2018 Valedictory remarks by Kyle Berlin
2018 Valedictory remarks
June 5, 2018
I want to begin in gratitude. To everyone here and not here who made everything possible, from the facilities staff who set up the chairs to the faculty who set up the classrooms, and of course the families and friends who set up the love.
There’s a poem by Mark Doty about a whale that swims around a harbor. He writes, “I expected the worst: shallow water/confusion, some accident to bring/the young humpback to grief.” But he was wrong: the whale was not doomed, it was merely playing in the shallow water. Doty goes on: “And though grief/has seemed to me itself a dim/salt suspension in which I've moved/blind thing, day by day/through the wreckage, barely aware/of what I stumbled toward, even I/couldn't help but look/at the way this immense figure/graces the dark medium,/and shines so: heaviness/which is no burden to itself./What did you think, that joy/was some slight thing?”
Doty’s poem is called “Visitation.”
My fellow graduates, our short visit at Princeton University — at least in this period of our short lives — has come to an end. It is my task now to say goodbye, to lend a few words of farewell for our own visitation. I did not ask for this task or strive for it, but it’s been given to me: I am to deliver the valedictory address, which quite literally means the farewell address.
So the question before me now is what I could possibly say that may function as a proper farewell for all of us. How do I honor our togetherness and also our apartness, our joy and our sorrow? Our position in time, our contradictory and coexisting emotions floating through the air, our heaviness and our lightness? What is it that I wish you to know and to do as we all walk out those gates in a few short minutes now?
I do not know the answer. This is a deliberate statement against self-certainty (which this University tends to exude) but it’s also simply true: I do not know what to say. And I have to be honest, in true Princeton fashion, I was up all last night writing this thing. Because I really do not know what to say in farewell, and I did not think that I could speak to the feeling of the moment before the arrival of the moment itself.
But here we are now, in the heart of the farewell — or the belly of the whale, so to speak. Let’s breath in for a second, with the rhythm of the giant cetacean lungs, with the rhythm of the rustling trees around us.
Because I genuinely did not know what to say — and do not think myself particularly qualified to say it, not least because I reject the individuating effects of award culture — I’ve spent the last many weeks asking everyone I encounter what it is that they would say, that they wish everyone would hear or know or do in farewell. It’s been a wonderful opportunity, to listen to what you all had to say, and representative of the best part of my time here: simply hanging out with other people and informally talking about things that matter. I wish there were time to share all of the voices I heard.
There are the people who told me to make you laugh. (I’m sorry on that one; I recommend you Google the word “jokes.”) There are those who would draw attention to the white supremacy and class oppression of Princeton and the country beyond. There are those who told me to call out rankings, elitism, hierarchy, and notions of a false meritocracy, to speak for the people who did not like Princeton, to warn against excessive pride. There are those who would have me ask you to give up some of your privilege and those who would draw attention to the climate catastrophe in which we find ourselves that threatens the very existence of the most vulnerable and each one of us. The list goes on and on.
My own addition is simply this: It is my parting wish that we find it within us — or outside of us, I don’t really care where you find it—to be able to truly listen to others and develop a compassionate stance towards the world that moves beyond the tiny and tenuous borders of the self, that silences the egoistic monologue assuredly running in your head (and mine) this very moment. I mean this on small scales but also on large ones, as we work to undo systematic frameworks of oppression, inequality, and injustice found everywhere, including here. I mean it not simply or glibly or romantically, not only to be “nice,” but as a challenge to approach a radical sort of compassion that is awake and aware and attuned to our own position in the world and how we are inextricably, achingly, necessarily entangled with others near and far.
Particularly in this moment, where meanness is mistaken for power, I wish for us to enact a compassionate togetherness. The real work of our education — and, really, our lives — is to figure out how we can better be alive together in the short and fragile space of our visitation on earth.
But we cannot do this on our own. And my voice — and that of people like me, with historically loud voices—cannot be the only ones we hear. I mean it: this has to be a conversation — a search — that we all commit to. And so I turn the question around to you: What is it that you would say to everyone; what is it that you think everyone should know or do in this moment of farewell?
I’m serious. Let’s take two minutes now and turn to the people besides you and talk about those questions…
Alright, bringing it back:
We want things to end and we want them not to end. We want change and we want everything to stay the same, termination and germination. Sitting here on graduation day, we are ready to leave and we are sorry to leave, we are thrilled to leave and loathe to leave. To wave our hands tenderly or raise our middle fingers at this hallowed hall behind me. To give our hugs and shed our tears for different reasons. To say goodbye, to never look back or to come running back.
Look around. Look at us, the shape of our faces, the depth of our eyes, the delicacy of our skin, the pattern of the bark on the trees, the clouds in the sky. Remember who is not here, who’s been lost along the way. Sense this sudden and temporary us. An us in this moment. An us right here right now on graduation day, in this space between, surrounded by people we love and who love us. This is sacred.
The Class of 2018, what if we gave up greatness for quiet compassion? What if we were number one not in “excellence,” with all its disciplinarian and utilitarian and egoistic undertones, but in compassionate listening or repeated forgiveness or radical love? I do not have a prescription to make this happen, only an imagination. And if we can’t figure it out together — if we can’t ask the right questions, can’t forgive each other again and again, can’t practice kindness as a deliberate ethos and a knowledge — then who can? What else matters? There are concrete things we can do. Let’s do them. Let’s walk out those gates before going our separate ways resolved to working towards a more compassionate, more just world. I have a feeling this may be the way towards the richest sort of joy: a shared joy.
Parabéns, felicitaciones, congratulations to the COMPASSIONATE Class of 2018!