Author Colson Whitehead delivered the commencement speech at Connecticut College on Sunday. See a full transcript of his remarks below.
Somehow you did it. You made it through the meat grinder of elementary school, your teenage years, and now college, with most if not all of your limbs intact. That’s quite a feat. I salute you. There’s a great big world out there waiting for you, and all sorts of possibilities. Time for you to follow your star. Find a soulmate. Find yourself, finally.
Or so they say.
Any good story has three parts. Act I, where we meet the protagonist and establish the rules of the world. How do things work? What kind of person is our heroine, and what sort of world has she been born into? What does she want, how does she see herself? The all-important foundation of the narrative.
Then comes Act II – where the complications appear that set our heroine on her journey. These are the unexpected and unforeseen events that upend the rules of Act I. The meteor is on a collision course with Earth - what do we do? There’s an accident, an attack that destroys the peaceful order of everything has come before. A demented con man takes control of the country. That foundation of Act I is undermined, the assumptions of our heroine are tested.
Then we get to Act III, the synthesis of Act I and Act II. All the chaos of the middle section is brought to some kind of resolution. A new heroine is born out of her struggle. The meteor collides, or it doesn’t. Out of the rubble of the attack, a new city rises. The con man is exposed for his swindles and gets his just desserts, or doesn’t.
Thesis – antithesis – synthesis. I guess in college I might have used the analogy of Saturday evening – Saturday night – Sunday morning. Saturday evening is, “I’m sure looking forward to this party tonight!” Act I. Saturday night is the complication of Act II– all sorts of crazy stuff is happening at the party – clowns, chocolate pudding. And Sunday morning, in Act III, a new self awakes and says, “After that whole chocolate pudding thing last night, I’m going to have to reconsider some long-held beliefs about myself.”
The narrative arc of a story, a night. A life.
Like I said, you’ve just finished Act I. You know some things about the world. Have developed a few theories about how things work. Sure, that freshman year seminar on Marx added a wrinkle, and that social justice course really threw you for a loop – who knew all that was going on? — but you recovered splendidly. With the end of Act I, you’re ready to head out into the world, follow your star, find a soulmate. Find yourself. Believe in yourself, you can do anything.
Here come the complications.
“Find a soulmate.” Find the person who really gets you, understands what makes you tick like no other. The one person in the universe who can look past that front you present to the world and see the real you behind it. I’m not the first one to point this out, but in all probability, your soulmate is dead. It’s simple numbers, I’m not trying to be a negative Nelly. Scientists say that 107 billion people have lived on Earth up to this moment, and there are 7 billion people alive on the planet right now. The odds speak for themselves. Perhaps your soulmate was a humble servant in ancient Egypt, washing primitive textiles in the waters of the Nile, or a Christian soldier during the Crusades, trying to wipe out his Muslim brother on the other side of the battlefield. Or, less mundane, someone famous, a maker of history, like Napoleon or Harriet Tubman. Which would have sucked, because Napoleon and Harriet Tubman had to travel a lot for work and you wouldn’t see them that much, between the world conquest thing and Underground Railroad thing, and I don’t even think they had Skype back then.
Maybe your soulmate is not one of the 107 billion who have come before, but one of the 7 billion on Earth right now. And they’re an antique dealer in New Zealand, or a cook in food market in Thailand. Are you going to New Zealand any time soon, or Thailand? What are the chances that you’d run into each other even if you were going – meet eyes over an antique bust of Abraham Lincoln, or visit the kitchen to compliment the cook on the excellent beef larb? Maybe they’re sick that day. You can’t meet everyone. In fact some of you soon-to-be graduates are looking around right now going, “That guy was in my class? I’ve literally never seen him before!” It’s big world, and it conspires against you through numbers.
Maybe they’re 95 years old, and it’s some May – December soulmate situation, but sadly they won't live long enough for you to decide to go to New Zealand. It’s a tragedy. Or they’re not even born yet. You are one of their “107 billion people” who lived on Earth before they showed up. And you’ll never get to have a romantic dinner on that Martian colony where we’ve fled to because of global warming, never get a chance to say, “I’m lucky to have found you, and can you pass the Soylent Green.”
“Follow your star.” At least here, you have it better than ancient peoples, and the fact that you live in the 20th century isn’t held against you. Back then, you had to squint at the night sky to find your star. Maybe it was in Ursa Minor, and you had to get up at 4 am to see it - taking into consideration the rotation of the earth - and you couldn’t even set an alarm on your iPhone to wake them up. Sure, nowadays we have light pollution from the cities and you have to go to the desert for a really unspoiled view, but we have telescopes. We have the Hubble telescope, a magnificent scientific achievement, that allows us to see stars as far away as 13 billion light years. And one them, one of those twinkling beauties in the eternal void is the one that speaks to you, guiding your life’s path through the darkness. Your odds have just shot up. Certainly in 10 trillion galaxies, each of which contains a 100 million stars, one of them shines just for you. All you have to do is look.
I hate to burst your Hubble bubble, but there are complications. Given how long it takes for light to travel through the vast and indifferent interstellar cold of the universe, the star you see tonight, beckoning, may have died millions of years ago. It’s light is only just reaching us, but it’s long, long dead, and we only think it is real. I’m sure it’s not the first time something in your life has turned out to be other than what it first seemed. Your freshman year roommate, for example. Maybe that perfect thing in the sky twinkling with promise and meaning has collapsed on itself long ago and become a supermassive black hole, the most deadly force in the universe, sucking up everything that strays into its gravitational field and obliterating it, rending it into atoms. An entity of pure destruction. Like your freshman year roommate.
And speaking of the failure of language and the troublesome problem of relativity, we come to “Find yourself.” By now you know the self is an ever-changing creature, a nebula of spinning gasses, swirling and reforming, seeking a coherent shape. There’s the you of your elementary school years, making your first tentative guesses at how people operate, how you operate. The teenage you, taking a stab at an identity apart from your family and friends, and making some really stupid clothing choices. And then college, finally set free from the home life that has defined, confined, and confounded you for so long. The mutable self. The complications of Act II, which will tip all you have been before into chaos, have been set up and abetted by really clever foreshadowing in Act I, by all those slippery you’s over the years. In some ways, you've always been a creature of chaos.
Which brings us to Act III. Synthesis. If you read about Hollywood, they’ll often complain about a script’s “Third Act problems.” The setup is great – Jennifer Lawrence is the spinster schoolteacher who comes back for her high school reunion. Channing Tatum is her long lost childhood sweetheart, he’s a…let's see…a marine biologist Navy Seal, just back from Afghanistan. Ice Cube plays the principal – he’s a riot. The reunion is full of shenanigans -- clowns, chocolate pudding -- but now we have figure out the Third Act. Do these two star-crossed lovers get together? What is this story saying about the world, saying about Love and Possibility? Do we have an uplifting story of triumph on our hands, or a tragedy? We didn’t bother to figure out the ending before we started rolling the cameras.
Act III is everything. No matter the strength of the foundation, the assorted catastrophes of the Second Act, if we don’t have ACT III, we’re really in trouble. Will the heroine pull it out in the end, or does she falter? Justice prevail, or the dull villainy of the world triumph? Here’s the problem of every storyteller – to make sense of the chaos, to gather all the plot strands into dramatic unity. To figure out the ending, no matter what the plot throws at you.
I've talked a lot about numbers, and the indifference of the universe. But maybe here, in Act III, the numbers are on your side, in the Walt Whitman-esque multitude of you. You add up to a lot, over the years -- the 4 year old you apprehending the otherness of other people for the first time, the 14 year old you recognizing yourself in a line of Shakespeare, the you sitting here right now, wondering what comes next. And those future selves, at 25 and 45 and 65, adapting, pratfalling, and picking themselves up. All those shifting, jostling you’s, and all their lessons. The universe may seem like a lonely place sometimes, but there are as many you’s as there are stars in the sky. Maybe one of them will step up at the right time and tell you what to make of it all.
Congratulations again on finishing Act I. Welcome to the complications.