Since Abigail asked me to speak I have thought a good deal about what to say. I realized over the last few years that my theme has essentially been the same. I want you all to recognize how proud we are of you and what you have accomplished. And I want you to know that we have no illusions about the resilience it has taken to reach today. I can cherry pick illustrations of progress, but I cannot forget the obstacles that continue to crop up: tensions with families, significant slights, the fear that is always present about whether or not acceptance is real or feigned.
You are graduating and like parents we would like to be sure you are safe so my inclination is to tell you that there are more supportive resources out there than you may know about.
But I remember a poem by Maria Mazziotti Gillan:
Everything We Don’t Want Them to Know
At eleven, my granddaughter looks like my daughter did,
The slender body, that thin face, the grace
With which she moves. When she visits, she sits with my daughter;
They have hot chocolate together
And talk. The way my granddaughter moves her hand, the
Concentration with which she does everything,
Knocks me back to the time when I sat with my daughter at
This table and we talked and I watched the grace
With which she moved her hands, the delicate way she lifted
The heavy hair back behind her ear.
My daughter is grown now, married in a fairy-tale wedding,
Divorced, something inside
Her broken, healing slowly. I look at my grand-daughter and
I want to save her, as I was not able
To save my daughter. Nothing is that simple, all our plans,
Carefully made, thrown into a cracked
pile by the way love betrays us.
I know that there are strong communities of religious folk who are open and affirming. There are strong communities of progressive thinkers who are not religious who are open and affirming. I want to assure you that what you need can be found so you can navigate the roiling waters of life after MIT. That is what I would like to say but two recent bits of information crossed my path and made me think that I was being a bit too sanguine. I understand that love sometimes betrays us.
The first bit of data that challenged my thinking came from reading about Mary Bonauto, the talented Maine resident who has argued the cause of marriage rights up to the Supreme Court. Bonauto said that when she first started arguing the case she turned to her religious community for support. She loved her religious community but she realized that she would have to go elsewhere for support. That was over a decade ago, and some things have evolved and changed in such communities, but it still can be a crap shoot. I do not want to mislead you. Things we love can betray us.
The second jarring note was sounded by E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post writing about Senator Chris Coons of Delaware who spoke to the Secular Coalition of America whose mission is “to amplify the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States.” He talked of his growing unease with “rigid certainty” on questions related to religious truth and of the pain and discomfort caused by outdated teachings and moral codes. But then he went on to tell of his own experience as a Senator and a person of faith who tried to speak to the progressive community at Yale Law School about his faith commitments and was greeted by what he called “real bigotry.” For many progressives, “accepting someone of expressed faith was one of the hardest moments of tolerance and inclusion for them.” But the Senator is hard nosed and as a result he pushed on and learned of the origins of the experiences of these progressive folk who had personal “experiences of deep pain and of alienation that had driven a big wedge between them and religion.”
His conclusion was deceptively simple: We must find ways of “getting past some of our misunderstandings of each other.” And that I have concluded is the message I need to leave with you today. Despite your accomplishments; despite our desire to protect you, we cannot guarantee that the path tomorrow will be smooth, but we have confidence in you and in your strength to overcome adversity and to brush aside the betrayals of love and other experiences.
So while I would like to send you forth with words of comfort and encouragement, I am going to have to tell you that we need you to continue to be courageous and challenging of the status quo. We must find ways of “getting past some of our misunderstandings of each other.” It is tempting to turn inward, to wall ourselves off from a culture that causes needless pain, but we must continue to engage and challenge that culture. That is your charge. We have faith in you and we will be here to support you. Now, go with our blessings.