David BrooksMay 25, 2021
David Brooks, New York Times, during the closing lunch as part of the Knight Media Forum 2019 in Miami. (Photo by Patrick Farrell, Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday, May 24, the Class of 2021 graduated from Boston College. At the in-person ceremony, the graduates and their guests were addressed by David Brooks, a columnist at The New York Times and the author of The Road to Character and The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, among other books. Mr. Brooks spoke about the challenge and opportunity of graduating into a world emerging from a pandemic and developing a new set of cultural values. During the ceremony, Mr. Brooks was awarded an honorary degree.

Below is the full text of the address.

Hello, Boston College Class of 2021! You guys certainly didn’t take the easy route to get here. You managed to complete all this during one of the hardest periods of our lifetime.

And yet, this day is real. You know it’s real because you are hungover, your parents are proud, your professors are shocked, and I am in awe.

Today, the power Covid had over our lives is shrinking and the power we have over our lives is growing.

You are the Winston Churchill of college classes. You’ve shown tenacity, courage and admirable ability to only moderately cheat on the social distancing rules. You mastered amazing skills. You learned the principles of biology over Zoom at the same time you were actually making yourself breakfast. You learned to aggressively contribute to seminar discussions in the first third of your class so you could turn off your video for the second two thirds of the class. You learned to adjust back to in-person discussion and the harsh realization that you were going to have to go back to wearing pants. You learned to stare at me right now with expressions of rapt attention, even though, in fact, you are all fast asleep.

Whenever I am honored to give addresses to graduating classes, I try to pass along a few pieces of valuable information. First, this may be your first college graduation so you should know that when you get your degree it’s customary to tip Father Leahy 10 or 20 bucks; just to show him he did a good job. It’s also important to tip your commencement speaker—usually something in the low four figures.

The other ritual of these exercises is that the school picks a person who has had some career success to give you a speech saying career success doesn’t matter at all. Several years ago, it was the fashion for people like Steve Jobs and J.K. Rowling to give addresses on how important it is to fail. From this, you learn that failure is wonderful if you happen to be Steve Jobs or J.K. Rowling. My advice to you is don’t fail.

The usual clichés of this sort of address are pretty familiar: Follow your passion. Take risks. Listen to your inner voice. Your future is limitless. Be true to yourself. First, my generation leaves you with a mountain of debt, and then we give you a bunch of career-derailing advice that will prevent you from ever paying it off.

So, let’s dispense with all that today because this is a college graduation like no other in our lifetimes. All graduations are transitions, but this is the mother of all transitions. For you most of all, but for those of us in the stands and at the podium, this is a new opening. The fact that we are all in this stadium together is a new birth and it’s truly a day to celebrate.

The hard part will be choosing wisely how to spend our time, so that we spend our time on the things we really love and not the distractions we sort of like.

First, I want to take a minute to celebrate those who are not here. So many people who love you and who made this day possible couldn’t be here because of Covid restrictions. They are watching online. Think about your grandparents, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles. They are filled with joy today because you are happy. They are proud of everything you do and everything you are going to do. How about we take a second to give them some applause, for those online.

We are all coming out of something hard. For many of us there has been grief and loss and fear and dread. For almost all of us there was exhaustion, stress and memory loss. I don’t know about you, but during the peak of Covid, I’d wander into rooms wondering why I went there. I spent an awesome amount of time wondering where my ear buds were. I became more touchy, fragile, vulnerable doing all of this. I think it was because of all the emotional nourishment that we missed - dance parties, spring break, sitting around a bar late at night and laughing. Before Covid, 25 percent of Americans said they were lonely. Now it’s 35 percent, and 61 percent of young people.

But here’s the good thing about enduring a hard thing when you are young. Forever after, you’ll now know you have the capacity to survive hard things. And you don’t need to be terrified of them.

Do something that will both make you more interesting and widen your horizon of risk.

Today, the power Covid had over our lives is shrinking and the power we have over our lives is growing. The image that comes to my mind is recess. Think of a bunch of kids stuck for months and months inside. Suddenly they get to burst through the doors of the playground and they sprint out into the playground of life. That’s us right now. We’re on the brink of having a lot of fun.

Spring is here. The economy is probably going to be smoking hot. We’re moving from restraint to release, from absence to presence, from distance to communion, and the only question is are we going to let old anxieties hold us back or are we going to seize the abundance that is actually available starting today.

I don’t know about you, but I am going to try to be the world’s best appreciator. I’m going to try to deeply appreciate all the things I took for granted. All the things that didn’t used to seem fun are suddenly going to seem fun: Not being able to catch the bartender’s attention because the bar is packed. That will seem fun! I’m a Mets fan, but going to a Yankees game will seem fun—so long as they lose. Going to weddings will be fun, even when we think the couple is making a mistake. Going to age-inappropriate concerts will be fun. I don’t care if you don’t want a damn boomer at your Cardi B concert. I’m going anyway.

The problem in the month ahead is not distance but probably overstimulation, too many options, frazzle. The hard part will be choosing wisely how to spend our time, so that we spend our time on the things we really love and not the distractions we sort of like.

We all love a lot of things, but as St. Augustine said, some desires are higher than other desires. In a world of plenty, it’s probably going to be necessary to sit down with a piece of paper and rank the desires of your heart, and then make sure your schedule matches your rankings.

This is actually a surprisingly hard exercise: What do you want more than anything else in the world? What is the ultimate truth to which you surrender? What are you doing when you feel most alive? What is your ultimate desire? If you can’t rank your loves you’ll scatter your talents and your life won’t accumulate into anything. And you will lead an aesthetic life of pleasure, displeasure and boredom, but it will not be an accumulation of accomplishments. How you spend your days is how you spend your life, said Annie Dillard.

The answer to your life’s deepest questions are not inside; they are outside.

This is the part when I give you practical advice. So, write this down or at least try to remember one of these things:

1. Form a giving circle. Take ten of your best BC friends. All of you commit to put money in a pot every year. Then gather every year for a few days to decide how to give it away. The charity piece of this exercise is nice, but that’s really just a pretext so you can live life side by side with a group of lifelong friends.

2. Divide your life into chapters. Sad people experience their lives as just a progression of days and before long they realize their life has sort of drifted away. Happy people stop at crossroad moments like today and say, “Okay, this next three to five years is a chapter of my life. What do I want this chapter to be about? What is my life task right now?” And then after the next three to five years, do it again. And then do it again.

3. Identity Capital. Your job in your 20s is to build what Meg Jay calls identity capital. This is having some wild experience that people at dinner parties and job interviews are going to want to ask you about for the rest of your life. Maybe it’s salmon fishing in Alaska or teaching kindergarten in Mongolia. But do something that will both make you more interesting and widen your horizon of risk.

4. The gem statement. When you are fighting with someone about something, there is always something deep down that we agree on. We siblings may disagree about our father’s medical care, but we both want the best for our father. When you are in the middle of a disagreement, you can save a lot of relationships by focusing on the gem statement.

5. You need to think about marriage long before you think you need to think about marriage. I don’t mean you have to get married this week. But you have to practice making romantic commitments, so you have some experience when it comes time to make the biggest decision of your life: who to marry. And remember, a marriage is a 50-year conversation. Pick somebody you can talk to for the rest of your life. Love waxes and wanes, but admiration endures. Pick someone you admire.

6. How to find your purpose. The wrong thing to do is to ask, “What do I want from life?” The right question, as Viktor Frankl put it, is “What does life ask of me?” What problem is out there that I’m equipped to tackle? The answer to your life’s deepest questions are not inside; they are outside.

I’ll end by talking about the most important process we’re all going to go through over the next couple of months: The Great Unmasking.

As we take off the physical masks, it seems important that we also take off some of the emotional ones.

For 15 months we’ve been wearing masks. People wear masks when they feel unsafe. It filters out the virus but it also filters out each other. Two people wearing masks find it easier to walk by each other on the street without recognizing the presence of another human being.

But of course, we don’t only wear physical masks, but also psychological ones. Productivity is a mask. I’m too busy to stop and see you. The meritocracy is a mask. I judge you by what school you went to and what job you got. Essentialism is a mask. I can make all sorts of assumptions about you based on what racial or ethnic group you are in. Fear is a mask. I don’t show you myself because I’m afraid you won’t like me. Emotional avoidance is a mask. I hide parts of myself because I’m afraid to confront my own feelings.

Worst and most serious of all, distrust is a mask. I wall myself in because I’m suspicious you will hurt me. Distrust is at record levels in America today. It is the cancer eating away at our relationships, our politics and our society. And I have to admit a lot of this distrust is earned distrust. People feel betrayed because they have been betrayed. But distrust breeds distrust. When somebody is distrusting of me, I am distrusting toward them and we spiral into a distrust doom loop. That is the state we are in now. This is how nations fail, families fail, organizations fail.

But in the weeks and months ahead we will be unmasking. As we take off the physical masks, it seems important that we also take off some of the emotional ones.

One of my goals in the months ahead is to try to undo what Covid tried to do to me. Covid tried to distance me, isolate me, and it did the same to you. I hope to show I wasn’t broken by this hard season of life, I was broken open; that social distance will be replaced by social closeness and social courage.

I hope to practice what a friend calls “aggressive friendship”: being the one to issue the invitations, willing to see and treasure the singularity of each human person, approaching each person with the certain knowledge that he or she is made in the image of God.

I wasn’t broken by this hard season of life; I was broken open.

I’m hoping to just be available a little more. There are just random times when a friend or maybe a stranger on a plane wants to connect. I’m hoping that if someone knocks on my door they will find it already open.

It was said of the novelist E. M. Forster, “To speak to him was to be seduced by an inverse charisma, a sense of being listened to with such intensity that you had to be your most honest, sharpest best self.” Who wouldn’t want to be that guy?

People talk about emotional intelligence. But being a respectful and considerate person is not an intelligence; it’s a skill you learn by practice. It’s the skill of taking the time to label your emotions as you feel them. It’s the skill that the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett calls “emotional granularity,” understanding your emotions and being able to tell them apart. That’s knowing the difference between angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy. It’s the skill of knowing how to express your emotions openly, and in that naming, to regulate them.

I don’t know if getting older gives you any wisdom. I probably had as much wisdom at your age as I do at mine. But there is one hard thing that I have learned, and I hope that you remember this if nothing else. You have more to fear from your inhibitions than you do from your vulnerabilities. More lives are wrecked by the slow and frigid death of emotional closedness than by the short and glowing risk of emotional openness. And as we unmask, I am hoping emotional openness will be the order of the day.

More lives are wrecked by the slow and frigid death of emotional closedness than by the short and glowing risk of emotional openness

This was a school built on a resurrection. The stone moved. The tomb was empty. This was a school built on a death, a waiting and a risen Christ. Maybe I shouldn’t quote a Presbyterian here, but my friend Tim Keller points out that this resurrection story is a story of hope and awakening—glorious hope, certain hope, subversive hope, hope in the presence of joy and hope in the presence of suffering. The resurrection story is a story that we are guided by, inspired by and given hope by in a moment of national recovery and reawakening.

After a resurrection, things have a tendency to not go back to the way they used to be. The teaching of the resurrection is that everything gets inverted: to find yourself you have to lose yourself, to gain power you have to give yourself up, salvation comes through the weakness of repentance, success leads to the greatest failure which is pride, and failure leads to the greatest success which is humility. Inversion follows inversion. God chooses the poor over the rich, the foolish over the wise, the meek over the proud.

You entered BC during one historical era which had one set of values. You graduate from BC at the start of a different historical era, with a new set of values, which you will write with the book of your lives.

A year ago, when everything shut down, I thought about your generation and I thought you are really the unluckiest generation.

But now, I look at you and I look at what is about to happen in all our lives. I think you are the luckiest generation. We are going to have a roaring 20s. And the quality of this decade and the decades to come will depend on how well you roar.

So, I salute you, Eagles. Have a blast. God bless you.

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