned villains, I think it is safe to say that most of us want to be good people. But what does it mean to be a good person?
I believe we all have a moral obligation to try to leave the world a better place than we found it. There are a million different ways to accomplish this goal. Those who would tell you differently, those who would tell you that there is only one path to righteousness, should be viewed with extreme skepticism.
So go forth and try to make a contribution, whether through art, or government, or business, or some other avenue. But even as you do, remember to nurture your relationships.
I started out by bemoaning cliché but I want to finish by embracing it. One of my favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life – I watch it every New Year’s Eve with my family. The plot is complicated but the moral is simple: the film argues that the key to a good life is the relationships that you create.
In my experience, this simple truth is, well, true: meaning in life comes not from individual accomplishment but from the strength of the connections you make with your relatives, with your friends, and with your larger community, however you choose to define it.
So, congratulations on your graduation. I wish you joy.