“Allow your own human spirit to burn within you.”
President Daniel Weiss delivered farewell remarks to the class of 2007 today at the 172nd Commencement.
Celebrating the Human Spirit
Yours is a generation that has come of age in an era fraught with conflict and unprecedented challenges. During the years of your youth, and since coming to college, you have witnessed, and been forced to endure, the tragedies at Columbine High School, Oklahoma City, and September 11, 2001. In the years following September 11 we have gone to war in Afganistan and then Iraq. Most recently, we saw fellow students and faculty come under attack at Virginia Tech, where the loss of life included our own Danny O’Neil, Class of 2006.
But you don’t need for me simply to tell you that these are challenging times. Rather, I would like to tell you about a greater and more fundamental challenge. That is, of the cost of these events to the human spirit, to your capacity for hope and to your faith in the viability of progress. What is at risk is your belief that tomorrow can be better than today and that making it so is worth the effort. Given the current state of the world, it would be entirely natural, and even understandable, to give in to cynicism and individual pragmatism.But as we reflect on recent events, and more generally, on the underlying problems—escalating violence at home and abroad, deep seated ideological and cultural conflict, and eroding confidence in the capacity of governments to lead—I would suggest that our greatest challenge is to transcend despair and defeatism to allow the human spirit to triumph.
As Michael Dyson wrote last week to the graduates at Virginia Tech, “You are now part of the fellowship of the fractured who can help bring healing to a world addicted to violence�Your dignity and resolve to march forward in life without bitterness or hate can give the world an edifying example of the human spirit determined to overcome the worst that we as a species can offer.”
I speak to you about this not to discourage you, but in a spirit of celebration and encouragement—for what you have accomplished to get here today and for what you can accomplish in the years ahead. You are well prepared to enter the real world—you have the intellectual capacity and the functional skills that accrue from an outstanding education, and you are supported by a strong network of friends, family, and all of us here at your new alma mater.
I encourage you to take up this challenge that I am speaking of—that to the human spirit. If you are open to seeing it, the evidence is actually everywhere, from the members of the Hokie Marching Band encamped outside area hospitals in Virginia, to the work of our own students here and elsewhere who have developed educational programs for children in Easton, clean water systems for communities in Honduras, and disease prevention programs to fight HIV in Africa.
If you observe carefully, you will note that the human spirit is actually tenacious. It may be found in the most unlikely of places, such as in the writing of Jean-Dominique Bauby who, at the age of 44 wrote in a memoir about the things in life that he loved most, including his children, Paris, the coast of Normandy, and especially, food. Of course, such sentiments are not, in themselves, especially remarkable. At least not until we know the circumstances under which they were recorded. But it is remarkable that this book was written by Bauby from a hospital bed after suffering from a massive stroke. A victim of “locked-in syndrome,” Bauby had become completely paralyzed, able to communicate with the outside world only by blinking his left eye. Devising an alphabet code of eye blinks using only his left eyelid, Bauby dictated his book, letter by letter, word by word, paragraph by paragraph. In so doing, he found a way to unleash his own spirit and allow his passion to triumph over an inert body.
Nourished only by a feeding tube connected to his stomach, Bauby described one of life’s great pleasures.
“Now I cultivate the art of simmering memories. You can sit down to a meal at any hour, with no fuss of ceremony. If it is a restaurant, no need to call ahead. If I do the cooking it’s always a success. Depending on my mood, I treat myself to a dozen snails, a plate of Alsatian sausage with sauerkraut, and a bottle of late-vintage golden gew�rztraminer, or else I savor a simple soft boiled egg with fingers of toast and lightly salted butter�(he goes on) Everything must be done right. Also, I scrupulously observe the rhythm of the seasons. Just now I am cooling my taste buds with melon and red fruit.”
Later in the book he acknowledges the future before him, writing, “My old life still burns within me, but more and more of it is reduced to the ashes of memory.” Sadly, Jean-Dominique Bauby died just two days before his book “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” was published.
As you prepare for the next step of your lives, I encourage you to take what you have learned here and to go out into the world with energy and passion—allow your own human spirit to burn within you. Unless you are exceptionally fortunate, you will surely be required to challenge your own circumstances, whatever they may be, and then to rise above them.
But if you do, perhaps your generation can do better than mine in realizing the hope expressed by President John Kennedy nearly a half century ago “that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics but for our contribution to the human spirit.”
So go forward and show us your spirit—we are counting on you.