It Was About Love

(A Commencement Address)

On my flight home from Senegal, I composed the commencement address the Class of 2023 had requested I deliver on Graduation Day—which happened to be less than a week away.  It’s unlikely that anyone will remember any specific “message” a commencement speaker delivers, but it’s still important to speak to the day, to a particular moment in the graduates’ journey, and to what this well-intentioned and flawed enterprise we call education is really all about.  Here’s my best shot.

May 13, 2023

The reading today is taken from the Gospel of John—John Steinbeck, that is, words from the preacher Casy in The Grapes of Wrath:


“Before I knowed it, I was sayin' out loud, 'The hell with it!  There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue.  There's just stuff people do.  It's all part of the same thing.' . . . . I says, 'What's this call, this sperit?'  An' I says, 'It's love.  I love people so much I'm fit to bust, sometimes. . . .  I figgered, 'maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang.  Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of.'  Now I sat there thinkin' it, an' all of a suddent—I knew it.  I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”


Dear Class of 2023, you have asked much of me today—perhaps as polite revenge on a teacher who has asked much of you at various times.  Your revenge was effective, for I have labored under the burden of my duty to tell you something this morning that you’ve never before considered—advice from a teacher 32 years at the seminar table, yammering on about the way young people should live their lives.  Alas, I fear you will be disappointed by the simplicity of my message.


But here it is:  There is nothing in your lives worth doing unless it’s done with love.  That’s all I got.


Among many in this class there is a kindness that I find moving and inspiring.  Many of you act with love, and often.  And so it was that I chose my theme for this morning.  To begin, let us consider you actors—this class is teeming with a troupe of gifted theater pros—young people fearless in stepping into the spotlight and moving us through a drama they have mapped and plotted and distilled—stories about frustrated sons and vengeful families.  Each night I saw them at the theater, I watched them perform with love—for the audience, for the craft.


Next I think of a trio of dedicated friends, inventing a universe where interstellar empires rise, reveal buried family histories, and perish in the vapor of ego—the trio keeping that epic thread unwinding for years—what kept that magnum opus spinning but love?


Or how about those of you who transformed a barren construction dump behind the school, with sweat and strain and a spud bar, into a trail that people walk everyday, winding among boulders you fulcrumed into place.  Your heart was the muscle working hardest.


Think of all your fierce love for older brothers and little brothers you’ve tried to protect from a world not always kind, and the love all your families have summoned, in their sometimes stumbling way, to bring you here to this celebration today.  Your lives are like that rock garden the trail crew built, shimmed and mortared with love from parents, coaches, teachers, abuelas, aunties who get you when mom doesn’t, and uncles with their relentless dad jokes.  Sometimes I think love is the only thing keeping us from chaos.


Two decades ago, almost to the day, my daughter graduated from high school.  Like preachers’ kids who break the Ten Commandments for kicks & giggles, or like cops’ sons known by the entire police force for their bad weekend behavior—teacher’s kids are famously disruptive.  For instance, they might call your best teacher friend a Fascist for moving them beside his desk when they wouldn’t shut up, or maybe they appear before the Honor Committee you chair, in violation of the Honor Code you wrote.  Oh, Siobhan & I had our tangles, but into our lives came Chris, whose simple advice to me, after I gave her a thorough backstory about all that I had done right as a parent that was simply going unheeded—she said, “Mac, just love the shit out of her.”  Her words didn’t transform my daughter’s behavior.  The angels bearing the Honor Roll didn’t descend from heaven in a celestial beam.  But nothing was possible for father and daughter, no insight or transformation, without me loving the crap out of Siobhan.


My commencement remarks could end here, and you would have heard something true.  But it wouldn’t be the whole truth.  Alas, you cannot carry the banner of “love conquers all” into life’s battles and believe you are invincible.  Most of the time, love doesn’t have a string soundtrack or soft lighting.  It’s often mundane and looks more like your mom waiting up for you when you broke the house curfew.  It looks like Pete doing a bus-check before he loads all yall up for a field trip.  It looks like Alex’s walls of flow-charts in the service of filling your bellies and keeping you from harm.  Oh, I do miss our Alex.  I know yall do too.  It looks like your best friend calling you by your real name before anyone else learns it.  It looks like Mr. Tecca insisting, with thunder & fury, that you learn your lines before opening night. It looks like JB explaining in great rhetorical detail why we must treat each other with dignity.  Some of us do love with grace and delight—Maria herding monkeys with the patience & light of St. Clare; Ms. Philips looking into your eyes and heart and reminding you that you are a true artist.  Other times, love has an edge.  Other times, love looks like a stubborn teacher who knows you’re hiding your voice behind an old label.


Young dads and moms (& some of you are or will be moms & dads someday)—you will soon learn the obscure & solitary 3 AM rituals of parental love.  The profound exhaustion, the stolen nap when a colicky child finally goes to sleep on your chest, the rejected meals and the public tantrums and the advice from in-laws—you learn what love is then.  When you embark on parenthood, you have no idea how you will be tested and transformed.  If you did, you might be fussier about birth control.  My buddy Tim, Navy veteran and friend for more than a quarter century, was over the moon when baby Gabriela entered his life.  She was daddy’s little girl, dancer, singer, musician, light of every room she entered.  Sometime during high school, Gabriela let Tim know that, in fact, he would be Gabe from now on out.  He was transitioning his gender—still singing, still starring in musical productions—in fact, he would earn a performing arts scholarship to UCLA—but that announcement was hard for Tim.  He wanted Gabe’s decision to be temporary, an exploration of gender—and I noticed at first when he pronounced the name Gabe, he put psychological quote marks around it.  But one virtue moved him through that profound change—he had to summon it—but fortunately it was something he possessed amply.  It was love.


Sometimes love—or what you thought was love—roughs you up.  Finding the real deal requires wit & swallowing bitter pills & maybe admitting that you were wrong.  That woman who told me to love the crap out of my daughter was the first person I ever met who could love the crap out of me.  Unfailingly, for 26 years.  It took me longer than that to find her.  May you on these seats find such real & enduring love for yourselves.


As a few of you know, I returned earlier this week from the West African nation of Senegal.  To understand Senegal, I have to give you some statistical perspective:  The per capita GDP of the United States is $73,000.  (If we added up the value of all the things we make and service we provide—and divide by the number of Americans, that’s per capita GDP.)  $73,000 per person.  By contrast, the per capita GDP of Senegal is $1,600.  It has the 21st lowest Human Development Index in the world—which is to say, it ranks 170 out of 191 countries.  It’s down the list below the Northern Triangle of Central America that’s bleeding refugees into Mexico, it’s there below Ukraine being bombed by Russians, below Cuba and Palestine and Haiti—it’s hanging out with Sudan, of late at war.  Senegal’s city streets were a welter of rotting fish, bleating sheep bound for slaughter, people repairing cars and fishing boats and shoes along the sidewalk, kids leaping off sandpiles from planned construction jobs that had run out of money.  Homes sprouted rebar hopefully, awaiting a housing dream that might never come true.  Its drinking water left me febrile and cramping for 3 weeks.  In its chaotic capital, Dakar, a city of 3.5 million, I recall seeing only one traffic light, and the stop signs were inexplicably in English—which might explain why they went largely unheeded.  For all that, Senegal was the country of the artful merge, a dance of yield and claim, with bicyclists working the edges while motorcycles wove in & out between taxis & buses and horse-drawn carts.  In the hive of hawkers and laborers and students & imams there was above all a kindness.  Fond greetings, embraces, “How was your rest last night?”, always the sharing of food.  It is a country legendary in West Africa for its teraanga—hospitality—it is a point of national pride, and to fail at teraanga is to be unpatriotic.  Senegal has been a stable democracy since its mostly peaceful founding in 1960.  It defies the prevailing western stereotype of Muslim nations rancorous and warlike, demonstrating instead a mutual respect, even a cross-pollination of faith among Muslims and Christians.  One must be careful about drawing such conclusions—but as my time in Senegal lengthened & deepened, I began to wonder:  is it possible that a nation could be founded and its people bound together with love?


I don’t know.  But I’m pretty sure our own national ills will not be solved by righteous indignation.  We won’t heal our epidemic of gun violence with a raised fist.  We will not build a just economy on an insistence of what’s mine.  We will not preserve our one and precious home planet with a ledger of profit and loss—we won’t save the wild world unless we love it—whether it’s the Gila Wilderness or the eroding coast of Senegal.  No political solution will save us unless our deepest motivation is love.


Blessed be, we humans have a superpower:  as a species Homo sapiens are hard-wired for love.  It is our first instinct when we see others hurting.  Sure, we talk ourselves out of empathy, who can stow everyone’s pain in their backpack?  Wouldn’t it break us?  Far easier to be righteous than to be compassionate.


The provocative writer Cornel West said that “Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love looks like in private.”  I will let that be the more complicated message of today, the words that might inspire this generation—and the rest of us—to bring love into our public discourse.  I don’t mean sentimentality.  Have you noticed we have words for love-too-easily-stated—we say, “That’s mushy” or “so saccharine”—critical of love that doesn’t have a backbone, that is artificially sweet.  Public love takes discipline.  Protecting a nation that lets people gather and protest injustice—& if you don’t think that’s precious, look into those places where you can’t—preserving that kind of nation takes love.  Insisting on fairness for all of us, even people we don’t really like—that requires love in public.  Cleaning up the messes of industrialization—that takes the kind of love that makes you roll up your sleeves, put your shoulder into it—it’s love with a muscular heart and sweat on its brow.  You, good people, you have that kind of love inside of you.


Let me end by taking you to the movies.  In the final moments of the beautiful and agonizing film Still Alice, there is a tender scene between mother and daughter.  The mother, Alice, played by Julianne Moore with grace and painful fidelity, has been stripped of everything that defined her—her intelligence, her humor, her life force—by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Her daughter, with audacious courage, decides to travel with her mother through the final losses, refusing to speak to Alice as if her mother were an infant.  She recites a lovely, complex poem about souls rising to heaven—one she wrote herself—and after the cascade of shimmering words, she asks her mother, “What I just read?  Did you like it?”

Alice nods, but as if reaching beneath her mother’s losses, testing her maybe, her daughter asks her, “What was it about?”

Alice looks into her daughter’s face and nods, her words formed with great effort.  “Love.  Yeah, love.”

So I will let her daughter’s reply serve as my benediction this morning, a description of what we’ve done at this school, what we do in this life:  “Yeah, it was about love.”