With the 2011 commencement season in full swing, hopeful graduates, proud parents and noteworthy speakers filled the stands at ceremonies across the country. The Forward turned its attention to a group of Jewish keynote speakers that included executives, writers and a Holocaust survivor, each imparting his or her own life lessons, inspiration and spark of passion to the next generation.
Find passion. This is not an easy one. People think passion is something you either have or you don’t. People think passion is something that has to manifest itself in some kind of explosive and emotional format. It’s not. It’s the thing that you find in your life that you can care about, that you can cling to, that you can invest yourself in, heart, body and soul. Finding passion is kind of your job now.
The freedom our Founding Fathers secured, the freedom that Lincoln extended, the freedom our armed forces now protect, the freedom that billions of people are yearning every day to experience, is a freedom that all of us must defend. Even when it’s not popular, especially when it’s not popular, we have a responsibility to stand up for the rights of people to express themselves as they wish, to worship how and where they wish, and to love who they wish.
That’s why, two weeks ago [May 4], I spoke out in support of an artist who was scheduled to open an exhibit in New York City, but who has been detained indefinitely by the Chinese authorities. It is why, 10 months ago [August 2010], I strongly defended the rights of New York’s Muslim community to build a mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan. And it’s why, on Tuesday [May 17], I’m going up to our state capital in Albany to support legislation that would grant marriage equality to all men and all women.
It takes courage to stand up to power, to take an unpopular stand, to risk life and limb and livelihood for your ideals…. Today, thanks to all of those who had the courage to march and fight and speak out for freedom, there is no road that you can’t travel, no future you can’t create, no dream you can’t realize. You are bound only by the limits of your imagination. The question for all of you graduates is, how will you use that freedom?
I once interviewed a man who spent his life studying happiness, and he came back with this result: Happiness is love. Full stop. The surest way to measure whether a person is happy, healthy and well is to ask, “How deeply is that person enmeshed in deep, passionate commitments?” You can be enmeshed with family and friends. You can be enmeshed with your community and co-workers. You can be enmeshed with great poets or artists. But you have to be enmeshed. Happiness at this level is a group project. It doesn’t come from inside, it comes from outside.
Do you have the ability to throw yourself against the currents of our culture and recognize that you are not the center of your life? The tasks and summonses are the center. Your happiness and your worth are a byproduct of how you engage them. Most of us are egotistical, and most of us are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only when the self dissolves into some larger task and summons. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.
Promise me that you won’t get the word. You see those Egyptians who showed up in Tahrir Square and defended it against the regime’s thugs? Well, they just didn’t get the word. They just didn’t get the word that they were supposed to shut up, remain afraid, mind their own business and not challenge the Pharaoh — who kept telling them they were not ready for freedom — and so they just went out and took his political pyramid down.
Please remember: The [British Petroleums] of the world, they’re not on Facebook. They’re just in your face. The big fossil fuel companies? They don’t have a chat room. They’re in the cloakroom of the U.S. Congress with bags of political donations. Your life may be digital, but trust me on this one. Politics is still analogue. It’s still about who can get a million people into Tahrir Square — a million people who will not leave until their demands are met. And if Facebook helps you do that — well, then God bless Facebook. But at the end of the day there is no substitute for human beings out in the streets, ready to stand and fight for what they believe in. There is no substitute for real people, not mouse clicks or avatars, going out in large numbers and making politicians see that they are insisting on change and are ready to risk something for it. That is how we got civil rights in this country, that is how we got labor rights and that is how we got women’s rights. It is how we ended the Vietnam War. It is how the Egyptians ended their tyranny. And it is the only way we will get a green economy. So if you want to get something done in the world, never forget — ultimately — you have to get out of Facebook and into somebody’s face.
We are living at a time of revolution in the Middle East and North Africa. People who are literally your age picked up their phones and organized themselves using social networking and mobile broadband. They took cell phone pictures of snipers on rooftops and posted the pictures to Facebook so people would know where to go to be safe. They are changing their societies, and that should be an inspiration for all of us to have the courage to change the world. The technologies for us to extend our influence are around us, and they are easier and easier to use. But you have to have courage.
You should now, and always, do what you love. You should immerse yourself in the problems you think most important and challenge them. Surround yourself with people you think most interesting, throw yourself into whatever has the greatest prospect of giving meaning to your life and providing satisfaction, providing excitement, in your daily activity.
Do whatever you can, whenever you can, to put yourself in a position of feeling passionate about your work, of wanting to start on your work every morning…. The simple truth is that people usually get what is most important and fulfilling to them by pursuing what is most important and fulfilling to them rather than by being borne by the currents.
Everywhere, the world is in need of repair. Fix it. Solve these things. You need only the tools that you have learned here, even if you didn’t pay as much attention as you should, even if you’re a mess and broke and facing a future of economic terror. Who isn’t? Who doesn’t? Help. Help. Help. The world is calling. Heal the world, and in the process, heal yourself. Find the human in yourself by finding the citizen, the activist, the hero. Down with the brutal-minded misadventurers. Go after them. You know where they are.
Duty calls. The world calls. Get active. No summer vacation, no rest for you. We have been waiting too long for you. We need your contribution too desperately, and if they tell you your contribution is meaningless; if they tell you the fix is in and there’s no contribution to be made; if they tell you to contribute by shopping your credit card into exhaustion; if they tell you to surrender the brilliant, dazzling confusion your education should have engendered in you, [to] exchange that quicksilver prolifity for dull monotone certainty, productive only of aggression born of boredom and violence, born of fear, born of stupidity, they’re lying. Don’t trust them; get rid of them. You know who they are. Shout down the devil.
What is so sad is that it’s very clear that my generation is not going to change this problem [of inequality]. Women became 50% of the college graduates in this country in 1981, 30 years ago. Thirty years is plenty of time for those graduates to have gotten to the top of their industries, but we are nowhere close to 50% of the jobs at the top. That means that when the big decisions are made, the decisions that affect all of our worlds, we do not have an equal voice at that table.
If you think big, if you own your own success, if you lead, it won’t just have external costs, but it may cause you some personal sacrifice. Men make far fewer compromises than women to balance professional success and personal fulfillment. That’s because the majority of housework and child care still falls to women…. So it’s a bit counterintuitive, but the most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is. If you pick someone who’s willing to share the burdens and the joys of your personal life, you’re going to go further. A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world…. I know that’s a big challenge and responsibility, a really daunting task, but you can do it. You can do it if you lean in. So go home tonight and ask yourselves, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” And then go do it.
I speak to you, of course, not only as a teacher, but also as a witness. And therefore I must maybe define myself. You should know that I am Jewish. Maybe you don’t know it, but to me, to be Jewish is what? It’s not exclusive — it’s an opening. It is really as when the conductor here conducts his orchestra; he offers the person to sing or to play a certain part, a certain tune. And I offer my memory to you. You should know something about what is there, inside.
The greatest commandment, to me, in the Bible, is not the Ten Commandments. My commandment is, “Thou shall not stand idly by.” Which means when you witness an injustice, don’t stand idly by. When you hear of a person or a group being persecuted, do not stand idly by. When there is something wrong in the community around you — or far away — do not stand idly by. You must intervene. You must interfere. And that is actually the motto of human rights. Human rights has become a kind of secular religion today. And I applaud it — I am part of it. And therefore, wherever something happens, I try to be there as a witness.
Maia Efrem has worked at the Forward since 2010 and currently serves as research editor and assistant to the editor. Maia is the editor of the Assimilator, the Forward’s arts and culture blog and is responsible for the Forward’s annual Salary Survey. Previously she served as the editor of Blognik Beat, a blog written by students who emigrated from or have ties to the Former Soviet Union. Maia is a graduate of Hunter College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.