Durham Commencement 2019: David Brooks' Address

David Brooks, Durham commencement remarks

First, congratulations University of New Hampshire Class of 2019. You have made it to graduation day. It’s really happening. You know this is real because you are hung over, your parents are proud, and your professors are shocked.

I expect big things of New Hampshire I want to first thank this school for taking a bold revolutionary step. For your commencement speaker you selected a balding middle-aged windbag. Congratulations! Nobody ever thought to do this before!  

Since you got into UNH, you have mastered new skills. You’ve learned how to dominate a classroom discussion even though you didn’t do any of the reading. In lecture halls, you mastered another skill. Right now, for example, it looks like you’re staring at me with rapt attention, but you’re all completely asleep.

Over the past four years, you’ve worked hard, made dozens of friends and done your laundry at least 6 times. I salute your community service. You spent one spring break unicycling across Thailand while reading to lepers. I solute your cultural sophistication. You tell your friends you like Kendrick Lamar, but secretly you still like Taylor Swift before she got angry.

 Now on this big day, your life takes an exciting turn. There are two paths ahead of you. One leads to a soul-crushing job as a cog in the corporate machine. The other leads to permanent residence in your parents’ basement.

I’m here to help you navigate these exciting opportunities. I’m here to remind you that you shouldn’t spend your time worrying about financial stuff. Your parents would be happy to pay your rent for another 10 or 20 years.

I also remind you that you are in a beautiful spot in your lives. You are more mature than the freshmen, still sexier than the faculty. And let’s face it; you’re a lot sexier than the UNH faculty.

You may not have been through other college Commencements before, so you may not know the etiquette. After you get your degree, it’s customary to give President Dean a little tip. Ten or twenty bucks just to show him he did a good job.

It’s also customary to give the Commencement speaker a little tip, no more than $600 or $700—$5,000 for econ majors.

This may be your first college Commencement, but you probably know these addresses have a certain formula. The school asks a person who has achieved a certain level of career success to give you a speech telling you that career success is not important.

Then we’re supposed to give you a few minutes of completely garbage advice: Listen to your inner voice. Be true to yourself. Follow your passion. Your future is limitless. Take risks!

First, my generation gives you a mountain of debt; then we give you career-derailing guidelines that will prevent you from ever paying it off.  

I’m here to tell you the truth. Don’t follow your passion! Follow the passion of the person next to you. It’s probably better.

I especially like all the Commencement addresses telling graduates how important it is to fail. These started a few years ago with a Steve Jobs and J.K. Rowling and from these addresses we learn that failure is wonderful if you happen to be Steve Jobs or JK Rowling. For most people, failure just stinks. Don’t fail.

Today is a transition day in your lives. Up until now, your life has been station to station. There was always some next test to take or paper to write or place to apply to. After today there are no more stations. Nobody is assigning anything to you. You have to start assigning yourself. After today your focus shifts to the far horizon and the big ultimate questions. What’s your purpose here? What kind of life are you going to live?

The normal way to ask that question is: What do I want from life? I’m here to tell you that’s the wrong question. It’s too open ended. Your personal desires are too unformed and all over the place. If you just ask that question, you’ll probably just drift around, lost and scattered.

The right question to ask is, What does life ask of me? What do my specific circumstance ask that I do? Or to put it more specifically: What is the defining challenge facing my generation and what is my responsibility in meeting that challenge?

There are a lot of defining challenges that people will put before you. Some would say that dealing with climate change is the assignment put before your generation.

I would say the biggest crisis of today, the one you will all have a chance to address, is the crisis of connection, the crisis of solidarity. Like a lot of countries America is divided, distrustful, angry. The social fabric is in tatters.

Only 32 percent of Americans say they can trust the people around them. Only 8 percent of Americans say they have important conversations with their neighbors.

The suicide rate has risen by 30 percent since 1999, and suicide is a proxy for loneliness. The teenage suicide rate is up 70 percent, and the teenage suicide rises from pain and solitude. Mental health problems are skyrocketing. Depression rates are skyrocketing. The American lifespan is declining, in part because 72,000 Americans die of opioid addictions. Our politics are defined by bitterness and division. Social media is often cruel, addictive and empty. We are losing the common stories that used to unite us, the common pride in who we are. In 2003, 70 percent of Americans said they were proud to be American. Now only 54 percent of Americans say that and 34 percent of millennials.

We just don’t treat each other well. We don’t see each other deeply. So, I’d say your generation’s assignment is to take a society marked by separation and distrust and create a society marked by trusting relationship, thick connection and healthy community--and you have to do it at a moment when we are becoming the most diverse nation in the history of the world.

How are you going to do it? Well, obviously I have no idea. My generation’s job was to screw things up. It’s you guys who have to fix it.

But I do have some inklings.

The first is about the root cause of all this disconnection.  We live in culture that is too individualistic when it should be more communal, in a culture that is too cognitive when it should be more emotional, in a culture that is too utilitarian when it should be more moral.

When you were about 17 we ran you through the college admissions process, which teaches that status and accomplishment are at the center of your life—that grades are more important than kindness.

Then we told you the lies of hyper-individualism. The first lie is that life is an individual journey, that the goal of life is individual happiness. The second lie is: I can make my own truth. Each individual person gets to have their own truth and their own facts. The third lie is: I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. If I can just get one more promotion, lose fifteen pounds or get better at yoga. We tell this lie even though when you talk to people near the end of their lives they report that they were really happy when they defeated self-sufficiency, when they are in deep and interdependent relationship with other people, when they were least individualistic and most connected.

Then we tell you the lies of the meritocracy: Career success can make you feel fulfilled; you are what you accomplish; you’re not a soul to be saved, you’re a set of skills to be maximized; the people who are smarter and more accomplished are more valuable than other people.

We’ve taken individualism to the extreme and in so doing we’ve weakened the connections between people.

When you look at how these values have distorted our society, you realize that the first thing we need is a shift in culture. The revolution will be moral or it will be not at all.

Who’s going to lead this cultural revolution? Well, I spend a lot of time on college campuses and I see it happening. When I go to college campuses I see ten times more moral passion than I saw a decade ago. I see a generation that realizes that every action you take is ethical. Every action you take either lifts somebody else, or hurts somebody else. Every action either elevates the core piece of yourself or degrades the core piece of your self.

When I go on campus I see students, embracing community. Some on the left embrace socialism, which is about our common economic life together. Some, maybe more on the right, embrace faith, which is our common surrender to a loving God. Others embrace their peoplehood, pride in being African-American, pride in Mexican heritage. These are all ways young people are groaning toward membership in something fellowship with others.

Furthermore, I’ve spent the last three years traveling around the country. Everywhere I go I meet Weavers—people who are weaving relationships back together, building community. In Houston I met Stephanie Hruzek who runs plays with kids in the afterschool program she runs and who believes we can play our way to intimacy. “I am broken. I need other people to survive,” Stephanie says.

In Baltimore I met Sarah Hemminger. Sarah surrounds underperforming high school students with friends and relationships. The kids often reject her volunteers at first because they’re afraid. All their life they’ve been abandoned. But the volunteers keep showing up.   Sarah says, “Unconditional love is so rare in life it is identity changing when somebody keeps showing up, even when you reject them. It is also identity changing to be the one rejected.”

Six years ago I got invited over to the house of a couple named Kathy and David. They had a son in the DC public schools names Santi. Santi had a friend who often had no place to stay so they said James can stay with us sometimes. That kid had a friend and that kid had a friend and by the time I went to dinner there in 2013, there were about 30 teenagers around the dinner table andf about half a dozen sleeping in the house.

My first visit I reached out my hand to introduce myself to a kid. He said, “We don’t shake hands here. We hug here.” I wasn’t the earth’s best hugger, but I’ve been going back for six months and they’ve taught me hug strangers and friends.

The young people there have a complete intolerance for social distance. They turn to you like flowers turning to the sun, receiving and giving love. They are emotionally transparent and teach you to be emotional transparent. Every wek we share our victories and struggles. We show all the way up.  I took my daughter there and she said, “That’s the warmest place I’ve been in my life.” Not long ago one of the young women there had a failing kidney, and David, the father figure, gave her one of his.

I write about social isolation and on Thursday nights I see the answer.

 It means reaching out and helping people who are cut off, just a little every day.

There’s a great organization called Roots of Empathy founded by Mary Gordon. The group takes mothers and 15 months only infants and brings them to 8th grade classrooms. The students sit around the infant and have to guess what it is thinking as it crawls around and reaches for things. They learn to get inside another’s mind.

One day there was a boy named Darren doing the exercise. Darren had been run through the foster care system. He’d been held back in school a bunch of times and was much bigger than the other students. He asked if he could hold the baby. The mother was nervous because Darren was so big. But Darren was great with the baby and when he returned it to the mother he asked a question: “Do you think you can be a good parent is you’ve never been loved?”

Roots of Empathy reaches out and lifts up Darren.

This is how change happens. Somebody shares something and emotional combustion happens. A deep relationship is born. Relationship changes people. Relationship is the driver of change.

Joseph Campbell once said there are two types of deed. The first is a physical deed—building something. But then there is the spiritual deed, this is done by a person who has found a better way to live and comes back and shares it with everyone else.

  Cultures shift when a small group of people find a better way to live, and the rest of us copy them. These Weavers have found a better way to live. They write their manifestos with the books of their lives, and they offer us living examples of values that are different than the values of hyperindividualism.

The embody radical hospitality. If you knock on their door. They open it up, no matter what. They embody deep mutuality. We are all broken; we are all equal. They believe “we are enough.” We here in our community have the assets to solve our problems if we only look deep and draw out the gifts of others. They assume responsibility. If there’s a problem in their neighborhood, they will take care of it. We met a woman in Florida who was helping elementary school children cross the street after school. She was asked if she ever volunteered. She said she had no time to volunteer. Was she getting paid to help the kids cross the street? No. What was she doing later in the afternoon? Going to the hospital to bring food to the sick. To her, none of this was volunteering. To her, it was just what neighbors do.

For her, life is just the normal process of giving yourself away. It’s shifting the definition of neighbor. It’s a mindset. It’s a lifestyle.

So the first I ask I have for you is that you lead with vulnerability. Your enemies will take advantage of your vulnerability and they will hurt you. Believe me. I know all about this. But vulnerability is the only way we build relationship and relationship is the engine of change.

The second thing I ask you to do is Weave—weave relationship together. Some of you will do radical weaving but most will just do the little things that shine the spotlight on others.

The thing everybody gets wrong about community service is they think its all about being Mother Theresa. They think its worthy, like eating broccoli. The most important weaving is happy and fun. You’ll organize a whiskey club, or maybe a croquet or a volleyball league. But don’t do kickball. That’s lame.

The best way to Weave is through aggressive friendship. If you embrace aggressive friendship you’ll be the one who organizes the summer barbecue on your street. The best kind of weaving involves music, so maybe you’ll organize an annual talent show. Being in your early twenties is really hard so maybe you’ll organize a monthly book club to talk about vocation.   Maybe you’ll find an organization that meets once a month with people completely unlike yourself. Aggressive friends are not content within boundaries.

Maybe you’ll start a giving circle. This is how you can stay close to your college friends for life. Gather a bunch of your best friends into a group. Each of you will put some money into a pot, and every year you’ll meet to decide what cause to give the money to. The charity is nice but it’s really just a pretext to get you together each year so you can live life side by side--holding each other in the lows, gushing in the highs and telling the same old crappy stories with same old friends.

UNH class of 2019. Some generations are called to fight wars against foreign foes. That hard and terrible work can lead to victory. Your generations, is called to deeply see people who are different from you, it is called to dance on the beach with them, it is called to play wiffle ball in the backyard with them, it is called to sometimes drink a little too much with them and maybe tell funny embarrassing stories about yourself; it is to understand them deeply and to give them a hug. Your generation is called to repair the social fabric by having fun. That sounds like a pretty good life to me.