Below is the full transcript of the commencement address “How to be Hopeful” delivered by Barbara Kingsolver at Duke University’s 2008 commencement on May 11, 2008 at Wallace Wade Stadium.
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Barbara Kingsolver – Novelist
“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides”.
Let me begin that way, an invocation of your own best hopes, to throw over this fabulously [foggy] celebration. Congratulations, graduates. Congratulations, parents, on this best Mother’s Day gift ever. Better than all those burned-toast breakfasts — these, your children grown tall and competent, educated to within an inch of their lives.
What can I say to the people who know almost everything? Am I right? Almost?
There was a time when I surely knew, because I had just graduated from college myself, after writing down what seemed like the sum of all human knowledge on exams and research papers. But that great pedagogical swilling-out must have depleted my reserves, because decades have passed and now I can’t believe how much I don’t know.
Looking back, I can discern a kind of gaseous exchange in which I exuded cleverness and gradually absorbed better judgment. Wisdom is like frequent-flyer miles and scar tissue. If it does accumulate, that’s going to happen by accident while you’re trying to get something else done. And wisdom is what people are going to start wanting from you, after you’ve taken your last exam. I know that’s true for writers — when people love a book, whatever they say about it, what they really mean is: it was wise. It helped them understand their pickle. My favorites are the canny old codgers: Garcia Marquez, Neruda, Doris Lessing. Honestly, it is harrowing for me to try to teach 20-year-old students, who earnestly want to improve their writing, when the best I can think to tell them is: Quit smoking, and observe posted speed limits. This will increase your odds of getting old enough to become wise.
And you know what, if I quit right there, you probably have heard my best offer. And I am going to tell you, if you want to leave now, I am with you on that. Go for it. But if you have decided that you are already as wet as you’re going to get, then say with me here, because I have been charged with postponing your diploma for 15 more minutes, and I am going to do my best with two caveats. First, if I hear thunder, I am cutting to the chase. OK.
And secondly, that the wisdom of each generation is necessarily new. This tends to dawn on us in revelatory embarrassing moments, brought to us by our children. For example, I have two children. The younger does not go to Duke for only one reason. It’s because she is eleven. She might be ready next year. We’ll see. Every morning, she and I walk down the little lane from our farm to the road where she catches the school bus. And it’s the best part of my day. We have great conversations.
But a few weeks ago as we stood waiting in the dawn’s early light, Lily, I noticed, was kind of just looking me over quietly, and finally said: “Mom, just so you know, the only reason I’m letting you wear that outfit is because of your age.” The alleged outfit will not be discussed further here. Whatever you’re imagining will perfectly suffice, if especially if you’re picturing “Project Runway” works with — “Working with Livestock.” Now, I believe parents should uphold respect for adult authority, so I did what I had to do. I hid behind the barn when the bus came.
And then I walked back up the lane in my fly regalia, contemplating this new equation: “Because of your age.” It’s okay now to deck out and turn up as the village idiot. Hooray! I am old enough. How does this happen? Over a certain age, do you become invisible? There is evidence for this in movies and television. But mainly, I think, it’s that you’re not expected to know the rules. Everyone knows you’re operating on software that has not recently been upgraded.
The world shifts under our feet. The rules change. Not the Bill of Rights, or the rules of tenting, but the big unspoken truths of a generation. Exhaled by culture, taken in like oxygen, we hold these truths to be self-evident: You get what you pay for. Success is everything. Work is what you do for money, and that’s what counts. How could it be otherwise?
And the converse of that last rule, of course, is that if you’re not paid to do a thing, it can’t be very important. If a child writes a poem and proudly reads it, adults may wink and ask, “Think there’s a lot of money in that?” You may also hear this when you declare a major in English. Being a good neighbor, raising children: the road to success is not paved with the likes of these. Some workplaces actually quantify your likelihood of being distracted by family or volunteerism. It’s called your coefficient of Drag. The ideal number is zero. This is the Rule of Perfect Efficiency.
Now, the rule of “Success” has traditionally meant having boatloads of money. But we are not really supposed to put it in a boat. A house would be the customary thing. Ideally it should be large, with a lot of bathrooms and so forth, but no more than four people. If two friends come over during approved visiting hours, the two kids have to leave. The bathroom-to-resident ratio must remain at all times greater than one. I’m not making this up, I’m just observing, it’s more or less my profession.
As Yogi Berra told us, you can observe a lot just by watching. I see our dream-houses standing alone, the idealized life taking place in a kind of bubble. So of course, you need another bubble, with rubber tires, to convey yourself to places you must visit, such as an office. If you’re successful, it will be a large, empty-ish kind of office that you don’t have to share. If you need anything, you can get it delivered. Play your cards right and you will never have to come face to face with another person. This is the Rule of Escalating Isolation.
And so we find ourselves in the chapter of history I would entitle: Isolation and Efficiency, and How They Came Around to Bite Us in the Backside. Because that’s how it looks to me. We’re a world at war, ravaged by disagreements, a bizarrely globalized people in which the extravagant excesses of one culture wash up as famine or flood on the shores of another. Even the architecture of our planet is collapsing under the weight of our efficient productivity. Our climate, our oceans, migratory paths, things we believed were independent of human affairs.
Twenty years ago, climate scientists first told Congress that unlimited carbon emissions were building toward a disastrous instability. Congress said, we need to think about that.
About 10 years later, nations of the world wrote the Kyoto Protocol, a set of legally binding controls on our carbon emissions. And the US said, we still need to think about that.
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