In speech, Rev. Peter Gomes exhorts ‘virtue of failure’

Rev. Peter J. Gomes

Rev. Peter J. Gomes

Delivering the Baccalaureate address Saturday, June 14, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes stressed the importance of failure and risk, and skewered what he called the "conventional wisdom" that speakers often impart to graduating students.

"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," Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in Harvard's Memorial Church, told the crowd of Stanford graduates and their families and friends, who sat on white folding chairs in the Main Quadrangle. "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."

The Baccalaureate at Stanford is a multifaith religious service. It "celebrates the magnificent diversity that this university has come to embody," the Rev. Scotty McLennan, Stanford's dean for religious life, said during his welcoming remarks. "This should feel like a global celebration of the spiritual life."

Indeed, a Buddhist singing bowl, struck for the call to prayer, was followed by the reading of an excerpt written by Black Elk, an American Indian holy man; a poem by Muhammad Iqbal, the late Muslim Indian philosopher, poet and political leader; Philippians 4: 4-9 from the New Testament; and a benediction, delivered jointly by Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann and the Rev. Joanne Sanders of the Office for Religious Life. In addition, Stanford Taiko performed a drumming blessing, and Talisman, a Stanford a cappella group whose musical inspiration comes largely from South and West African folksongs, black gospel and spirituals, sang two songs.

By 10 a.m., when Gomes began his address, the sun was out in full, while a slight but merciful breeze kept the proceedings somewhat cool.

Gomes, whose preaching style was described in a 1996 New Yorker profile as "a mix of black 'tornado' preaching and traditional English sermons," got a lot of laughs from the crowd with a speech that offered, in his words, "unconventional wisdom" and that poked good-natured fun at professors, students and their parents.

"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," Gomes said. "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 that 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."

Gomes said both assertions are wrong. Rather, graduates will find that they cannot do everything they set out to do. They will see their most ambitious plans thwarted. They also will discover that they are mostly invisible. "The world will little note nor long remember what you say or do here," he added. "It's a shame, but that is the case."

Gomes instead pointed to the "virtue of failure," saying that, if education has any value at all, "it will help us to understand the constructive uses of failure." The object of an education is to "make a life that is worth living," not lots of money, he said.

"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," he said. "And how will you sort out those failures? What will you learn from them? What will you make of them?"

Gomes also encouraged graduates "to entertain the value of impossible things."

"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," he said. "It's an invitation to do something most college graduates are unwilling to do, and that is to take risks."

He said his favorite intellectual on the subject of "impossible things" is the Red Queen, from Alice in Wonderland, because the queen describes how, when she was the young protagonist's age, she would sometimes believe "as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

"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," Gomes said. "And literally, at the end of the day, that is what it is all about."

Changing the world

Barry W. Fischer, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in civil and environmental engineering, delivered the "student reflection" following Gomes' address. Fischer said that when he was accepted to Stanford, he felt as though he had been given the opportunity to change the world.

Now, he said, he realized his "original vision of individually changing the world was naïve."

"I've come to realize that I cannot change the world. But we can," he said. "I've come to be imbued with Stanford spirit—a spirit recognizing that changing the world requires a community."

He compared his experience at Stanford to being part of a jigsaw puzzle and said that, as graduates of the university, "we should be passionate puzzle solvers who constantly seek out diverse puzzle pieces and put them together—creatively uniting individuals from different backgrounds, cultures, religions and opinions."