It’s graduation time again! I don’t know about you, but every year my Facebook feed fills up from mid-May to early-June with congratulations, celebrations and lots of pictures of mortar boards, commencement speakers and –of course– glorious shots of the meticulously-kept grounds of my Alma mater. A few years ago, I found myself in the final round of competition for the coveted spot of “Graduate English Speaker” at Harvard’s commencement. Alas, I lost to a former member of Parliament, so I can’t be too bitter– his speech was fabulous. Yet as I reflect on my husband’s upcoming doctoral graduation, I felt the need to dust off this old speech and offer it up not just for all of the graduates, but as a reflection for us all: from where do you speak?
Nobody Speaks from Nowhere
“Nobody speaks from nowhere…”
I can still picture my Nigerian professor, sitting on the stool at the front of the classroom, wagging his finger at us and saying: “Nobody speaks from nowhere.” When I first heard him say this, my reaction was: “Well that’s obvious. He’s on a stool. I’m in a chair. Thoreau had Walden Pond– we all speak from somewhere.”
That’s not even close to what he meant. When my professor said, “Nobody speaks from nowhere,” he was issuing a challenge. He was telling us that what we were about to read was crafted by a person with a past full of experiences, hopes, dreams and fears. This professor helped me learn to simultaneously think critically and engage the person behind the idea, which is not only a different way to look at literature, but…
Most importantly, it is a different way to look at yourself.
One can’t embrace the idea that “nobody speaks from nowhere” without eventually coming up against the question: From where do I speak? This question becomes especially poignant when a person finds herself facing a life-changing transition, for example: a commencement.
As I started to ponder these things for myself, I began to form an image of the ‘where’ from which I spoke. That image was a path: a road leading towards my goals, which were often depicted as mountains… challenging, majestic and a little bit scary. Some times people would join me for a while: a roommate, a professor, a friend. Some people were with me the whole time: my parents, my siblings, my husband, my daughter. Setbacks were bound to happen, but no matter what I kept facing that mountain head on.
I had been speaking from this path my whole life. When I was eight, people would ask: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Then, the mountain looked like a glamorous acting career. When I was eighteen, they asked: “What do you want to do when you graduate?” The mountain was a lucrative career in radiology. When I was nineteen, it had become a lucrative career as a lawyer. When I was twenty, that mountain was a career in ministry that would never pay me enough to cover my undergrad tuition. I came to Harvard Divinity School and people started asking, “What are you going to do when you’re done with school? …You will eventually be done with school, right?”
All of these future-oriented questions are helpful: they let us plan so we can pursue what we desire in life. But eventually I began to realize that the image of the path isn’t quite accurate– I thought about those times when the mountain changed drastically… and eventually, I realized that these were the times in my life when who I thought I wanted to be didn’t match with who I already was.
This is the problem with the path and the mountain: I was planning my route based on a path that didn’t account for all of the places I had been. The mountain path, as attractive as it may be, can only take shape in a future that does not yet exist. It is, for right now, a ‘nowhere.’
Before you get that diploma today, before you say goodbye to Harvard and the many joys, friendships and struggles that you’ve encountered here, I humbly ask you to humor me in a visual exercise. I want you to see the path you think you’re heading on and see that mountain ahead, no matter what it is: a job, grad school, service, maybe unemployment.
Now, get rid of it.
Instead, picture yourself in a row boat. Your past is in front of you, your future behind. You’re still traveling in the same direction, but now you navigate by a concrete vision. You can glance over your shoulder to get a glimpse of that mountain– of where you want to go– but your eyes are fixed firmly on where you’ve been. Now ask yourself: does where I am going fit with where I have been? See how your life’s journey has shaped you (in good times and in bad), embrace how it has given you a voice and has moulded you into your self. That is the ‘where’ from which you speak.
You graduates have a lot of people out there who are happy for you and proud of you today. They should be and you should be, too. My wish, however, is that no one comes up and asks you: “What are your plans after graduation?” My wish for you is that someone asks, “How has Harvard shaped your life?”
I speak to you now not just from this podium, but from my past and my own experiences. As a former undergraduate I say to you what Martin Sheen said to my class: “Go out and change the world. “ As a mother of an eleven-month-old I say, “Be careful. Don’t get into too much trouble.” As a fellow graduate I say, “Congratulations! We did it!” And as a perpetual theology student I say, “May God bless you on your journey.”