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On Saturday, May 12, I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters by Baypath University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. I also delivered their commencement address, the text of which you can read here:


2018 Bay Path Commencement Address

THE COMMUNITIES WE CHOOSE
- Charles Coe

Good afternoon to the graduating class. Good afternoon to families and friends, teachers and administrators and everyone who’s played a role in your being here today. My thanks to President Leary and the other members of the Bay Path community who decided to grant me this honorary degree and invited me to share this special day with you and offer a few words for the occasion. 

When I started thinking about what I wanted to talk about this afternoon, an image popped into my head of something I saw last year when I was flying to Ireland to teach poetry in the Bay Path MFA abroad program. Passengers had just gotten on and were getting squared away. Across the aisle from me were two people—a white man in maybe his early sixties, in a nice suit, and a young black woman in jeans, sweatshirt and sneakers. They were doing that dance strangers do on a plane, figuring out how to share that tiny space they’ll be crammed into for the next six hours, trying not to elbow or kick each other while they settled in and fastened their seat belts. 

After the collective sigh of relief that follows a successful take-off, they engaged in a little polite chic-chat, after which the young woman leaned back and took out a book, a copy of “Game of Thrones.” “That’s a great novel,” the man said. “Do you watch the show?”

Does she watch the show…of course she watches the show. Turns out they were both hardcore “Game of Thrones” geeks; they spent the next hour yakking about characters they love and ones they love to hate, dissecting alliances and betrayals, expressing glee or dismay over this murder or that…talking about the spicy parts. Apparently, there are quite a few spicy parts. 

I say “apparently” because I’ve never watched the show. (Now, how many people here are fans of the show?) But even though I had no idea what my neighbors across the aisle were talking about, I could see how animated their conversation was, how excited they were to have discovered this common passion. 

Looking back on that conversation reminds me of how deep, how profound is our human need to feel a sense of connection and community. To feel part of something larger than ourselves. Even if it’s just a shared interest in a television show. And it’s not just we humans who feel that need. Animals do as well; I saw a clip on YouTube recently of a chimpanzee compound in a zoo, where one of the chimps with health problems had been taken to the clinic and was being returned after a couple of weeks away. The other chimpanzees came up to surround the returnee in a group hug.

Now the search for connection doesn’t always express itself in the most thoughtful or self-aware ways. Look at the father and son who are always at odds, and find it almost impossible to talk about the things in their lives that really matter. But then see them sitting together watching the Super Bowl; it’s the only time they can express and share strong and true emotion.

Or consider the woman who feels a profound emotional connection to Facebook friends she will never meet in the analog world, but who doesn’t know one other person on the floor of her apartment building other than the last names on the mailbox in the lobby.  

And what about the man who donates money every month to feed hungry children who live thousands of miles away but doesn’t see, to realize that there are children in his own city who don’t have enough to eat. Now, I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with getting excited over the Super Bowl or having Facebook friends or trying to help improve conditions in the underdeveloped world. I just think it’s interesting to notice the ironies. 

We run into real problems with those who express their need for connection in negative ways. Without going down the rabbit hole of contemporary American politics, I think it’s safe to say that we live in a time when there are people who out of insecurity or fear of change try to create a sense of personal worth and value by aligning themselves with movements and groups that exclude or even abuse those identified as “outsiders.”

This is a very old story playing out yet again all over the world with the rise of nationalism in America and countries all across the world. And nationalist pride, like other forms of pride, can often be a substitute for self-respect. 

In 1951, philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote a brilliant and prophetic book called “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.” His words carry great meaning and relevance for our world today. He said:

The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause. A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other peoples’ business. This minding of other people’s business expresses itself in gossip, snooping and meddling, and also in feverish interest in communal, national and racial affairs. 

Any of this sound familiar?

But what happens when the need to experience connection is grounded in a sense of humane values? What happens when that search for community is based on an idea some people nowadays consider unhip and old-fashioned—the idea that the fate of our fellow human beings is somehow our business? That we have a stake in what happens to the person we’re jammed next to on the plane, the neighbor down the hall, in all our fellow human beings?

 

If we dig a little deeper it starts becoming clear that a community is more than a place where we enjoy safety and comfort; it’s literally necessary for our survival. But the more technologically advanced a society becomes, the more of an abstraction that idea becomes. So many of us are sitting at our desks all day breathing recycled air and tapping on keyboards. And the electrons our tappings nudge awake go off to who knows where to do who knows what. Then somebody else sitting at yet another keyboard starts tapping, and numbers magically appear in some database, and now we can pay the mortgage or the gas bill or buy groceries for the week or rent that cottage on the Cape, or turn on the television to binge watch “Game of Thrones.” 

In America’s mostly agrarian past, there was nothing at all abstract about the ways we were connected to one another. If one person didn’t do her or his job, it was noticeable, and the community suffered the loss. In 1850 seventy percent of Americans lived on farms. In 2010, the last census, that number was down to less than twenty percent. The next census will undoubtedly show our rural population to be even smaller. When you live in a rural economy, you’re dependent on people you might not see more than two or three times a year. You couldn’t handle your harvest alone, people took turns helping their neighbors get the crop in. If you were a new couple that needed a barn, or your barn burned down, you couldn’t build a new one alone. It was a community effort. 

Again, not to get in to politics, but I’d suggest that the greatest challenge facing this country today is to realize that we have a lot of work to do; we have problems we aren’t going to solve with half the country committed to the notion that the other half is the Devil Incarnate. 

I wonder what it would take to show the patience and wisdom of a man like Daryl Davis, an African-American blues musician who for the last thirty years has spent his spare time befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. 

He starts by simply talking to people, some of whom he meets while playing his music in bars. And some he talks to have never actually sat down and had a conversation with a black person. Sometimes when they get to know him they realize their hate has been misguided. Since he started talking with people, Davis says that 200 Klansmen have given up their robes. When that happens, he collects the robes and keeps them in his home as a reminder of the dent he has made in racism by simply sitting down and having dinner with people. 

How can we create some common cause with the people with whom we disagree? How can we live the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said “Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend.” 

Now, convincing members of the KKK to turn in their robes sets a pretty high bar. But what if you’re standing in line in the supermarket behind someone wearing a “Make America Great” hat or an “I Voted for Bernie” sweatshirt or whatever it is that makes you go “Code Red” when you see it. What if you took a deep breath and just started a conversation? Not about anything political, maybe just “Man, this sure is a long line,” or “Or you as tired of this snow as I am?”  

But to bring our conversation back to Earth, to this auditorium, to those of you sitting in these chairs, what part can this community of Bay Path University graduates play in helping to help create a more humane society? Well, you can start by doing the best possible job you can do at whatever comes next for. By treating people you encounter with respect and consideration. By never just going through the motions—even when you’re tired and your patience is at an end. 

You can help America become great again by remembering that our greatness comes from our generosity of spirit, our ability to look beyond our own self interest or personal profit, our willingness to help a neighbor fix a flat tire without first checking to see which candidate is on her bumper sticker. By remembering that we all want the same things; we want to protect the people we care about from harm, to feel that there’s a place where we belong, to feel that who we are and what we do in the world matters. You can help America become great again by welcoming those who’ve come her to build new lives, those immigrants who have always been, and will always be, the most powerful expression of the American dream.

I challenge you to do these things, and I’m confident that you can. What I’ve learned about Bay Path University is that you work to create a culture of respect and inclusion, and that your time here has prepared you to carry those values forward into whatever you do next. 

For each graduate the path that led you to sit in these chairs was different. For some, the pursuit of a degree was part of a carefully considered strategy that consisted of one well-planned step after another. For others, the very decision to enroll in a degree program was a huge risk, a leap of faith that felt like jumping into a swimming pool before you were sure there was actually water in it. But you discovered there actually WAS water in that pool, that there were people in the Bay Path community—fellow students, teachers, administrators—who helped you learn to swim. 

And even those of you who began your studies with a clear plan and a bucket load of confidence probably had your difficult moments, issues with family or health…a particular course that turned out to be a lot harder than you thought it was going to be. Maybe sometimes you sat late at night at the kitchen table, looking at your budget and trying to figure out how to turn nickels into dimes.

But you made it through; you now join the community of alumni. And at some point, and I’m guessing it won’t be in the far distant future, you’re going to get that letter from the development office. Sometimes it might seem like, ‘Man, the ink’s not even dry on my diploma yet.” 

But what’s happening, of course, is that you now have the opportunity to play it forward, to make it a little easier for the people following in your footsteps. You now have a chance to encourage and support the people who’ll be taking the same risk you took on when you started on your own journey. 

Graduates, I invite you to just take a moment to think of someone who supported and encouraged you on this path, who believed in you, who took time out of their own busy lives to give you that hug, or offer a sympathetic ear, or sometimes a little tough love. That person might be in this room, or a thousand miles away…maybe she or he is no longer with us. Just take a moment to think of whoever that might be and offer a quiet thank you.

And now, think of someone for whom you might play that same role. Someone to whom you might offer encouragement and advice and support. And maybe that person won’t always wait until they ask for help. Sometimes they might not ask because they know you’re busy and they don’t want to be a burden. And sometimes, the moments we need help the most can be the ones when it’s hardest to ask. So take the time to reach out.

It’s our curse and our blessing as human beings that we can’t make alone. After this ceremony you’ll get your hugs and have your pictures taken and you’ll go out for dinner. And then you’ll move on to what comes after. Maybe you already know what this next phase of life looks like, or maybe right now you have more questions than answers. 

But there’s one question you’ve all already answered. There might have been a time when you looked at a course catalog and wondered if you had what took to jump in that swimming pool and make it all the way to the other end. Well, you nailed it. All of you. And if I’m a betting man, I’m betting that you’ll take that same resolve and self-confidence to whatever you take on next. 

I thank you for your kind attention, and will leave you with a poem I wrote recently for a friend who, like you, has finished one phase of life and is about to start another. It’s called, “Every New Thing.”

 

Every new thing is an act of treason
A betrayal of the comfortable, the familiar

An animal that has known only the cage
will cringe in a corner if the door
suddenly swings open

squealing on ancient, rusted hinges. 
If I have one wish for you, for me
for us all, it’s to remember that our own cages
are locked only by the fear of change
that we have the power to shove the doors open
to take one step, then another, 
into a new world. 

Bay Path University class of two thousand eighteen…congratulations.

LIVE LONG AND PROSPER