Address by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, to the Harvard College Class of 2017 at Senior Chapel on Commencement morning.
According to social scientists, you, the Class of 2017, are an interesting and paradoxical bunch. Your class is comprised of so-called Millennials — Millennials that are as complicated and contradictory as the society which produced you.
According to research you were raised by helicopter parents that structured every minute of your day. Yet your generation contains the most independent and innovative thinkers we have ever seen. Many of you were pampered beyond belief, yet you were pushed beyond the limits to excel. Your Class is more comfortable with diversity and difference than any generation that came before you. But due to the concretization of class lines, unless you are intentional, you are more likely to live and work in segregated enclaves defined by wealth, regardless of your color. And you are the igeneration; the first generation to come of age totally hyper-connected on smart phones, social networks, and in an ever-connected Cloud. But as a result, there is also a danger that you can end up expecting more from technology than you do from actual human beings.
Nevertheless, part of the great benefit of being an educator is witnessing your animating impulses shift from how society defines you to the ethical and moral subjects that you desire to be. It is wonderful to watch you make your own choices as individuals, social scientists be- damned. The past four years at Harvard have provided you with the space and ability to transcend generational categorizations, and defy limited expectations, in order that you might help rewrite this history of the world with a positive and progressive chapter. For you, Class of 2017, are primed to assume positions of leadership in all fields of human endeavor at a time when our planet needs your innovative minds, your hopeful optimism, and your socially connected worldview like never before.
Now, of course, preceding generations have not bequeathed you the best conditions. The extreme heat of privatization and pursuit of maximum profits margins have scorched the globe. This has exacerbated the already violent and volatile conditions of growing inequality and unequal access. To cite my dear colleague Robert Putnam, in his latest book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, the growing inequality in education, housing, employment, social services, and neighborhood conditions, continues to prove to us that we can no longer be deniers of the impact of such a cultural climate.
Regardless of political orientation or social philosophy, our planet cannot afford another generation who place profits over people and a “greed is good” ideology over global sustainability. Your class gets this. This is why so many of you dedicated countless hours at Phillips Brooks House, served children in the greater Boston community, marched with strangers for the cause of justice, and worked tirelessly on behalf of Divest Harvard. You are helping to push the pendulum from a culture of excess in which you were born at the end of the 20th century, toward a culture of altruism. You, the graduating Class of 2017, can use your privilege and power to help shift the cultural climate. We need you to be thermostats, not thermometers. We need you to dictate and determine culture, as opposed to just reading it and reflecting it. We need you to imagine cultural alternatives and bring them to pass.
Imagine. Imagine a world where we understand that it is not enough to give charity. But rather we assume as our duty to see to it that we build a society where charity will not be necessary; where no sick person person will go untreated; no hungry child unfed; prisons will not be passed off as schools; and no able-bodied person will be under or unemployed.
Imagine. Imagine a world where all people, whether in America, Uganda or Israel / Nashville, Nicaragua or Nigeria are able to learn eagerly, love safely, worship freely, live peaceably, and prosper intentionally.
Imagine. Imagine a world defined by random acts of kindness; senseless compassion; unbridled cooperation; indiscriminate education, and loving legislation.
This is what Harvard College has provided you—not a simply a place to learn, but a place to think great thoughts, to dream, to build air castles furnished with hopes and aspirations of a future.
This is who you are. You are flesh and blood, body and mind, bones and muscles, nerves and veins, lungs and liver; yes. But you are so much more. You are what your dreams are. You are what you aspire to be.
This is why the tragedy in life is not in our failures. Failure is a prerequisite of success. The real tragedy of life is in our complacency. It’s not trying to do too much, but rather our doing too little. Not living above our ability or means, but in living below our capacity.
Will there be difficult moments? Yes. Will you make mistakes and get weary in your well-doing? Absolutely. But in the words of the great educator Benjamin Elijah Mays, “I would rather go to hell by choice than stumble into heaven by following the crowd.”
I pray that you will leave this place, Class of 2017, with a vast imagination and a steely determination that whatever you lay your hand upon, you will attempt to leave it better than you found it. Imagine new possibilities. Dream big. And then act boldly. And when you do this, you will be able to declare with the poet:
I am tired of sailing my little boat
Far inside the harbor bar
I want to go out where the big ships float
Out on the deep where the great ones are
And should my frail craft prove too slight
For waves that sweep the billow o’er.
I’d rather go down in the stirring fight
Than drowse to death by the sheltered shore.
Go in peace. Speak the truth. Give thanks each day.
Be quick to compliment liberally and love out loud.
Be slow to speak words of judgment and do so discreetly.
Love yourself. This is a precondition of loving your neighbor.
Realize each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done
Yet remain humble in realizing that we are not as good as the things we have accomplished.
Live simply. Live in service. Lose yourself to a cause bigger than yourself.
For this is what it means to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before your God.