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Some Exceedingly Excellent Advice

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Dear graduates,

Well, it was not what you imagined. If while here you managed to contract a social disease despite appropriate precautions, Covid-19 was not the disease you had in mind. What’s more, if you were somehow involved in a breakthrough, it was not supposed to be a breakthrough infection. And if you dreamed of mastering an art, it was not the art of twirling a wand up your nose.

But congratulations all the same! The band is now playing, the crowds have arrived, the platitudes have begun. Hearts are bursting with pride. There is no parking anywhere. If anyone has earned a cap and gown, it is you, and I hope someone has thought to supply crimson masks emblazoned with, if not a Harvard H, then one more Harvard A, why not, in case for all the grade inflation, your GPA could still use inflating. For then it’s out, out with you into the cold, hard world.

If you have somehow missed the message that you will now need passion, empathy, and grit, you will now need passion, empathy, and grit. For the world is not only cold and hard but a mess. I’ll leave it to the speakers to go into the details. Let me just say that the world needs you! A lot! Please do not sleep more than is absolutely necessary.

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Some other advice: Be kind, be kind, be kind. You need not be a doormat. But make people ask what we put in the water here, that Harvard grads are so kind. (Please do not also make them ask what we smoke.) Pick the objects of your affection with care, but then love steadily and unstintingly. Wear your heart on your sleeve and wear sunblock, too.

And, read books! The greatest technology ever invented is not the internet. It is the book. Out in the cold, hard, messy world, you will not need more information. You will be drowning in information. You will need perspective. Vision. Clarity. Wisdom. And, above all, candor — the kind of candor that comes when people are not writing for clicks.

For example,

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.”

And:

“How dreary—to be— Somebody!

How public—like a Frog”

And:

“…for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Ha. Just what you wanted to hear on graduation day.

Poets like Philip Larkin and Emily Dickinson and Matthew Arnold are not the only ones who tell it like it is. All real writers do. That is why we see books banned, not just long ago in autocratic nations, but right now, today, in America. But poets help make my case with brevity — and, by the way, are not only bad news bears. They provide inspiration as well. Seamus Heaney observes, for example, with some help from Sophocles:

“History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave,

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.”

Yes. Hope and history can rhyme.

As JFK said, “Art establishes the basic human truths that must serve as the touchstones of our

judgment.”

Now BS springs eternal, and if you are anything like your forebears, one or two of you may have gotten the hang of piling it higher and deeper. More power to you! It’s a life skill. But without candor, we lose our way. So should you one day find yourself a card-carrying pooh-bah — as some of you just may — and even if you don’t, remember: shoot no messengers, and buy no lines, not even your own. Keep your fingers on your touchstones. Read, read, read. Let the books speak to you. Let them find you. Amanda Gorman was not speaking only of her own book when she wrote:

“This book is a message in a bottle.

This book is a letter.

This book does not let up.

This book is awake.

This book is a wake.”

Read, people, read!

And with that I salute you, classes of ’20 and ’21! Congratulations! Enjoy! Respect your elders! Seize the day! Take back the night! Go into the office! Vote! And one more thing, if I may be so candid: save the Harvard-Yale jokes for your 50th reunion. You can absolutely make them work. But they are best delivered bald.

Gish Jen ‘77 is a visiting professor of English.

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