1995 Commencement Address - Time and Loss
This ceremony, with all its joys, brings with it also the sadness of an ending. It has a bittersweet taste of loss to it. I can sense it in the comments of parents and teachers: It all went so fast." I remember dropping you off," or I remember you as a freshman the first day of ILS." Later today, in the car, heading West on Route 9, some of you will recall your first glimpse of Johnson Chapel or that room upstairs in Stearns with someone else's luggage and the unmade beds greeting you, a little bleakly, as you opened the door. For you who graduate, what has gone so fast are the four years of college. For your parents, there is a sense of loss as time s rush sweeps away your childhood. And for those of us who have taught you, we belong to a vocation in which each year we grow older and grayer but our students--as one class steps in for another--remain forever young.
In a poem that begins a loss of something ever felt I, Emily Dickinson described herself as [e]lder today, a session wiser, and fainter too as wiseness is. The description may fit you. I want to talk to you about time and loss, and how we wrest meaning from them.
* * *
My first protest. the first one I remember, was of a loss I barely understood. I was alone in this protest. And I was protesting God. It happened this way:
I was small then. not more than three or three-and-a-half. My mother had a child who never made it home from the hospital. It was my first disappointment with life, with life itself, which promised in this instance a new sibling and then reneged.
I knew of the birth from the general hubbub in the house: my father wasn t there one night, that I recall, or my mother; they were at a hospital somewhere far away. Perhaps an aunt came by the house with the news. There was a babysitter who stayed with us, I'm sure, but I can't remember her name.
What I do remember is the quiet of the day on which we learned that the baby had died at the hospital. I was home alone with the babysitter: my older brothers were at school. I must have gotten up after they caught the schoolbus. I remember nothing of breakfast or the kitchen s stir of sandwich-making and packing up for school. It was a bright day, warm, in the spring.
The babysitter told me that the new baby had died. I took this in without comment. She was a stranger; she might be lying or at least mistaken somehow. I told her I would walk over to see our most neighborly neighbor, Mrs. McCann. The sitter must have called Mrs. McCann on the phone to tell her I was coming. There s a slight incline to Mrs. McCann s old house. In those days there was almost no traffic. An old stone wall with brambles sidles along the grass strip by the country road. Mrs. McCann, an outspoken woman with a bluff, blunt way, stood in the road waiting for me. I treated it as a coincidence that she was there. We have a new baby, I told her, but the babysitter says it s not coming home. The babysitter s fibbing. It is coming home. Whatever Mrs. McCann told me it didn t make me cry. I m sure she said a lot. I remember that I turned back with tears in my eyes but angry and not sobbing. I made my way to the front door. The babysitter was there. I believe you, I said. Then I hurried from room to room shutting the windows with a slam at each one. She tried to stop me. I m shutting these to keep God out, I told her. He s mean; he took away the baby.
* * *
As I think back on it now, my window-slamming was a kind of adjudication. I meant to set up a new boundary between God and me: I blamed Him for my loss and sent Him, as it were, to his room, outside the house. Even then I must have suspected how brief an exile, how futile a punishment, this was. I never meant to spend the rest of my days (or even the rest of that one sunny day) inside the closed up house, with meanness and perhaps time itself expelled outdoors. I know now that I was protesting not only God and loss, but growing up, too, with its frightening knowledge of mortality and vulnerability. In the few minutes from my denial and rejection of the babysitter s news to the moment when I accepted what Mrs. McCann said, I was growing up: by which I mean that I was learning that time means loss as well as gain--that I could not have the one without the other--and that blame is often of no help.
Death brushes up against us sometimes gently, sometimes roughly. At first, as a child, it may be a pet who dies or someone you never met. Sooner or later it is someone we love. At Amherst, early this spring, a wonderful student, Nishtha Adhvaryu, took ill and died. In the same month we mourned the death of one of Amherst s greatest poets, James Merrill, who graduated in 1947, and whose lifelong lyric theme was the paradox that nothing lasts and nothing ends.
Death takes someone away from us, but in doing so it reminds us of ourselves, our temporary, fragile selves. Again and again students remarked this spring on the death of their friend as drawing me up short or making me think differently about where I m headed. They remembered her wit, her energy, her beauty; they remembered her alive and full of the emphatic, surprising detail of being alive; they remembered her in Professor Dizard's midday class on The Family or at Thursday s muddy rugby practice; and then they knew that she was gone out of their lives with suddenness and without explanation. Or, rather, with only a medical explanation, which is more about a disease than about the person whom it visited so harshly.
The real death is never dramatic, James Merrill wrote as an undergraduate here at the College:
One night The heart embraces glass and dies, just so.
For most of us loss--great loss--turns our thoughts to whom and what we love, and to the shortness of our own time for loving and living.
You set out now on a path that will not likely lead back this way again, not often anyway. You are thinking lots of thoughts now, at this moment, on this day, in this season of your lives. One thought that few of you will evade is the suddenness with which a portion of your life now concludes. And that leads on, for most of us, to the thought that all of life goes by quickly. This is a truism: everyone feels it from sixteen or seventeen.
Let me challenge its truth. Contrast your most vivid sense of the shortness of time with the many moments in which you have felt that something was taking much too long: a conversation you would rather not be in; a plane or train delayed by mechanical problems; a paper that you dreaded doing. No child who has ever faced an hour s drive would say that time is always short. Sometimes we itch with boredom at time s thick slow spill towards a splash or finish of some sort. You know the feeling: I want out; I want to be done with this, to be elsewhere, with someone else, as someone else; I want to be different from what I am here and now. I am bored.
Boredom is a kind of hatred of the time and experience that is ours. Sometimes it comes of coveting another time and place not our own. Sometimes it comes of being trapped somehow where we should not be. Often it comes from our own laziness or inattention. Often we would not be bored if only we would listen up or pay more attention.
Wittgenstein once said of boredom that it s always our own fault. Time s rush is our fault too.
We did not invent time; we discovered it--indeed it must have been among the first discoveries. And we measured it, first through the changes in the natural world and later in the machines we made to measure natural things. We measured it so as to work with it, I am sure: for the harvest; the voyage; the birth. But we may also have measured it so as somehow to hold on to it--to what we feel we have within its relentless passage of moment succeeding to moment. Your graduation is a kind of marker, a noon or three o clock, in your own measurement of time.
None of us can entirely dispense with the great clocks by which we measure our progress. We each have a story to live out, much as we cannot predict its end. We imagine our lives as if they had a script, an incomplete script, and we crave the cues to our upcoming lines and actions. Some psychologists, including our own Professor Demorest, have a notion that most of us repeat over and again, without much thought, a script from childhood that we find satisfying or justifying. My window-slamming was a script of sorts: it made sense of the harshness of my loss; it allowed me to punish (or think that I had punished) the one I imagined behind it; and by exhausting me it allowed me to accept the final, irrevocable quality of loss.
Gestures of protest have an element of lyricism. We can understand them, like sacraments and poems, as efforts to shore up meaning against time and time s losses.
I have three simple reflections to offer from my childhood protest:
My first reflection is the simplest; it is about blame. I slammed the windows shut that morning because I was angry and blamed the one I took to be the perpetrator of my loss. It did me some good, as I have said. Later on, though, I or someone else had to open those windows up again. So I say to you: Slam the doors and windows of your lives when you must. Protest because you have made a judgment and must voice it. But take more care in your blaming than I did. Make sure the target of your blame deserves it. And always, after a time, be sure to open up the windows and go back outside.
The second reflection is about time: Many of you are now planning the years ahead with a meticulous sense of how to accomplish your purposes: to become a scientist or teacher, a writer or entrepreneur; when to join your life with someone else s (or vowing now never to do so) or when (if ever) to have a child or a house or even an address for the alumni office. Many of you have plotted time s course, mapped it out like an explorer, so that you will reach a particular destination on a particular date and with the right supplies at hand. I will not fault you for your care. But I warn you against too much care for the map, and too little for the journey, with its infinite moments of passage.
I have often heard students say: I don t want to do this--medical school or a Ph.d or pottery or film or what have you--because it takes too long. Two years is too long. Three is or four or five. Too long for what? I wonder. What else is it that you would do? Those four or five years will go by one way or another, however you count them or eke them out.
We must be light, Merrill wrote, light-footed, light of soul, quick to let go..."
If you can let go of one moment so as to catch the next, time will bring you joys. Better, time s very passing will be itself a joy, as rivers are or fountains or the waves on the shore.
So set your plans and purposes in time the way wanderers do; I m headed this way; I have a notion to do this and that; but I'm in no hurry; no one s waiting for me; I ll find my way--and my friends--as I go."
The last reflection is about loss: Time will bring you losses; count on that. It will break your heart again and again; but the heart mends in time. And memory holds on even--or especially--to what we lose. If loss teaches you anything, let it teach you to look to others, always, with a sense of how brief a time you share with them, and how vulnerable their lives and purposes are. Attend to them, then, with curiosity, with sympathy and, if at all possible, with affection. Where you must judge them, judge mercifully. Who needs friends, Merrill asked rhetorically, to remind him that nothing either lasts or ends?"