Reilly A. Horan ’13
May 26, 2013
Want just audio? Hear Reilly Horan’s speech:
Good morning, and welcome to Amherst College’s 192nd Commencement Ceremony. Welcome to the faculty and staff, to President Biddy Martin and her administrative team, to our esteemed guests, to our family and friends and to my fellow members of the Class of 2013. Thank you all for being here today.
My name is Reilly Horan, and I am honored to be able to speak with you this morning.
This is huge, considering when I was in preschool and was asked who I’d be when I was 21 years old, I literally wanted to be a mailman. Not a mailwoman—a mailman. I also wanted to be Jesus. I guess you just let some dreams go. All that said, I feel lucky to have been blessed with this opportunity to reflect on my time here and look at what’s to come.
I can’t speak to our collective experience here. There are people who have had far different paths through this place, people who are happier than me and people who are less happy. There are people who have studied, worked on and experienced things I cannot even fathom. I sat on a panel next to a girl who completed her thesis in chemistry. For me, working on a thesis in chemistry every day for a year would feel like getting punched in the face every day for a year, but for this girl it was fascinating. She was brilliant and modest and reflective. Just a few weeks ago I watched three Film and Media [Studies Program] theses and was in total awe of the works those boys created. Over the course of the year, I’ve also seen a group of dedicated students fight with fervor and care for a culture change here at Amherst. I could do this forever with all the students, campus leaders, artists, athletes and friends who exist here. So know this: I am humbled to be graduating with you.
I also can’t speak to what we’ll all do when we leave here. Some of you have jobs, some of you will be living with your parents, claiming to be a “starving artist” while secretly hoping that your red hair will make you quirky enough to occasionally guest host The Ellen Degeneres Show…What? Some of you have specific ideas for how you wish to change the world—in politics, in science, in writing, in making art, in teaching, in learning—while others know that the only certain thing about your future is that you can’t put “Competitively eats Hot Pockets” under “Special Skills” on your résumé, and you’re back at square one.
So what I will speak to is something a little broader. That is, no matter what we want to do, we have to figure out how to lead a happy life when we leave here. That sounds simple and more than a little ignorant, I imagine, but it’s worth thinking about.
How will we find happiness in the day-to-day grind of our existences? David Foster Wallace [’85] defines this in his seminal commencement address [to Kenyon College] “This is Water.” He says, “The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ‘day in, day out’ really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustrations.” I think about Wallace’s speech all the time. I think about, while we pursue our big dreams, how we’re going to cope with the day-in-day-out minutia: the hiccups and little irritating things that gnaw at us.
I’ll give you a brief example of what I’m talking about in a day I’ve had here. I imagine many of you have had similar days:
You wake up early to do some laundry and head downstairs to see that your hallmate had the same idea. And he’s dominated all of the machines but doesn’t realize that his laundry is done. You decide to remove his laundry before he comes back, and of course he re-enters the room to see you double-fisting pairs of his boxers. So now you two are weird forever.
And you head to Val for lunch, and you’re waiting in line at the salad bar, and this little, cute, innocent girl weasels her way in front of you and asks, “Can I just get some carrots?” And you smile and say “Sure,” but what you really want to say is, “Can you ‘just get some carrots’? Can I just get some lettuce, tomatoes, croutons and salad dressing? We’re all just getting things; that’s why we’re all just waiting in line.”
All day, nobody makes your life any easier, nothing works the way you planned, and at the end of it, you feel tired, stupid and alone.
I’ll be candid and tell those of you who didn’t already know that I wrote my thesis about this: I wrote a play called Yes that asked how to live a happy life once you’ve entered the mundanity and monotony that seems so inherent to adult life. So I will perform that thesis for you now. It’s only about an hour and fifteen minutes, but it feels more like two.
No, I’m obviously kidding, but I will talk about the happiness that I’ve found here and that I hope we all will find in our adult lives. Most of the lessons I’ve learned about happiness at Amherst have to do with how I reconcile myself in a room full of others. This is something we’ll do our whole lives, and it’s a problem I really grappled with here. My big takeaway is this: While I’m dealing with my problems and insecurities and dreams, so are other people. That makes me more in charge of my own happiness than I ever thought I was. And once I learned that little bit of self-love, I found it far easier to care for others, as well.
About a month ago I was invited to a Select Dinner, which is this new, incredible event for students of different academic backgrounds to socialize with each other. I was ecstatic to receive my invitation, obviously. It was the first social engagement in weeks that didn’t involve a friend and me shoving a fork into a vending machine to loosen a free bag of Fritos for dinner. On the night of the dinner, I pulled out all the stops: I showered. I thought about shaving my legs. I was ready. I called my sister and followed her advice vis-à-vis matching my dress to a modest cardigan.
I strode confidently into Lewis-Sebring and opted for the nontraditional “Snapple Pink Lemonade in a wine glass.” I felt pretty small: I had been going to this school for four years and knew no one in the room. The first young man I encountered asked me why I didn’t have a name tag. I didn’t know. Where was the name tag station? Were you supposed to bring one from home? I started getting tunnel vision. I headed over to the woman in charge and asked, “Is this where I go to register… for the…?”
“For the what?” she answered.
“For this dinner, the Select Dinner.”
“The dinner with Pat Allen…. She selected…”
“Oh, sweetheart, this is the Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Majors’ Dinner. Your dinner is next week.”
Put simply: I had shown up to a party I wasn’t invited to. But it was worse than that: I was in a loud purple dress, and I was holding a fluorescent-pink drink. I had already introduced myself confidently to someone in there and had already said something horrifying like, “Where is everyone? I guess some folks don’t know how to get places on time!”
I knew exactly what would happen next: the woman would drag me into the center of the room and announce me as the intruder. Then the LJST majors would take turns throwing their theses at me while yelling, “She’s not one of us!” and “Burn her at the stake!” I would then be thrown out of Lewis-Sebring by my collar, and then someone would write about it in an op-ed in The Amherst Student—perhaps, “LJST Crasher Brings Party Policy Tensions to New Heights” or, worse, “Rogue Theater and Dance Major Tries to Score Free Snapple.”
However, something remarkable happened: nothing. The woman smiled, and I shuffled out. I told myself, “Rei, no one will ever have to know about this.”
I tell you this little parable to illustrate something I found to be true about finding some happiness here: learning that people aren’t evaluating you nearly as much as you think they are. That means you can make mistakes. That also means you can get a little weird. And passionate. You can do all of those things and not care too much about how others will judge you. So whether you’re having a day full of little frustrations, or you make a stupid mistake, or you’re fighting for something you believe in with every fiber of your being, allow yourself to let it out. Be a little theatrical; express yourself; externalize. Doing this always helps me realize that the problems are smaller than they seem and my dreams are more possible than they seem. And, more than that, it helps me remember that the people around me are dealing with their own problems and dreams, not conspiring against me.
We always think we are being evaluated by others. We’re trained to think that way. At Amherst, we wrote papers and handed them in on time so that we could be graded. We showed up at a specific time to take a test so that we could be assessed. And we go to great lengths to make sure that those grades and assessments are good. I’ve handed in papers before—and I imagine you can relate—where I wanted to include a Post-it note on it that said something like, “I have literally denied myself several basic human needs to write this. I am the Katniss-from-Hunger-Games of paper writing. I’ve written papers when I’m sick, tired, hungry, lonely, when the power’s out, when Frost Library is closing in 15 minutes. I care a lot. Please understand this as you grade my paper. Sincerely, Reilly.” It’s a big Post-it note.
We’ve been trained to fight our way to and through evaluative situations. But that’s not where the good stuff is, and we already know that.
The moments that I’m most proud of at Amherst are those where I engaged with an idea or a text or another human being that I was passionate about, where my fire came from my deep connection to what I was doing, not by how I predicted I’d be perceived: in the classroom, on the softball field, on the stage, in social settings. The good stuff comes when you stop frantically looking around while you tread water and realize that you’re already buoyant and start swimming.
In the vast majority of our lives, we will not be evaluated in the ways we’ve been trained to be evaluated here. That means we’re at a very exciting time right now: we get to decide what we want to do and why we want to do it, and, for the first time in our lives, we’re not getting graded on it. We’re being driven by a much deeper and more exciting spirit within us, a spirit that is at once deeply personal yet looking for company.
Our next move is to decide what community we are going to join once we leave this one. I think about the communities I’ve already been a part of. I think of my family, who are an incredible group of supporters and comedians who care desperately about how I turn out. If you haven’t met them, they’re the group of 20 back there, wearing SPF 4,000 and accidentally pointing their iPhone cameras at each other. That’s my grandmother, Grandy, who wouldn’t have missed this for all of Dancing with the Stars on DVD. I think—and I imagine many of you feel the same—that I may spend my whole life trying to find some way to thank them for all they have given me.
I think of the faculty, staff and fellow students who made up the community we had here at Amherst: people who have challenged and inspired me, who make me feel on fire and profoundly unalone.
What do you want your next community to be? This is the first time that you get to really pick yours. So I circle back to David Foster Wallace for the greatest, most uplifting moment in his address:
He says, “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars…”
Which leads me to my biggest, deepest truth about the threshold that we’re on right now: We now have more control over our own happiness than we’ve ever had. Think about what you love and what makes you happy and what community you’ll join that will help you do the things you want to do. And I think, with that, you’ll find that making yourself happy and making those around you happy are not so distant missions. In fact, they’re both “sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars…”
And, my goodness, I hope, when you’re doing all the impressive, incredible things you’ll be doing, that you always have time to laugh. The world will love you for it.
Thank you for listening, and to my fellow members of the Class of 2013, congratulations and good luck.