Delivered at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School Baccalaureate Ceremony, June 16, 2022
Let me begin by expressing my gratitude for having been invited here this evening. It is such an honor to be with you to celebrate this milestone with you and your families. Congratulations to you all!
As I thought about the message I wanted to share with you this evening, I thought back to where I was when I sat where you sat. Then I did the math. When I realized that I actually graduated high school 21 years ago, I had a minor existential crisis. But after a few short weeks of doing nothing but staring wistfully out of windows, I ultimately put the pieces of my life back together and returned to thinking about where I was intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually when I was 18, and what I know now that I wish I could have told myself then. And it’s that message I want to offer to you tonight.
My whole life, I have always been something of a contrarian. My parents and teachers would tell you that I was a pain-in-the-butt growing up, the kind of student who looked at authority with skepticism, always questioning and challenging and disagreeing. So it’s perhaps no surprise that in teen years, as my natural disposition toward contrarianism evolved into full-blown rebellion, I fell in love with punk rock. Punk rock is about standing at a remove from the dominant culture, interrogating it with an irreverent spirit, a challenging posture, and a critical eye. It’s about questioning the world as it is, being unafraid to poke at and even to smash sacred cows, and refusing to accept the status quo as inevitable. Punk rock is outsider music, the art of those who look at the world as it is and realize something is deeply wrong.
It’s perhaps more surprising, however, that I embraced my Jewish faith around the same time, and for similar reasons. But the way I saw it then – and in many ways continue to see it now – my tradition is rooted in rebellion. For example, Jewish tradition considers the biblical figures Abraham and Sarah to be the founding parents of our faith, a position they achieve only by leaving their homeland, stepping outside and standing apart from the world they knew. Rabbinic legend takes this idea even further, arguing that Abraham boldly interrogated and challenged the beliefs and practices of his parents’ culture, and that God chose him to found our faith precisely because of his iconoclastic and rebellious spirit. Similarly, Jewish tradition holds that the biblical Moses was called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because he was willing to step outside and stand apart from the norms of the only world he knew. One day, Moses witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating an enslaved Israelite. Given his privileged background, Moses could have easily seen that act as unremarkable, business as usual in Pharaoh’s Egypt. But somehow Moses, despite having been raised as a consummate insider, came to possess the sensitivity of an outsider. He refused to accept the taskmaster’s oppressive deed as normal, and the rest is history.
Maybe it’s because my people has always been a small minority, struggling to maintain its uniqueness when it is tempting to just be like everyone else; but for whatever reason, my tradition has long taught the value of standing out; of being outsiders, looking with a critical eye at things as they are in order to pursue things as they ought to be. Time and again, Scripture issues commands like, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you…” We are called to reject what is popular in order to do what is right. The great modern Jewish sage, and my spiritual mentor, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, argued that the essence of Jewish faith is “the sense of not being at home in the universe,” feeling spiritually vagrant in a world filled with “so much suffering and evil” (“You Stand,” in Man’s Quest for God, 61-62).
We human beings, on the other hand, are highly adaptable. We are great at adjusting to a new normal and moving on, even if that new normal was once horrifying. Over time, often with shocking speed, we conflate the world as it is with the world as it ought to be.
But what would happen if we were able to look at what we usually experience as normal with fresh eyes, from an outsider’s vantage point? What would we see, and how would we feel, if we were able to take a step back and look at our world as it is honestly, and critically, refusing to accept the world as it is as inevitable, or unchangeable?
For starters, as outsiders, I think we would be horrified by the violence and cruelty so prevalent in our world, from Ukraine to Uvalde. And I think we would refuse to accept evils like these as normal.
As outsiders, I think we would feel outraged to see the callousness to suffering and indifference to others’ wellbeing, especially the vulnerable, that has become so commonplace in our culture. We would experience as utterly scandalous the fact that many in our society have come to accept avoidable sickness and death as a price worth paying for convenience and comfort. And I think we would refuse to accept 1,000,000 American COVID deaths, many of them preventable, as in any way normal.
As outsiders, I think we would be appalled by systemic racial injustice. We would find it impossible not to notice how racism persists, often with deadly results, as was evidenced just the other week in Buffalo, and we would see the mounting backlash to racial justice efforts, to a truthful reckoning with the uncomfortable parts of American history, and to acknowledging clear evidence of widespread inequities for what they are – as cynical ploys to perpetuate inequality. And I think we would refuse to accept a status quo where your zip code determines your life expectancy and the color of your skin your prospects for escaping poverty.
As outsiders, I think we would see clearly how close we are to losing democracy, in this country, and around the world. We would identify the widespread efforts happening right now at every level to exploit the weak points in our electoral system. We would see how people in powerful positions are embracing, or at least abiding, conspiracy theories, political violence, and autocracy; and how many of our fellow citizens are empowering those who tolerate authoritarianism and excusing those who are bent on subverting democracy. And we would recognize the demand for civility as a cynical ploy designed to get us to look the other way, turn the page, and move on.
True, every once in a while an event like the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the January 6th insurrection shakes us out of our complacency and forces us out of our comfort zone, something that enables us to see that what we usually experience as normal is in fact profoundly wrong, and that what we know to be wrong is shamefully normal. But then we allow ourselves to settle comfortably back inside a broken system, going back to sleep in a burning house.
But this moment in your life – as you stand at the precipice of graduating high school, poised to strike out on your own to understand the world into which you are entering as young adults and to discover who you are and how you fit into that world – this moment particular in your life is a unique opportunity to step outside of the world as it is and to dream about the world that might be, if only we could clearly and honestly see what is wrong with what is normal and fix what is broken. As a matter of fact, I think college does a great job of teaching us how to be critical observers of our world in precisely this way, and, I invite those of you who are going on to college to take full advantage of the chance to learn how to look at our world as an outsider, with a critical eye and a challenging posture.
At the same time, I also want to suggest that to only look at the world as an outsider is problematic. True, unexamined orthodoxies are toxic. Conformity at the expense of reason is dangerous. But so is cynicism. So is nihilism. As the influential 20th century philosopher and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt once put it, if we believe that nothing is true, then we permit anything to be possible – no matter how horrific it may be. When we approach everything only as outsiders, we risk not actually standing for anything.
Ideally, then, each of us will find a way of being in the world that enables us to stand for something without falling for everything, to accept and doubt all at once; to interrogate while remaining faithful to the very thing we are interrogating.
That means, even as you commit to looking at the world as an outsider, you must also discover and affirm what it is you do believe in. What do you believe to be true, even if you cannot prove it to be true? What is so core to your being that you would even stake your life on it? To be sure, we must question and challenge the world as it is. But we must also know what we think the world ought to be.
Class of 2022, as you strike out to encounter and engage with the world as young adults, as our next generation of emerging leaders, I want to bless you with the hope that you will become at once outsiders and insiders, simultaneously firm in your core convictions and unafraid to hold everything up to the light of reason; that you challenge, but from a place of commitment; that you believe, but with open minds and soft hearts.
In the 21 years since I sat where you sat, this is what I’ve learned: harmonizing head and heart, mind and soul not only affords balance and direction in life. It’s also what makes possible the crucial work to which we are all called, the work of repairing the world. By becoming at once outsiders and insiders, I pray that you will take the world into which you are entering as high school graduates and make of it a better one. Congratulations, and may God bless you all on the journey.