Published on June 9, 2020
This essay is adapted from a commencement speech delivered at Montrose School in Medfield, MA, on May 28, 2021.
Dear Class of 2021,
Today is your graduation, an august ceremony in which you will be awarded your high school diploma. You have worked hard and learned much under particularly difficult circumstances this year, and so we justly memorialize all of your labors today. But this day is also a commencement—a beginning—bringing into existence that next stage of your life, one that all of us here are eager to watch you embark upon. It is a deep honor to be among those who are sending you off today, on to the rest of your life.
While we—your parents, grandparents and teachers, your siblings and friends—want you to be successful in whatever you pursue, I think even more than that, we want you to be happy and to be wise. So today, I want to offer you one piece of advice as you begin life’s quest for happiness and wisdom: follow your questions.
Wisdom, the ancients (like Plato and Aristotle) teach us, begins with wonder. Think of young children, untarnished by the sordid ways of the world, who know neither history nor ideology. “Why is the sky blue?” they ask. “What makes it rain? Who made the trees? Who made me?” Children learn by following their questions.
We can sometimes lose this orientation by the time we get to school. The questions tend to recede when we’re asked to produce so many answers. But that need not be so. Though your teachers here have surely expected countless answers, they also have taught you how to ask the right questions, how to follow those questions wherever they may lead, and then how to ask and answer new and more sophisticated questions as they emerge. And so, it seems to me, you have a leg up on the noble quest for wisdom, and so for happiness too.
When I was sitting in your shoes, the tragedies of life had already begun to intensify life’s questions. I’d spent my early teen years consumed almost entirely by what others thought of me, still admittedly a temptation today. But when a close friend took his own life when I was sixteen, only to be followed by another who did the same nearly two years later, that doggedly outward focus turned sharply inward. Why had my friends given up? Why should I press on? More poignant still: What was the purpose of all of this, anyway? Thus began a life of following my questions, of seeking to understand others but myself too, of trying to uncover the nature of things and all that life had in store for me.
Following our questions, I’ve found, tends to open us up to ideas we hadn’t thought to entertain, to people we’re not naturally drawn to, to horizons well beyond our imaginings. Such a life becomes bigger, grander, and more wonder-full than one limited by our own dreams and plans.
How Can I Help?
By the time I got to college in small-town Vermont, I was intent to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” as Henry David Thoreau put it. Little did I know how much this deliberate orientation would upend my views about nearly everything. During those years, I often asked God, or “the Universe” as I then referred to him: “How can I help?” Given the need the world has for much helping, it was a good question to follow indeed.
One summer, that question led me to volunteer for my congressman, Bernie Sanders; the next summer, that same question, which had evolved and grown more complex in those intervening months, led me to our nation’s capital to work on welfare reform. There, I discovered people on the other side of the political aisle were asking, in earnest, “how can I help?” too.
Then on to graduate school to ask, “How am I to live?” And to law school, “How are we to live?” As I trained in the law and began to be shaped by it, I started to see that the legal arguments I wanted to make were only as good as the time I’d given to understanding my interlocutors—really understanding them, not as opponents, but as they understood themselves. That too required following my questions: questions about what animated their views, what might be motivating them, and importantly, where they may be right and I may be wrong.
This orientation doesn’t only work professionally. I’ve found it’s a recipe for wisdom in our relationships too. St. Josemaria, the founder of Opus Dei, whose vision inspired the Montrose founders, said many wise things, but this is among my favorites: “Accuse yourself,” he said, “and excuse the other.” Of course, he didn’t mean we should excuse maltreatment. Not at all. But he did notice that when we’re quick to point out the faults of others, we’ve got three fingers pointing back in our direction. And so, to be of help, we must first seek to understand.
Understanding others doesn’t come about in one conversation or even a dozen. After all, you and I are not the same people we were just yesterday. Each choice we make shapes and reshapes our character. For me to understand you and you to understand me, we’re going to have to ask each other lots of questions. Let’s let one be our guide: “What can I learn from you today?”
What Is My Mission in Life?
Perhaps the single most important question is this one: “What is my mission in life? What is the unique task that is mine alone?” As John Henry Newman, the great theologian and recently canonized saint, put it: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission . . . He has not created me for naught.”
Newman’s is a noble sentiment, to be sure, but how might we go about discovering that mission?
I would submit to you that it’s by following our questions. It’s been said, and this seems to me just right, that God calls you “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And the world is deeply hungry right now, hungry for men and women of depth, insight, virtue, and faith to bring their deep gladness to bear on the world’s restlessness, divisiveness, and enmity.
But let’s not think that the world’s deep hunger is somewhere out there, or only out there. In my experience, we come upon our unique task—that gladness that is uniquely ours to share—not just by “following our dreams,” but rather by faithfully responding to the small tasks, the small and humble questions of each day. This doesn’t mean we ought not dream. It just means that our dreams take on a new dynamism and meaning when they’ve been sifted through and grow organically out of the soil of living life well . . . today.
What are the small and humble questions that should animate all human lives, that work to reveal to us little by little our unique mission? Questions like these: “Who or what am I responsible for today? How can I use my time well? What ought I do in this situation? How do I treat this person with the love and dignity she deserves?”
We find our life’s mission not by seeking after some “castle in the air,” but by fulfilling the very concrete duty of each moment, one moment at a time. And as the moments are woven together, and the questions are asked and answered, and the duties are fulfilled, and the love is given, we thereby become the persons prepared for our unique mission. Indeed, by being responsible for others in the here and now, we have begun to live out that mission already.
Class of 2021, you have been given much, and we expect great things from you. You are well poised to go into a world that needs your strength and your talents, that needs your dynamism and your heart . . . that needs your questions. Go forth and be the answers the world so desperately needs!
Erika Bachiochi is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center