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Tom Wolf to Grads: ‘Self-Actualization Does Not Occur in a Social Vacuum’

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President Roseman, trustees, faculty, staff, honored guests and, most of all, my fellow members of the Dickinson College Class of 2016: Greetings! You have done me a great honor by inviting me to become part of the Dickinson family. You have also brought great honor to your families, your professors, your friends and, of course, you have earned for yourselves everlasting honor by becoming graduates of this glorious institution.

But as you stand on the verge of leaving this place, you need to ask yourselves the big question: “Now what?”

I know some of you have already decided on your next step. Maybe most of you have done this. A job. A project. Graduate school—the snooze button on the alarm clock of life. That’s great. But whatever you end up doing, you’re going to continue to confront one of the central dilemmas of your life so far, and indeed one of the central dilemmas of the human condition. That is: How does one balance the demands one faces as self-regarding, self-motivated, self-actualized individuals with the countervailing social obligations, interests and inclinations we humans also face?

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: You’re individuals, but you’re also social beings. You are at once impelled by forces you yourself unleash as well as forces that flow from the society that surrounds you. You are accountable to yourself, but you’re also accountable to the social norms, institutions and rules that guide you. One of the most important and never-ending jobs you’ll have is to balance—and enhance—these competing pulls on your life.

And that’s what I want to talk about today. How will you—should you—strike this balance?

History is full of people who have tried to convince us that life is actually either a purely individual journey or an equally purely existence. The self-actualization, maximum individual liberty crowd would have us believe that we have no real obligation to anyone but ourselves, and that we can achieve amazing things on our own. Boot straps are often used as a metaphor.

The collectivists, on the other hand, tempt us with equally simplistic visions of a world where humans are nothing more than mere members of a larger social group. The individual in this view is but a random atom in a vast, immutable social universe.

Unfortunately, neither extreme adequately describes reality. For example, the world of unfettered individualism—the state of nature—turns out to be less than optimal for the kind of freedom individualism requires. Without a robust social context, life can be rather stark. In Hobbes’ memorable phrase, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” To liberate themselves from such a world, rational, freedom-seeking human beings will logically consent to bind themselves to a social contract.

This was the way John Locke saw it. In his view, these freedom-loving human beings will agree to give up certain theoretical freedoms in order to enjoy the individual protections a settled society offers. His argument is that, while the state of nature is in theory absolutely free of any formal constraints on our freedom, it is practically full of them.

For example, the free exercise of individual entrepreneurship is not likely in a place that does not protect property rights. Free expression is not likely to exist in a place that allows random but powerful people to intimidate you. Unsafe neighborhoods are not good places to be what you want to be and do what you want to do. A state of nature full of wild animals, marauding bands of thugs and no public goods is not a place conducive to self-actualization. And the constant search for food, clothing and shelter in the state of nature does not leave much time for self-actualization.

So the idea is that a purely individualist approach to life is impractical. The individual doesn’t do so well in that kind of world.

On the other hand, the opposite—the communitarian approach—doesn’t work so well, either. The old Soviet Union was intended as a showcase of the communitarian potential. It was intended to be a workers’ paradise. As it turned out, it was pretty bad for workers. It was also pretty bad for consumers, entrepreneurs and anyone else who wanted a decent life. In fact, life in the USSR wasn’t even all that great for its leaders who were always looking over their shoulders, afraid that someone might be trying to take their jobs or their lives.

Life in the socialist paradise, it turns out, looks a lot like life in the state of nature: Intrusive—rather than solitary—but also poor, nasty, brutish and often short.

The problem is that neither extreme—an asocial or a purely social context—can deliver on the promise of a fulsome and really free life. That life requires a capacity for self-actualization, but it also requires an environment that promotes that self-actualization. The dilemma is illustrated by our own national history. It took the cooperative action of the founders of the republic to liberate the colonies from Great Britain. On the other hand, cooperative action also formally consigned generations of Americans to slavery, and it took a broadly shared attachment to the principle of individual liberty and the collective action of a civil war to secure the liberation of those enslaved individuals. It took a broad social effort to keep women in the United States from voting for the first 144 years of our nation, and it required the concerted and combined effort of many Americans using the framework of the constitution to win that right to vote in the 20th century. Finally, it took a collective will to forbid Americans from enjoying basic rights simply because of who they loved, but it also took an institution of that same collective will—the Federal judicial system and a Dickinson alumnus, Judge John Jones [’77]—to begin to free our fellow Americans from this particular barrier to individual freedom.

This eternal conflict between the self and the collective exists within us as well as between us in our society. We human beings are a jumble of conflicting impulses. We are both self-regarding and reciprocating animals. We are both individualistic and social beings. Psychologists, evolutionary biologists, behavioral economists, political scientists and many others observe this interior human conflict. Even Adam Smith—that putative champion of unfettered individual effort—was ambivalent about what animated human behavior. On the one hand, in Wealth of Nations, he seemed to attribute the welfare of our society and our economy to the magic of the invisible hand, itself the product of the free interaction of autonomous human beings pursuing their own selfish interests. As he wrote in 1776, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” But as Adam Smith also observed, human beings are animated by something more than simple self-interest. In Theory of Moral Sentiments, he suggested that society is full of human beings who constantly show a “fellow feeling” that coexists with—and softens—humans’ selfish urges.

Thus the dilemma we—you—face in our daily lives: What kind of people are we? Are we self-regarding pursuers of personal advantage? Are we social animals perpetually interested in the welfare of our fellow human beings? Or are we both?

You’ll struggle to balance these competing strands of the human dilemma throughout your lives. As you do, please resist the temptation to throw your arms in the air and retreat to wishful thinking, seductive generalizations, half-baked theories or anecdotal cures. You’re too smart for that. You’re Dickinson graduates after all. Understand that there are simply no easy answers to how we each reconcile the social and the individual dimensions of our beings.

In his most recent book, The Road to Character, David Brooks talks about this dilemma. On the one hand, he suggests, our nation has made some pretty impressive strides toward individual liberation since World War II. While we still have much work to do, women, people of color and members of the LBGTQ community are freer to define themselves today than they were at any other time in our history. On the other hand, the very institutions, social forces, laws and conventions that promoted and produced that liberation have been diminished. The shift to individual liberation has been accompanied by an unfortunate weakening of our social capacities. The group has given way to the individual. Institutionalized social interaction has given way to “bowling alone.” And again, this is a problem.

Self-actualization does not occur in a social vacuum. It needs a society that in so many ways encourages, sustains and protects individuals pursuing self-actualization. So how do we reinvigorate our social capacity to encourage individual liberation? There are four contexts in which you—all of us—have to figure this out: First, your family; second, your community; third, your democracy; and finally, your alma mater.

Let me start with the first of these, your family. Your quest for individual meaning will be greatly influenced by the nature of the family relationships you build and sustain throughout your lives. Your capacity for self-definition will in many ways be determined by the strength of the family safety net that supports you and that you help create. You will want therefore to build a family that will fuel your individualism with the things healthy families are uniquely equipped to provide: Love, encouragement, affirmation.

The second social key to individual vigor is the community. You will inevitably make your personal journey within the community that surrounds you. You therefore have an obligation to contribute to the design and the health of that community. You have an obligation to help make sure that the community is one where the social norms and rules actually enable and facilitate individual growth. Individual growth cannot occur in a community that is unsafe, violent and lawless. Individual growth cannot take place in a community that is dedicated to sterile conformity. Nor can individual growth take place in hermetic isolation from any community. Self-definition can only happen in a society of others who are free to define themselves differently than you. You define yourself in relationship to others. Freedom is thus a social—not a solitary—condition. It truly takes a village to assure freedom.

Third, you’ll need to make sure the rules you labor under promote the individualism you seek. It is indeed tempting to be indifferent and scornful toward a political system that at this point seems worthy of both. But a democracy cannot survive either the indifference or scorn of its citizens. This is especially true of citizens who want to protect and grow their capacity for self-actualization, who want to exercise their free will. You will not be able to do this consistently or freely without a political system that formally protects and values your individuality.

Finally, from this day on, Dickinson College will figure prominently in your various attempts to define yourself as an individual. When you leave here today, you will leave as both the hardy individuals you have made of yourselves while you were here and as members of the Dickinson College Class of 2016. From this day on—even beyond the grave—you will be known as Dickinson graduates. So as this already elite institution becomes even more elite in the years ahead, that will redound to your credit. That will be a social mark that directly tells the world who you are forever. This means of course that you have a concrete interest in contributing to the continual improvement of this place. It helped you turn yourself into the person you are today, and so you have a responsibility to make sure Dickinson remains the kind of place that allows those who follow you to shape their lives.

Read more: Hank Azaria to Grads: Ignore Your Instincts ‘at Your Own Peril’

The point is that you will have to navigate your life between the twin challenges of life as an individual and life as a member of society. And while there are conflicts between these two contexts, they are not contradictory. In fact, you will need to figure out how to reconcile these two contexts. We need you to be strong and free, and we need a strong society that helps you to be just that.

I agree with David Brooks that we have made great progress on the individual side over the past 70 years, but we still have much work to do. Our social skills are not what they should be, and that doesn’t bode well for a future as friendly to individual growth.

So celebrate your graduation for the extraordinary achievement it is. At the same time, recognize the great work it has equipped you to perform. Use the things you learned here to enrich your lives as individuals pursuing your own dreams and life goals. But use these things too to enrich the social institutions you will need to ensure that you will be free to pursue those dreams and life goals.

Build strong lives and build a healthy world around you. Resist the temptation to see that world as the simple sum total of the individual quests of you and your peers, or an equally simple—and equally wrongheaded—view of the world as totally irrelevant to your individual quests. You are an individual and you are a member of a society that must be designed to support your individualism. So pay attention to your families, help define to your community, strengthen your democracy, and remember Dickinson.

Thank you and congratulations.

Read more 2016 commencement speeches:

Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

Arianna Huffington to Grads: ‘Your Attention Is Truly the Most Valuable Currency’

Barack Obama: ‘Passion Is Vital, But You’ve Got to Have a Strategy’

Condoleezza Rice to Grads: ‘Don’t Let Anyone Else Define Your Passion’

Cory Booker to Grads: ‘Tell Your Truth’

Darren Walker to Grads: ‘Stand For Something’

Earl Lewis: ‘Never Confuse The Attainement of an Education with What It Means to Be Educated’

Eboo Patel to Wake Forest Grads: ‘The Only Shame Is in Stagnation’

Hank Azaria to Grads: Ignore Your Instincts ‘at Your Own Peril’

Hoda Kotb: ‘You’re the Sum Total of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With’

J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in the Moment’

Jane Goodall to Grads: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

Jill Bolte Taylor: ‘We Have the Power to Choose Who We Want to Be’

Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

Madeleine Albright: ‘Everyone Must Participate in Solving Shared Problems’

Mahershala Ali to Grads: ‘We Are All Co-Creators of Our Respective Destinies’

Michael Bloomberg: ‘An Open Mind Is the Most Valuable Asset You Can Possess’

Michelle Obama to Grads: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Obama to Grads: Building Walls Is ‘A Betrayal of Who We Are’

Rita Dove to Grads: ‘Instead of Advice, I Will Give You Wishes’

Russell Wilson: ‘Go Make It Happen’

Samantha Power to Grads: ‘Invest Yourself Fully. Get Close’

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation Is Key to Resilience’

Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’

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