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Gomes cites Dr. Seuss, Aristotle, Red Queen in Baccalaureate speech

Following is a transcript of the Stanford Baccalaureate address, 'Oh, the Places You'll Go!' delivered June 14, 2008, by the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes of Harvard University's Memorial Church.

L.A. Cicero The Rev. Peter J. Gomes

The Rev. Peter Gomes gave a speech titled “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” to graduating students and their families and friends June 14 in the Main Quadrangle during the Baccalaureate, a multifaith religious service.

Those of you who are wise in the literature of the world will recognize that my title is a direct rip-off of Dr. Seuss. A wise and good book, which I might say to the candidates for degrees. If you have not yet read Dr. Seuss, I'd advise you to read it before tomorrow. It's easy to do, lots of pictures, lots of very good advice. And it will tell you about the places you'll go.

Now, I hope you will be going to far more interesting places than a recent survey of Harvard graduates demonstrates. It says that the candidates for the first degree from my university are going to one of three cities. They're going to Washington to run things. They're going to New York to make money. And they're coming to Los Angeles to have fun. I hope the places you'll go will be far more interesting than those three cities. Washington can't be run. The money made in New York will not last you very long. And fun in Los Angeles is elusive, as you all know.

So, I want to remind myself, and you, of the honor of this occasion. It's an ancient academic right. The old assemble 10 feet above contradiction in front of the young, who are huddled before them in curious dress so that you will not be confused with your parents. The dress is meant not only to distinguish you from the crowd, but to humiliate you as well. It makes you look ridiculous. I know it and now you know it. And the thought that you paid good money to rent this ridiculous costume, which most of you will never, ever wear again, is just a sign of how little you have learned in college.

But this is a great occasion, the Baccalaureate, far more significant, dare I say, than Commencement itself. On Commencement Day tomorrow, there will be ample proof that it is still possible to fool a lot of the people a lot of the time. Baccalaureate concedes that you really do not know all that you need to know. That you will leave here as unfinished and incomplete people, although you may have finished the requirements set for you by unfinished and incomplete people known as the faculty. They, lacking all imagination, stay here. We call it tenure.

You, however, are bidden to leave and I will say more about that in a few moments, but it should give you some pause that, before you leave, the institution decides that you need to hear from a preacher, you need prayer, and you're assembled in front of all of the possible religious traditions that can be mustered. Things must be very bad indeed if these resources are summoned in your aid in the last 24 hours in which you are in this university.

The nature of Baccalaureate is very simple. It is the place where you sit and I stand, where you listen and I speak, and if you finish your job before I finish mine, I trust you're well brought up enough to wait. I will catch up with you. This is both the beginning of the end and the end of the beginning; it is nearly all over, but not quite. A talk of this sort, a baccalaureate sermon, should be long. It should be longer than it will be, because I obey the instructions that have been given to me.

The reason it should be as long as possible is this: Because the longer I talk, the more time you have to avoid the future, and what a future there is out there awaiting you! An economy in turmoil, gasoline prices up so high that it will cost as much as your tuition, a world in confusion, a war that makes very little sense, an election which we will endure rather than enjoy, the illusion of prosperity and security all around us. But the nagging question, if all is as well as it appears to be; why do I feel so uneasy and nervous?

Given all of that, you might want to take the advice, the best advice I ever heard, given at commencement. It was given at Harvard commencement about 30 years ago by George Plimpton. Not only was it the best advice I ever heard, it was the shortest commencement address I ever heard. This is what George Plimpton said: "Don't go."

It will never be like this again anywhere. There will not be an army of overeducated people catering to your every need. There will not be an entire universe constructed for your maintenance, diversion, and support. It'll cost even more than you've already paid out there. And there will be no magical transformation at the end, which will turn all of you academic toads into princes and princesses tomorrow. But of course you can't stay. There's no room for you. Your rooms have already been rented out. Brighter people are on the way. You must leave, and by the quickest means possible.

My job is both to do something about the conventional wisdom of the day, and then to offer you some unconventional wisdom, which may be of some remote use to you. I'm happy to do that. I'm in the business of giving advice 10 feet above contradiction. No one has ever sued me successfully for good advice gone wrong or bad advice taken so, I continue to offer it, and I am thrilled when I am asked to do so as far away from Cambridge, Massachusetts, as possible. You see, in Cambridge, I never get to give a baccalaureate address. The president always does. He's regularly sued, and so when I go out across the country, as happily I do at this time of the year, like Johnny Appleseed I drop my advice here, there and everywhere; and as we are not likely ever to meet again in this life, whether it's good advice or bad advice, too bad. I wish you well.

You are, however, young, no matter how long it has taken you to finish this degree. You remain very young, and as I look at you I'm encouraged by what I see. I see young, bright people of enormous talent, anxious to get out. I'm not quite sure why, but you are anxious to get out, and I'll do the best I can to help in that transition. You are full of expectation and some degree of achievement, but your chief quality at the moment is your youth, which you will not have forever. If you doubt me, turn around. They, too, once were as young as you. They, too, were filled with great expectations, great promise, and somebody like me said to them, "The world awaits you." This should be a profound moral lesson, that not everything that is heard on occasions like this is to be taken seriously and no one knows that better than I. I have done this more often than you have, so I do know in some respects what I'm talking about.

You, however, represent a wonderful opportunity to celebrate who you are and where you are, and so I want to begin with the only serious limerick I have ever heard.

Now we all know about the girl from Nantucket, but it's not that kind of limerick. This one goes in this way:

Blessed Lord, what it is to be young;

To be of, to be for, be among—

Be enchanted, enthralled,

Be the caller, the called,

The singer, the song, and the sung.

That's you, and what a joy it is to be in the company of the singer, the song, and sung! You represent to some degree the hope of the world, God help you. That's why you are here. You need all the help you can get.

These degrees, distinguished as they are, these specialties to which you have devoted at least four years—and some of you considerably more—all of this represents but a small down payment on whatever it is you can offer to the world. You need to offer it with all of the energy and the modesty you can summon up. And the great test of life will be how to live when you are unable to fulfill your ambitions.

Now, one of the great bits of conventional wisdom that commencement and baccalaureate preachers tend to offer is the notion that you're ready, you're prepared, you can do it. So, go for it. Your training and experience prepare you for all that there is to do. We can't wait. That is one bit of conventional wisdom.

The other bit of conventional wisdom is the world is waiting for you. Somewhere out there millions and millions of people are waiting for graduates of the Class of '08 to lead them into the future. Yesterday was chaos and confusion. Tomorrow will be sweetness and light, thanks to you. You are Stanford graduates, after all. How else can we expect to get along other than with your guidance, your inspiration, your leadership?

Well, I wish to be quoted as saying that the conventional wisdom on both points is quite wrong. Your first experience with reality will be that you can't do everything you set out to do. Some of you, I don't doubt are very ambitious: You will find the cure to the common cold, you will sort out the economy, you will bring harmony among the races, you will bring peace in our time, honor and understanding. Very unlikely. Very unlikely, indeed. Smarter and better people than you have tried, and they have failed miserably. So, what makes you think that you can do any of this?

Your second encounter with reality will be that, at first at least, the world will hardly notice you're there, that is, unless you go out in the world and remain dressed as you are this morning. Go into your Dunkin' Donuts dressed as you are now and they will notice you and they will pay attention to you, but you'll not get anything for nothing. The world will little note nor long remember what you say or do here. It's a shame, but that is the case. We at Harvard have been graduating people like you since 1642, and have you noticed every year the world seems to be getting worse and worse and worse.

Maybe we should stop. And maybe you should, too, but that would put a lot of people out of work, including me, and selfishness says that can't be permitted. So, you need to understand that you can't do everything you want to do and that the world is not entirely sitting at your feet. The great question will be, what happens when you discover that you're not quite able to do everything that you want to do?

This is where the unconventional wisdom comes in. I want to suggest to you that there's a great deal of virtue to be discovered in counting up your failures rather than your successes. Nobody on Commencement Day, or Baccalaureate Day wants to talk about failures. Most of you have slid through them, hoped no one remembered them, managed to get by on a wink and a nod, and even some of you on the wings of prayer, but I want to suggest that failure may very well be your most important and useful teacher. When you succeed, as many of you have, leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop, you do not pause to say, "How did I get here?" Most of you are of the view "I deserve to be here. I got here because I'm good. I'm clever. I know the answers. I not only bought the books, but I read a few of them from time to time."

But when things don't go your way, it is at that moment that you actually begin to say, what happened. "How did that go wrong? Who screwed me? Or what did I do wrong?" It's usually the first question, rather than the second, that gets the emphasis.

Failure, if it has any value, teaches us a great deal. And if an education is of any value, any good at all, it will help us to understand the constructive uses of failure. You will make many mistakes, but ideally you will not make the same mistake over and over again. Make a new mistake. Do something wonderfully creative and newly stupid. You will discover that there are benefits to be had in that. If an education, if a standard education, is of any value at all, of any good, it will help you to make a life—a good life, and not necessarily a good living. Now, I hope some of you have jobs. I'm sure some of you have prospects, and some of you even have a future before you, even if it's only in graduate school or, heaven forbid, law school. Law school is where those who have absolutely no idea about what they want to do end up. They think at law school they will teach you to think, which is not necessarily true, and that you will do well in addition to doing some good. I don't want to knock any of you who have law school as an ambition, but I think you should think higher.

Your whole object here is not to make a living but it is to make a life that is worth living, and the question that you need to ask yourself is, what will you have left when the things you don't want happen and the things you learn here you forget? Some of you are already well on the way to forgetting, and that is probably a good thing because college is good for you while you are here, but it is not good for you long after you're gone. You have to make it up as you go along and one of the reasons that we say prayers for you is that God will give you the wit, the imagination and the courage to make it up well as you go along, without anybody to hector you or any credit such as this world or this university counts credit. Will that be on the final? Of course it will be, the ultimate final for which we all sit uneasily, but that's another matter. I dare not venture to be too religious or too theological on an occasion such as this, even though I stand before that great monument to Mrs. Stanford and in memory of God.

So, I want you to first think about the virtue of failure. Think of the things that haven't gone right, the things that don't go well, because there will be many more of them in your lives, and how will you sort out those failures? What will you learn from them? What will you make of them? Become acquainted with failure, for failure will become acquainted with you. It will know your name. It will know your vanity. It will know your weak spots. So, you'd better be prepared to deal with it. That's the first thing.

The second bit of unconventional wisdom I want to offer to you is to entertain the value of impossible things. As I look out at you, you all look very sensible. Few of you have taken many great risks. You've all done the right thing. You've all gone to the right place and here you all are at the right moment, ready to be spat out of Stanford's mouth like a watermelon seed. So, most of you are not particularly interested in the fantastical or the impossible. You will plot your lives carefully and cautiously, as you have been taught to do here. We take some responsibility for that, but remember we don't have to live with our responsibilities. You do. And so, I want to invite you into the world of the fantastic, the world of the impossible, the world of the things that don't necessarily make sense, or scan. It's an invitation to do something most college graduates are unwilling to do, and that is to take risks.

People think that your undergraduate experience should be practical and useful. I hope it has been impractical and will prove un-useful to many of you, because that means that you will have to start learning, perhaps for the first time and on your own, and that's not a bad thing to do because you have the talent, most of which has not been called upon during your undergraduate days. Most of you have got by here on 20 percent of your skills. Heaven only knows what you did with the other 80 percent. Time will tell. But when you're out there, wherever out there is, that other 80 percent will need to be summoned into active service; and my guess is it will be a surprise that you will be capable of doing what would right now appear to be impossible things.

If we are to profit from failure, to learn from it, then we are free to imagine, take on impossible things that we would otherwise avoid for fear of failure. In taking no risks, so as to avoid failure, we also fail to take the risk of success, achievement and—dare I even say it to you very solemn looking people?—joy. It is a joyful thing to have a life to live. You are meant to enjoy it. You are meant, strangely enough, to be happy.

Now, you don't look very happy right now, I suppose. Who would? Hearing an important speaker talking about failure and imagination. But you are meant to be happy; to say, I am using my time, my talent, my place, even my treasure, in such a way as to give me happiness. Now, it's the smarter of you who are saying, all very well and good, reverend sir—define happiness. Well, I'm ready for you, and I have a dead white male to support what I have to say, so it must be true.

It is Aristotle—remember him, Aristotle? He defined happiness as "The exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope." That describes you. "Vital powers"—you have those vital powers. Now, you're not quite as vital as you were when you were freshmen. You are in a state of perpetual decline, I'm sorry to say, and it will only get worse. There's no way to recover that élan vital that you once had, but there's still enough of it in you to make a difference. 'Along lines of excellence'—the very best use you can possibly make of your powers and your life, even the most miserable of you, your life is an exercise in "scope." You will have opportunities none of you deserve, but all of you will have to exercise those vital powers, and it is in doing all of that that happiness comes. Happiness is not what our Constitution provides. You don't pursue it but you discover it, when you are doing something useful and good. And when you do that, you will wake up and say, "I'm a happy person. I'm not a frivolous person. I'm not a person filled at every minute with pleasure. But I am happy. I have a sense of place and purpose." And that, when all is said and done, is the very best that we can hope for you. And so we do. And we invite you into that world of impossible things of which happiness may be one, the chief.

I like to quote here my favorite intellectual on the subject, and that is the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. Remember, the Red Queen boasted that she believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast? How many impossible things have you believed before breakfast this morning? Most of you haven't had breakfast, I can tell, so, there are no impossible things to believe in or to think about. Most of you drank your breakfasts last night. I understand that, too, but there is something about those wonderful, impossible things that makes the world a place for you. And poor old Alice, such a little prig; I can't stand Alice. She doesn't get it. She doesn't understand it but perhaps you do, and so the great question for you will be, what wild and impossible, irrational thing will you aim for in your life? What strange unpredictable enterprise will take you from this place? How will you do it? Somebody said it is like teaching a rabbit to play a drum. You do it over and over and over again.

I cite another dead white male, probably two more than you've had here, that old cynic Voltaire, who said, "How infinitesimal is the importance of anything I do, but how infinitely important it is that I should do it." Is that just another 18th-century dude mouthing off, or could there be something in it for you?

When you combine the joys of instructive failure with the persistent pursuit of the impossible, it seems to me you have a recipe, my dear young friends, for a good life. One in which the rest of us will be as interested as you are. A good life, a life worth living, and, literally at the end of the day, that is what it is all about.

I once gave an exercise in freshman English composition at Harvard. It was not a very popular exercise and I didn't repeat it very often, but it was a very good thing to do. I asked my 18-year-old charges to write their own obituary as they hoped it would appear in the local press. There are any number of interesting attempts at that to summarize your life. What do you want people to remember about you? What do you want to have done? What will you want to have been said about you?

One interesting reply from a boy, John Smith, was to say: "John Smith was stricken with an attack of asthma which proved fatal, and thus it was impossible for him to complete this assignment." Clever boy was John Smith, but we need more than that and you will want more than that, and you deserve more than that.

So, will you succeed in your great adventure, whatever it is? Well, you'll have to wait to find out from Oprah tomorrow. She will tell you. I'm not paid enough to tell you today. Who knows if you will succeed? Who knows if your names will be writ large on some building or in some book or as a benefactor to humankind? Who knows? I don't know. Success may not be all that it is cracked up to be. There are lots of successes sitting behind you. You may want to look at them very carefully and see if it is worth the price. We all know the horror of high school students who are voted most likely to succeed. There may be a few of you here today. If you're wise, you won't identify yourselves.

So, maybe we need a new definition of success, and I have one from A. Lawrence Lowell, a Harvard president before World War I. This is what he said: "True success does not consist in doing what we set forth to do, what we had hoped to do, nor even in doing what we have struggled to do, but in doing something that is worth doing."

Doing something that is worth doing. Remember, Al Capone was a very successful criminal, a summa cum laude in criminology, as it were, but was what he did worth doing, in the long run? Success is not to be confused with achievement. There is a quality element in that, and most of us spend our entire life trying to discern whether we are doing what is worth doing, and then, and only then, can we ask, are we doing it well?

Baccalaureate morning is a time to begin to think about that sort of thing. You've been too busy during college to have deep and great thoughts. You have been running from lecture to laboratory to library. You have been diverted by concerts and plays. You've been trying to keep up with your hormones and your friends. You've had very little time to contemplate the great thoughts of life. We save thinking about the great thoughts of life to your last 48 hours in college; but you're meant to think about them for the rest of your days, as long as you live, and it is my prayer, and I'm sure the prayer of all of those who face you on this platform, that you will do that, and that that inquiry will be instructive and even fun.

Another way of looking at it may be this. There is a prayer that says, "I ask for all things that I might enjoy life. I was given life that I might enjoy all things." Think of the great gift of life you have been given. Think of the great gift of mind and spirit that you have been given. And you can from time to time think about how you wasted and squandered much of it, but you can be grateful that, in most cases, there is more ahead of you than behind you. I think I can honestly say to each of you, your best years are ahead of you. They should be filled with joy, with happiness, with a sense of accomplishment. They should be filled with the sense that you have used your time as wisely and well as you could. You should not be somebody else. You should be yourself. You should be as God meant you at creation to be, and you should take the time to think about what that might mean.

When all is said and done—and it nearly is—it doesn't get any better than that. And so, I wish to each of you lives in which you discover the joys of instructive failure and the delightful pursuit of impossible things. Nothing more than this is necessary, but nothing less than this will do; this might seem like errant pulpit nonsense to you this morning, but trust me, my dear young friends, the day will come when you will remember something of these remarks by that obscure clergyman at your Baccalaureate, and then it will not be too late to act upon them.

I wish you good and happy and useful lives, and that you will never be alone in the pursuit of all that is good for you, and for the rest of us. God bless you, and good luck. You will need it.