South Hadley High School Commencement
June 5, 2011
Thank you so much for the honor of allowing me to join you in today’s celebration. I have loved every minute of being back in South Hadley and getting to know so many of you through Mount Holyoke’s partnerships with South Hadley High. From marching alongside the football team and phenomenal band in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, to working together on the South Hadley Youth Commission and with the Center for Kingian Nonviolence in celebration of the anniversary of the Freedom Riders, I have come to understand the extraordinary depths of your commitment to community. And, of course, it is thrilling for me to welcome graduates onto the same stage I walked across when I received my diploma from Mount Holyoke.
Graduates, sitting here today, you may not realize it just now, but closing your high school career will end up, in time, being one of those memory-markers you call up later in life. You will remember the excitement, the feel of the amphitheater on this gorgeous day, waving your diploma in the air, and perhaps even the sadness of watching a neon, Mylar balloon that broke free and flew loose.
What you might not remember are the speeches–what I am saying to you now and what others say around me. But listen! If you can, weave this into your memory. You are not your yesterdays. Or at least, not only your yesterdays. Tomorrow your world unfolds free.
Some of you might be thinking, ―Oh no, this is what we get for inviting a philosopher to speak. But bear with me, because I am actually going to ask you do a little philosophy with me today. You are not your yesterdays. Think back. All of us have our yesterdays. We were born into a world—thrown, some philosophers say—into situations and places and categories and cultures
and skins and sexes we did not choose for ourselves. By the time we came to self-awareness as small children, each of us had attached to us all sorts of identifiers and qualities that helped to shape who we are. Philosophers call these things contingencies: the things we did not choose for ourselves but which come bundled, like so much Microsoft software, into the hardware of our lives.
For example, here are some of my contingencies: I was born in northeastern Connecticut on a snowy day in December, and of the nine babies delivered that day, I was the only girl. I was also the only child of my Italian American father, whose nickname was ―Satch, and my mother, Patricia, whose family was French Canadian and Native American. My parents, neither of whom had the opportunity to graduate from high school, were both factory workers—my father was a machinist at Pratt & Whitney, and my mother worked on the line at Acme Cotton. They traded off working on the first and third shifts so that one of them could be home with me during the day. We lived in a third-floor apartment, paying $80 a month in rent, near my grandparents and great-grandparents.
These were the days of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis, when President Kennedy urged all Americans to build bomb shelters. Barbie dolls were just being introduced by Mattel, and the original Parent Trap was released in movie theaters. The first passenger jets came on the scene with the Boeing 707, gas was 25 cents per gallon, and Bonanza became the first weekly television program to be broadcast in living color. These are the things that surrounded me by the time I came to think of myself as Lynn Pasquerella. Now I want you to think for a minute about your contingencies, your yesterdays–the things that you have dragged with you right here into your present. I am going to think of these things as being over here, back there in the past but weighing in right here on the present. Make a list in your head of your contingencies. In addition to your physical contingencies like you height and hair and eye color, there are those facts that have surrounded you. While I had Barbies, you had Beanie Babies. Jurassic Park, Sleepless in Seattle, and the Lion King had just been released. Gas had skyrocketed to $1.16, and instead of Huckleberry Hound and Captain Kangaroo, you were watching the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or Barney and Friends. There was a bombing of the World Trade Center, the introduction of the World Wide Web, and following 9/11, a life in which you took for granted removing your shoes at the airport, Orange Alerts, and turning off portable video games during takeoff and landing. These were all contingencies in your life.
Okay, the next step. If our contingencies are over here, then what’s over here? These are the tomorrows—where we are all headed. The places and people most folks think we are not quite yet, but will be. Your possibilities. Not actual, but suspended out there in the realm of the maybes. One of Mount Holyoke’s distinguished alumnae, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, suggested this notion when she said, "...believe that the sort of life you wish to live is, at this very moment, just waiting for you to summon it up. And when you wish for it, you begin moving toward it, and it, in turn, begins moving toward you."
But, here is what philosophy can teach you about your possibilities. Your tomorrows are not out there waiting for you—you are your tomorrows, insofar as you are right here, right now, projecting toward them. Right now, as you are sitting in the amphitheater thinking, you are likely thinking about how you can’t wait for this to be over so you can be with your friends or open a few cards and dig into the food at a graduation party with your family. Yet, as you are sitting here thinking about the future, you are already, in a very important way, inhabiting that future. Just as you can think back to your past and contemplate its influence in the present, so too can you project yourself into a possible future and hold before you, right now, your own next self.
This is what makes human beings special. Our ability to be, what we philosophers call, co-extensive in time. Time isn’t experienced as something out there separate from us. Our entire way of being is constantly slipping back and forth between where we have been, where we are going via where we are now. And now is where all the good stuff happens.
Still, in our everyday present lives, it is easy to slip into safe patterns of behavior so that much of the good stuff passes us by. If we fail to be innovators in our own lives, we risk falling into patterns that decay into habits, and habits form ruts. Now, habits can be good when we adopt them to assist us in meeting our goals—when they work as tools, as means toward ends—but habits grow toxic when they become reasons to do things in themselves. Then, they blind us to our freedom to do things differently—to think carefully about which parts of our past we want to continue being in the future, and which parts we might want to tamp down, or just leave behind.
And this brings me to the deeper, second level of humans and time. All of you graduating today occupy a critical moment of your present. You are literally hovering between your past and your future, but both of those dimensions of yourself—the contingencies you did not choose and all the possibilities you are free to choose—occupy your mental life right now. And the mental life of right now is where we get to negotiate our freedom, not to trundle along the hamster track of who we’ve always been and where we assume we’re going, but to acknowledge the past for what it is—many things we did not choose and a few things we did, each of which exert some influence on us—without letting those past patterns determine in robotlike fashion just who we will be.
The key thing is, while you cannot change the contingencies of your past, you can decide, for yourself, freely and without coercion, what attitude you are going to take toward them and what role you let them play in who you become.
So what if you’ve always been the jock on one of the Tigers’s nine championship teams? You have no obligation to be one for the rest of time. Maybe tomorrow you’ll take up ballet! And so what if you’re the Save the Whales radical? Tomorrow you might take the earring out of your nose and sign up to work for the Tea Party. Feel trapped by being the hip-hop aficionado, expected to talk tough and play your music loud? Try a yoga retreat! Hate grinding to get all As but feel compelled to be that doctor your grandmother always wanted in the family? Take a year out and join a NASCAR pit like you always wanted to, if you secretly long to work with your hands and some grease!
The midlife crisis happens when you allow a past you did not choose for yourself to rule you like a tyrant, to push you along whatever pathways and canals others have chosen for you, without stopping to think about the freedom you have to create an authentic new future. And this opportunity for new possibilities is there in every moment—not just this one.
That future is not out there somewhere, down some distant road, a thing for which you plan. Insofar as human beings have the capacity to think back to their past and forward toward their future, and to reflect on what influence they want the one to have over the other, they are mentally occupying the past and the future right here in the present. Thought itself is just a way of navigating time, what has been, what will be, what is.
But the difference between an authentic life and one that unwinds like a battery bunny, is this: the authentic life always honors the power of the present, the power to acknowledge where you’ve been without letting that past determine where you are going.
If I had let my past determine my future, I would not be standing here today. I would have taken up a job in a factory, maybe, or dropped out of school, or perhaps tried for sainthood within my family’s religion. Somewhere along the line, however, I started thinking. Where I had been need not be where I was going. While my past belonged to me, and would always be part of me because the past is always with us here in memory, I was in charge of my past to the degree that I could choose the extent to which I would allow my contingencies to shape me. As long as I could project out to the future, I could interrupt, right here in the present, the thoughtless, automatic repetition of the way I had always done things—ways I often didn’t even choose for myself—and begin to construct life freely in all sorts of ways.
And that’s what I did. I chose to study metaphysics and teach philosophy and to take that work into the prisons and hospitals; I chose to go to Medellin, Columbia, to do nonviolence training for inmates and taxi cab drivers, and to work in Kenya with community members near Lake Victoria to deliver clean water solutions, sustainable agriculture, and entrepreneurship. I also chose to go to China three days after a major earthquake to work on partnerships through the Confucius Institute. When I graduated from high school, I could never have imagined doing any of these things, and certainly never in my wildest dreams thought of being a college president.
You can do it too. Whether you are graduating today, or attending the graduation of your great-grandchild, or anywhere in between, you are free to unchain yourself from the contingencies of the past and project to your future. Disrupt the automatic patterns of what has been and what will be!
You are not your yesterdays. A future of freedom lives now, for you are the artist; your life is the work. Try new things. Look ahead. Test your freedom—the master of time.
Heed the words of yet another Mount Holyoke alum, Wendy Wasserstein, who said, “Don’t live down to expectations–go out there and do something remarkable.” But for today, celebrate all that you have done to get here today. Once again, congratulations!