Thirty-nine years ago, my college commencement was held in an un-air-conditioned gymnasium on the hottest day Alabama could serve up. I tried to talk my family into letting me skip the ceremony, but my grandmother, a retired schoolteacher, put her foot down. “We’re going,” she said. So we went. All I remember of the whole day is trying not to perish in the hallucinogenic heat.
My grandmother began her career in a two-room country schoolhouse. She was still teaching 40 years later when Alabama public schools were finally integrated. What my grandmother knew, and I did not, is that it’s right to celebrate a hard-won achievement. It’s right to drink in the pride of family and friends. It’s always right to give yourself over to joy every single time joy is on offer.
It is also right in this liminal moment, this time of looking both before and beyond, to ponder what it all means. What did the years of study and camaraderie really add up to? What new challenges will you be obliged to face in the years to come?
I can’t tell you what it all meant, but I think I understand some of the difficulties that lie ahead.
You are children of the 21st century, and yours is the first generation to recognize the inescapable urgency of climate change, the first not to deny the undeniable loss of biodiversity. You have grown up in an age permeated by the noise of a 24-hour news cycle, by needless political polarization, by devastating gun violence, by the isolating effects of “social” media. You have seen hard-won civil rights rolled back. You have come of age at a time of existential threat — to the planet, to democracy, to the arc of the moral universe itself — and none of it is your fault.
I wouldn’t blame you if you’re wondering how somebody of my generation, which wrecked so much that is precious, could dare to offer you advice. My only response is that age has exactly one advantage over the energy and brilliance of youth: Age teaches a person how to survive despair.
The years have shown me that hardship is only one part of life, and not remotely the largest part. Hardship always lives side by side with happiness. Pain always finds its fullest partner in joy. Love takes many forms, some of them surprising, and people are almost always kinder than we expect.
The world is beautiful. People are good.
If you can remember those two things, you will find your way to understanding that nothing ever came of despair, that change happened only because good people worked together to make an unfair world better. My grandmother didn’t close out her teaching career in an integrated classroom because Alabama politicians suddenly decided to do the right thing. As with every other sweeping change for good, desegregation happened because good people working together with other good people became an unstoppable force for change.