Novelist Anna Quindlen Commencement Address at Colby College
May 28, 2006
Women and men of the Class of 2006 at Colby College. I do a fair amount of public speaking. And, because of their virtuosity, I have always said that there are two people that I never want to follow on a program: Mario Cuomo and Hillary Rodham Clinton. However today I make a new vow: Francis—I’m never speaking after you again.
Commencement speeches are the toughest speeches I ever give.This is a hugely transformative moment in the life of you graduates and of all of your families. It’s also a day of great celebration, and I’m always keenly aware that I am now all that stands between you and your diplomas and the partying to come. So I’m going to be brief with you. My text is a simple one —you can remember it.
Be not afraid.
It’s an old and honorable directive—you can find it with some variation in both the Old and the New Testament. That’s because it’s really the secret of life. C.S. Lewis once wrote “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” So, Class of 2006, fear not.
Believe me, I have enough of a memory of my youth to know that it’s really preposterous to say that at this moment. You are afraid. You’re afraid of leaving what you know, you’re afraid of seeking what you want, you’re afraid of taking the wrong path, or you’re afraid of failing at the right one. Your closest friends are going one way, you’re going another, and from this small, serene, safe, gorgeous pond, you go down through the estuary to the ocean, and often the current will be harsh and the riptides will be tough. But you have to learn to put the fear aside, or at least refuse to allow it to rule you.
It is fear that always tamps down our authentic selves, that turns us into some patchwork collection of affectations and expectations, mores and mannerisms, some treadmill set to the prevailing speed of universal acceptability that causes a tyranny of homogeny, whether it’s the homogeny of the straight world of the suits or the spiky world of the avant-garde.
The voices of conformity speak so loudly out there. Don’t listen. People will tell you what you ought to think and how you ought to feel. They will tell you what to read and how to live. They will urge you to take jobs that they themselves loathe, and to follow safe paths that they themselves find tedious.
Only a principled refusion to be terrorized by these stingy standards will save you from a Frankenstein life that’s made up of others’ outside expectations grafted together into a poor semblance of existence.
You can’t afford to do that. It’s what’s poisoned our culture, our communities, and our national character. No one ever does the right thing from fear, and so many of the wrong things are done in its shadow: homophobia, sexism, racism, religious bigotry. All of them are bricks in a wall that divides us and they’re bricks cast of the clay of fear—fear of that which is different or unknown.
Our political atmosphere today is so disspiriting because most of our leaders are leaders in name only. They’re terrorized by polls and focus groups, by the need to be all things to all people, which means that they wind up being nothing at all.
Our workplaces are full of fear—fear of innovation, fear of difference. The most widely used cliché in management today is to “think outside the box.” The box is not only stale custom, it is terrified paralysis.
In my own business fear is the ultimate enemy. It accounts for censorship, obfuscation, the lowest common denominator of the news when sharp, free, fearless news is more necessary to us than ever before. Without fear or favor, the news business has to provide readers and viewers with stories, even if those stories are stories the powerful do not want you to hear or believe and do not want us to publish or disseminate.
Too often our public discourse fears real engagement or intellectual intercourse. It pitches itself at the lowest possible level. Always preaching to the choir so that nobody will get angry, which means nobody will get interested. What’s the point of free speech if we’re always afraid to speak freely?
Not too long ago I asked a professor of religion what she did to suit the comfort level of all those diverse students in her class. And she said, “It’s not my job to make people comfortable. It’s my job to educate them.” I nearly stood up and cheered.
If we fear competing viewpoints, in this country of all countries, if we fail to state the unpopular or to allow the unacceptable to be heard because of some plain-vanilla sense of civility, that’s not civility at all, it’s the denigration of the human capacity for thought—the suggestion that we are fragile flowers incapable of disagreement, argument, or civil intellectual combat.
Colby College does not turn out fragile flowers. You have to be smart and sure and strong enough to overcome the condescending notion that opposing viewpoints are just too much for us to bear—in politics, in journalism, in business, in the academy. Open your mouths. Speak your peace. Fear not.
Believe me, you’re not the only ones who sometimes lack courage. We parents have been paralyzed by fear as well, haven’t we? When you were first born, each of you, I can guarantee that your parents’ greatest glory was in thinking you absolutely distinct from every baby who had ever been born before. You were a miracle of singularity. You shouted “dog,” you lurched across the playground, you put a scrawl of red paint next to a squiggle of green and we put it on the fridge and said, “Oh my god, oh my god, you are a painter, a poet, a prodigy, a genius.”
But we are only human, and being a parent is a very difficult job—unpaid and unrewarded much of the time, requiring the shaping of other people—an act of incredible hubris. And over the years, we sometimes learned to want for you things that you did not necessarily want for yourselves. We learned to want the lead in the play, the acceptance at our own college, the straight and narrow path that often leads absolutely nowhere. We learned to fear your differences, not to celebrate them.
Sometimes we were convinced conformity would make life better or at least easier for you. Sometimes we had a hard time figuring out where we ended and you began.
So today guide us back to where we started. Help us not to make mistakes out of fear, or out of love. Learn not to listen to us when we are wrong. Begin today to say no to the Greek chorus that thinks it knows the parameters of a good life when all it knows is some one-size-fits-all version of human experience.
There’s plenty to fear out there. You know that every time you pick up a newspaper. Two years ago I gave into it myself, writing a column at just this time called “An Apology to the Graduates,” telling the Class of 2004 how sorry I was about the unremitting stress they had been under all their young lives. In part I wrote, “There’s an honorable tradition of starving students; it’s just that between outsourcing of jobs and a boom market in real estate, your generation envisions becoming starving adults. Caught in our peculiar modern nexus of prosperity and insolvency, easy credit and epidemic bankruptcy, you also get toxic messages from the culture about what achievement means. It is no longer enough to make it, you must make it big. You all will live longer than any generation in history, yet you were kicked into high gear earlier as well. Your college applications look like the résumés for midlevel executives. How exhausted you must be.”
Well, here is what might await you. You will, I am sure, be offered the option of now becoming exhausted adults, convinced that no achievement is large enough, with résumés as long as short stories. But what if that feels like a betrayal of your true self? A forced march down a road trodden by other feet at the end of which is nothing you truly care for?
Fear not. Remember Pinocchio? Each of you has a Jiminy Cricket. It is you, your best self, the one you can trust. The only problem is that it is sometimes hard to hear what it says because all of the external voices and messages are so loud, so insistent, and so adamant.
Voices that loud are always meant to bully. Do not be bullied. You already know this. I just need to remind you. You already know how important courage is. After all you chose as your class speaker someone from a small village in Zimbabwe who got on a plane to transcend hemispheres, customs, and cultures to come to Colby College. You can look at him and know that a flying leap of fearlessness is possible.
Just think back. You know how to do this. Think back to first grade — to yourself in first grade when you could still hear the sound of your own voice in your head. When you were too young, too unformed, too fantastic to understand that you were supposed to take on the protective coloration of the expectations of those around you. When you were absolutely, certainly, unapologetically yourself.
I have a pocket-sized edition of the Tao that I keep on my desk. I read a passage from it every day, and the section I like best says, “In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.”
When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.
We live in a world in which the simple, the generous, the enjoyable, the completely present, above all the simply yourself, sometimes seems as out of reach as the moon. Don’t be fooled. That’s not because anyone has found a better way in the millennia since the Tao was written. It is because too often we are people enslaved by fear.
The ultimate act of bravery doesn’t usually take place on a battlefield. It takes place in your heart when you have the courage to honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and your soul by listening to its clean, clear voice of direction instead of following the muddied messages of a timid world.
Samuel Butler once said, “Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.” That sounds terrifying, doesn’t it, and difficult too, but that way lies music. So, Class of 2006 pick up your violin, lift your bow, play your heart out.
Congratulations and courage.