2013 Santa Fe Commencement Address
May 18, 2013
Given by Jill Cooper Udall
Trustees of the college, President and Mrs. Peters; Dean Sterling; Director Carl; faculty and staff; family, friends, and guests; classes of 2013:
We are here for you! To applaud your hard work and success in reaching this most important milestone—and to wish you well as you move on to the next, whatever it is.
I graduated from college at the dawn of the computer age. I was a math major. I wanted to do my senior thesis on MIT’s massive new IBM 7090 but my math department said “no.” Wellesley girls, they explained, don’t play with computers. It was a long time ago.
Undeterred, I got my first job programming for the Harvard Statistical Laboratory, on another IBM 7090 that took up a whole building and operated on punch cards coded in zeros and ones—which we fed into the hopper and waited for stacks of paper to come out. Those days are all but forgotten, but one lesson still holds, and I pass it on to you: garbage in, garbage out.
My next job was a world away. When my then-husband graduated, we moved to rural Virginia where my choices—same pay and same skills required—were setting pins in the bowling alley, working in a tobacco factory, or teaching school. I chose the last and found myself in a one-room portable building behind an elementary school on the edge of a tobacco field with forty-five wildly disparate seventh graders. In a shameless pitch for teaching, I’ll tell you that my year with those seventh graders was the best thing I’ve ever done.
Fast forward fifty years through an eclectic mix of occupations, including a long and diverse career in the law, a serious commitment to the arts, and, for the last twenty-odd years to varying degrees, a peripheral involvement with politics and public service. I recite this history mostly to explain that I have led what could be called a composed life—in contrast, let’s say, to a directed and ordered life. The term is from Mary Catherine Bateson’s 1991 book, Composing a Life, which was popular among my friends who were concerned about their seeming lack of direction. We were consoled by her theory that life was a creative process and that rather than having a single goal or ambition, it was okay, in response to circumstances, to explore the potential of a complex world, to pick up different pieces, to focus and refocus our ambitions on new goals and possibilities. It is a reasonable and respectable option which may work for you as well.
It’s hard to retire from composing a life. I am writing my first novel. It’s not sold yet but my agent is very excited and thinks I am ninety-five percent done. The politics has become more intense and I’ve learned that without a deliberate effort to opt out, the proximity to political power—the United States Senate—creates its own agenda and there is no point in pretending otherwise. No one else ignores it.
So…in my sprawling political family…there is a story for every occasion. The favorite Udall commencement story goes like this: Uncle Burr was asked to address the graduates at his university. He couldn’t believe they wanted him, as e had not been a distinguished student. “Did you ever think,” he asked his wife Alice, “in your wildest dreams that I would be the commencement speaker?”
“Burr,” she is supposed to have said, “you don’t appear in my wildest dreams.”
Well, who of us actually expects to be a commencement speaker? But then, why not? I predict that more than one of you will be a commencement speaker—perhaps asked back to address a future class of St John’s graduates. Although…then as now…the fact that St John’s graduates have spent four years absorbing the greatest wisdom of the Western World does leave one wondering if there is anything left to say. In her commencement speech two years ago, Victoria Mora faced the question head-on. As dean, she looked back over the Program and drew a lesson from “the first opening question that brought Homer’s Iliad and its battling heroes into the urgency of the here and now.” It was totally brilliant. To the question “What do you do with an education like that?” she answered “Anything you want. But nobody will believe it if you don’t.” I can’t top that. I can, however, add that having become effective readers, writers, listeners, and speakers, you’ve acquired precisely the skills you need in a world today that prizes critical thinking and innovation. I can assure you that—whatever the new trends in curriculum—a liberal arts education will hold its value and prove its worth.
When he was Attorney General, Tom Udall gave the commencement speech here at St John’s. He spoke on the importance of civility, which is integral to your life here. He spoke on how civility reflects an honest respect for others and what they have to say—all of which is essential in a democracy. Sadly there is little civility in the Senate now. There’s a lot of fancy talk to be sure—“I yield to my good friend the distinguished member from the great state of New Mexico”—but proper respect has been replaced by partisan bickering and rampaging egos. I thought about polishing up Tom’s speech and giving it again, but you already know about civility. What we need is for Congress to spend some time on this campus. Take a seminar or two. Besides, there are other things I want to tell you.
First—everything you do makes a difference.
One Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the temple was between rabbis so a guest rabbi was brought in to conduct the service. I don’t remember her name but I’ll never forget what she said. She said: “You don’t know me so I am going to tell you what I believe. I believe three things. I believe God works through people. I believe there is right and wrong. And I believe everything you do makes a difference.”
Now, we may not agree about God working through people or even about right and wrong, but I am quite sure that everything we do—consciously or unconsciously—makes a difference. Every act of kindness and every act of cowardice. There are always consequences. It has been said that if anything matters, then everything matters. Where would you draw the line? None of this, of course, is meant to imply that every moment is a weighty burden or that you will become immobilized for fear of those consequences, but rather to suggest that if you understand that everything you do makes a difference then you are more likely to be mindful, to pay attention. And if you pay attention, there is little risk you will lead the dreaded unexamined life.
I leave it to William James who said: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
Second—learn when to let go.
Start, for goodness sakes, by learning to let go of all those pesky little grudges and regrets that waste way too much of our time and energy. Nursing hurt feelings and whining about what might have been. We all do it and it accomplishes nothing. This is a totally unnecessary indulgence. You can give it up. There is a line I used to like to quote from John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Maud Muller”: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been!” So true, but it doesn’t mean we can’t let those things go.
On another level, for more important matters, the point is to understand that letting go is not necessarily the same as quitting. Absolutely fight for your principles and stand up for what you believe in, but learn to recognize when the perfect solutions you seek have become the enemy of the good, and the choice is actually between taking a smaller step in the right direction and going nowhere at all. Learn to recognize when having your way is not really what’s at stake. That it is not about you. Letting go can actually take more strength than holding on.
I hope that at least some of you have head of Kenny Rogers’ famous song “The Gambler,” because— quite frankly—he said it best:
You've got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run.
Granted he was singing about the game of poker but it’s no stretch at all to see how neatly these lines apply to the game of life.
Third—save the planet. Please.
We have made a terrible mess of it. The earth is burning up. Ninety-five percent of New Mexico is suffering from drought. The icecaps are melting and fish are dying in the ocean. Our generation has heard about the devastating impact of climate change. We understand the science. We know there is an enormous problem to be solved. But we don’t seem to be able to do anything about it. In commencement speeches this month, President Obama said we need the political will to confront the threat of climate change before it is too late. He’s right. But there will be no political will until there is a groundswell of public opinion demanding that our elected leaders take action. And we won’t have a groundswell until the public gets involved. That’s where you and your generation come in. We need a movement. A social media movement. We need to take climate change viral and keep it trending until something is done about it. We need an event—a symbol to rally around. They had me with the polar bear sitting on the melting ice floe but that apparently didn’t catch on. I like “put a price on carbon,” but that clearly isn’t going anywhere.
When I was growing up, my father made toys and the little prizes in cereal boxes…I don’t know if they still have them… the disappearing ink pens and secret code rings. The game in our house was to try to invent the next great prize. There were four rules: it had to cost less than a few cents to make; it had to be too big to swallow; it had to have the old collect ‘em-swap ‘em thing; and it had to be sold on the front of a cereal box in three words.
What we need—so to speak—is to sell the threat of climate change on the front of a cereal box in three words. We need Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Instagram and whatever else has come along in social media to build and sustain the movement that will generate the political will to pass the laws and sign the treaties that will confront the threat of climate change.
And it starts with you. You and your generation—with all the tools at hand—can challenge the political will to fix the problem. Good luck, because the whole planet is depending on you.
So, there it is:
You have had an education that prepares you to do anything you want—if you believe it. You can follow your ambition or you can compose a life as circumstances may lead you. But whatever course you take, remember—everything you do makes a difference. Remember also that you’ll be well ahead of the game if you learn when to let go. And, finally, it is up to you to gin up the movement that will save the planet. I know you’ll all do just fine. I wish you a safe and happy journey. It’s been a pleasure being with you today.