Graduation 2019: Light the Way

In her final graduation as Head of School at Middlesex, Kathy Giles addressed the Class of 2019 with reflections.  Here are excerpts from her remarks:

Class of 2019, you’ve been invited to consider a variety of ideas again this year, from speakers like Dr. Cornell West to classmates in their chapels to Hayden and Patricia today, and I hope that you have enough food for thought for at least the summer. I have been spending some time in my own mind lately with Dr. Alan Lightman’s talk about lying in the bottom of his boat on the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Maine, and looking up at the stars and losing himself in the awe of contemplating and being part of the cosmic. I’ve done something like that, as I hope many of you have, as well; and one of the quotes I keep handy is that attributed to the 16th century scientist/philosopher Galileo: “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” As a scientist and a physicist like Galileo, but with the power of the last four centuries of research behind him, Dr. Lightman understands the physical laws of the universe; as a writer and a poet, he feels the humanist’s desire to find meaning, to extend beyond what our intellectual and perhaps our rational understandings of reality can provide and feel part of something larger, more important, more permanent than ourselves. As a scientist, he knows the hows; as a humanist, he wants to know the whys, and particularly the whys of transcendence – NOT the bad science fiction movie of the same name, but that philosophical concept, articulated by Emmanual Kant but also by countless people of many faiths, of rising above one’s own limited experience or perspective to a superior state of understanding, connection, perception. When he was with us this spring, I felt as if, wearing both hats, Dr. Lightman was trying to work out mortality – what happens when we are no more? The scientist has one answer; the humanist wants another. The name of that gap is uncertainty.

Uncertainty, in many shapes and forms, lurks in the background of much of our superstructure and infrastructure as people. It’s a silent partner for us today, as we celebrate closing up this time in our lives and get ready to take on the next, even if technically we know where we’re going. Sometimes the more we know, the more we’re aware of what we don’t know. Why am I here, with everything that comes with me – my body, my personality, my ideas, my feelings? What am I, as an insignificant speck in this cosmic dynamic, supposed to do? And ultimately, will it matter? How is all of this going to go? Even with all the confidence in the world, it can be a little overwhelming. Lying on your back in a boat on the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine, looking up at the starts, can be awe inspiring, to feel part of this incredible cosmic dynamic; it can also be fear inspiring, to realize one’s insignificance in the vastness.

One can have the same experience standing on the crowded sidewalk in New York or LA or Shanghai or Hong Kong or any number of other places. Uncertainty and insignificance don’t sit well with us type As, as we humans have evolved. We’d like to take matters into our own hands and get some answers. We’re planners – strategic planners, imagining that the world will stand still long enough for our plan to become THE plan (wrong). We’re engineers who want to fix problems and make stuff, business people who do deals, scientists who find the answers, artists who express and communicate. And because we work, it works. We’re getting there on the hows. And that’s so good – thanks to science, we’re mapping the human genome as well as sending probes to distant galaxies; we’re accelerating the speed with which we send emotion, via electrons, around the world in the form of images and messages; we’re living longer, we understand our bodies more, we know how to get what we need from nature, we’re learning that nature is not inexhaustible and how to conserve our resources; we work more and more and more so we know more and more and more — of the hows. We want answers. And yet, for all of that work and perhaps because of our preoccupation with answers to hows, our progress on the whys has stalled, and we feel, as a people, increasingly isolated, anxious, lonely. Despite everything we know, despite the supercomputers in our pockets, despite everything technology brings and perhaps because we know more than ever before, we are, nonetheless, no less fearful of the night.

When I was in graduate school last century, I took a course on the intersections of law, religion and science in society. We covered a number of topics, but the common thread was this intersection of how and why. The professors were all stars in their fields, and the scientist was Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist famous for explaining science to non-scientists and promoting science as the key to understanding life. I had studied with Dr. Gould when I was in college; fifteen years later, as a graduate student, I saw a man who had spent much of the intervening time battling cancer, and it became clear during this course that Dr, Gould’s illness was progressing faster than the semester. One afternoon, as we sat in a 500-person auditorium, Dr. Gould explained that he was terminally ill and that, as a scientist whose sole focus was on the hows, he could not contemplate an afterlife, a heaven, or a miracle. He was defiant, not sad, and he insisted – sitting next to the Dean of the nearby Divinity School – that science will provide all the answers, eventually, and that any other explanation – specifically, any explanation other than the splendor of human biochemistry and biophysics — will be proven false – and that transcendence is wishful thinking. How, not why. Period. He would look up from the bottom of that proverbial boat and see the starts, count the stars, understand the stars, perhaps even love the stars as the mega-powerful balls of exploding nuclear-fusing gases that they are – and he would be, perhaps, angry at the dark, resigned to it, reluctantly acknowledge it, but defiantly unafraid.

The lecture ended, as there was nothing more to say that day, and he passed away that next week. Three years later, in my ninth grade English class here at Middlesex, we discussed a Jumpa Lahiri story about a mother’s belief that, against all facts and even hope, she would find her sons alive after a catastrophic plane crash. My ninth graders debated – boisterously, hypothetically – whether she was deluding herself or whether her hope for a miracle was justified, when one of the students – a boy whose mother was in the late stages of a battle with breast cancer, looked across the table at me and said, as the discussion swirled around him, “I believe in miracles. Do you believe in miracles?” And I told him yes, I do believe in miracles. He nodded in agreement. The class conversation continued. The miracle did not present itself for his mother, who passed away shortly thereafter. I’ve thought about those two events often, when the hows alone provide cold comfort when one looks up at the vast expanse of the cosmos and wonders why one person matters. The humanist has to ask, is there a why? If there is no why, then why bother? As long as humans have looked up at stars, at space, at the heavens, we have wondered, and we have grappled with uncertainty. We have not wanted to feel alone and insignificant and transitory; we have wanted to feel part of something larger than ourselves and to find meaning in creating something lasting and of value. The questions of how and why overlap, because there is that critical link between the physicist and the humanist, between the laws of nature and the laws of human nature. Whether one looks up and sees space, or looks up and sees the heavens, looking up and into uncertainty can give the most stalwart among us pause.

I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night. We care; we learn; we wonder. We lie in the bottom of that boat and dare to contemplate the cosmos, each of us, for ourselves. We do it on days like today, as we step away from the known into the unknown, across that strait of uncertainty. But because of what we have learned, we dare to engage; we dare to connect; because we care; we learn; we wonder; we love. We seek transcendence – overcoming our fear of uncertainty and focus on ourselves to become part of something better, more awe-some, more beautiful. Transcendence is about knowing truth AND finding and making that sustaining meaning by being part of it. It’s the how and the why, and indeed, I invite you to consider that we can have it both ways. We know transcendence. We know it in our families, as varied and imperfect as we are. We know it in the team mates who play for each other, in the cast mates who lift each other up, in the classrooms that hum like beehives, in the studios – in the plaque room. Those plaques again – what a great metaphor. Darby helped you get them done, and Leo Bousquet has hung them in the lower lobby of the BAP, each of you surrounded by your classmates. You see your work, and you see it in the context of your classmates’, as well, and together, you are part of something more beautiful. Because if it is just all about me, it’s a short story, an isolated and perhaps, yes, meaningless carving, but if it’s about we, the plaques together fill the space with interest and meaning. And ultimately, in the long run, if it’s me for we, we learn to sit with the discomfort of our own insignificance and uncertainty and STILL believe that belonging, contributing to something larger than ourselves brings us joy, satisfaction, meaning, purpose. Because we love those stars so fondly – we know them, AND we love them. We can do both, and doing both helps with uncertainty and yes, gives our lives meaning.

As we come to the end of our time at Middlesex, I hope that your experiences, as varied as they have been, share the common denominator of setting you up to engage, to contribute, and yes, to lead. While no one ever wants to declare final victory in the “find the promise” quest, you’ve made friends with hard work, big goals, and good organization. You positively scamper up the ladder of abstraction (and only rarely fall off). You can integrate and calculate and translate with the best.   But the invitation to seek transcendence and make meaning in your life and your successes is and will be uniquely personal and will shape, when you revisit these Eliot Hall steps in the coming decades of your lives, how you answer those big questions – who am I, why am I here, and what am I supposed to do? Spoiler alert – you will still be working on them, no matter when you make the journey back, and uncertainty will be better if today’s me becomes tomorrow’s we, and if doing it for me becomes me for we.

While graduation addresses often propose advice, I would like to offer one last invitation – that you be open to those life-giving moments of transcendence, open in spite of the your busy schedules, the thousand metaphorical paper cuts that will always be aggravating, open in spite of even the huge and seemingly catastrophic blights that happen – the failures, the losses, the griefs that are part of our human condition, the flip side of the joy, beauty, triumphs, and bonds that I hope will form the core of your lives, if you so choose, no matter what. You leave here knowing some basics about the physical laws of the universe, knowing a little about our own insignificance, AND knowing something important about the beauty we know and see and feel in the beautiful natural world and in the love of people who fill our lives with good and connect us with the greater, the better, the divine, the eternal. I hope that in being open to transcendence, as you go on to learn more about everything, you will, in your openness, find the guides to help you. Here’s how the poet Mary Oliver frames it in her poem, The World I Live In – she writes,

I have refused to live

Locked in the orderly house of

       reasons and proofs.

The world I live in and believe in

Is wider than that. And anyway,

       what’s wrong with Maybe?


You wouldn’t believe what once or

Twice I have seen. I’ll just

       tell you this:

Only if there are angels in your head will

       you ever, possibly, see one.

Maybe some angels look like the ones you’ve studied in art history, the ones Michelanglo, or Raphael, or Chagall or Velasquez imagined, or the ones resembling Buddhas painted by ancient Chinese artists in the grottoes of Dunhuang, or the ones who look like Ned Herter, or Verna Stedman or David Andrysiak or your nana or your uncle or your little brother or sister, or your coach or teacher, or the kind stranger who helped you that bad day, or the friend who reached out to you mysteriously, as if he or she knew you needed a hand or a hug, or the person who most recently asked you for honesty, gratitude, kindness, respect, or courage in real life. As you continue to learn about the hows and seek enlightenment about the whys, keep the angels in your head and look out for them in your life. And yes, love the stars with your whole heart and with the ones you love, and don’t be fearful of the night.