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Convocation 2013: Weissbourd's Remarks

A big warm welcome to all of you, and I want to start by thanking my students.  This is one of the great honors of my life.  I don't think there is any bigger honor than being appreciated by people you respect, and my respect for my students is profound.

When I was 10 years old I recall reading about James Meredith and wondering how any human being could have that kind of moral courage.   It is an amazing dream to be on the same stage as him.

26 years ago I graduated from this school and I was sitting where you are. I was happy and proud but I was also anxious.  A lot of people had told me that my 20’s would be the best years of my life.  And I remember thinking that if that was true I was in deep trouble.  When I was 25 I had not yet figured out either love or work—what Freud calls the 2 most important things in life — and I was pretty much of a wreck.

Nor was my view of the future especially bright.  We live in a culture that tends to be obsessed with being young and we don’t seem to find much good about getting older.  Romance will drip away.   Work will drone on.   Our passionate, youthful idealism will be drowned by cold realities.

The problem with all of these alleged trends is that they are simply untrue.  They’re myths.  This descent happens, of course, to some people.

But this cultural story doesn't describe my experience.   I can say without question that every decade of my life since I was 25 has gotten better.   And this cultural story certainly doesn’t need to describe your experience.

Most importantly — and this is what I want to focus on today — there are things that you can do to write a very different story.  I didn’t develop — and I don’t think many people develop — their most important qualities until midlife.  In particular, life can become better because we can learn how to love in many different senses of this very misunderstood word.

I study romantic love, and I want to start with romantic love not only because it is so important for it’s own sake,  but because the capacities we develop in our romantic relationships can be so central to our abilities to be effective teachers, parents, counselors and colleagues.   I also think that developing mature, healthy romantic relationships—and effectively counseling young people in developing these relationships—requires taking on squarely our culture’s damaging obsession with young love and certain very wrongheaded cultural ideas about what love is.

We are infatuated in modern times in this country with young love.  Our songs and our movies — think about any movie Jennifer Aniston or Rachel McAdams are in — are about the intoxication of young love.  If you are a really lucky teenager, you can be swept off your feet by a Vampire.  And these image tell us that early stages of  love are not only the peak stages of love but the most thrilling, pure, transcendent times of our life.

Young love can, of course, be absolutely wonderful. But there are reasons why the Greeks and many other cultures have thought of young love as a form of madness or illness.   And there is much about these modern images of love that can utterly misguide young people at every stage of their lives about what real love is and how it develops. I think modern movie images about love have, in fact, done far more damage than movie images of violence.

Both our movies and our popular songs often equate attraction and infatuation with real love and they make flying into an infatuation seem courageous.  But we can be deeply infatuated with and attracted to many people who we can’t have healthy relationships with and infatuation is one of many types of love.  These songs and movies suggest that love is about fulfilling one’s own needs, not about how we might need to change ourselves to be able to really love and be loved by someone else.  They suggest that we should hang on to love even if we are degraded. As Justin Bieber puts it,  “I’ll buy you anything, I’ll buy you any ring, I’d go hungry, I’d go black and blue, I’d go crawling down the avenue.”

Strange as it may sound, I’d rather my 17-year-old daughter learn about love from Tolstoy or Toni Morrison or Elizabeth Barrettt Browning than from Justin Bieber.

The older adults I know who have succeeded in love have figured something else out.   They have different metrics. It’s less that they have different feelings, than that they interpret those feelings differently.   Many of these adults see love not as preoccupation or infatuation but as having the kind of deep trust and faith that allows them not to think about someone else all the time.   In this way real love enables them to give to those outside their relationship, to be better parents, educators, mentors or generative in other ways.

Rather than seeing all the ways that their partner fails to meet their needs, they deeply appreciate who their partner is, and they are aware of their own flaws and work to reduce the harm these flaws can do to those they love.

Rather than fretting about the loss of intensity of young love, they are able to experience many kinds of deep love at different stages of their lives.

When I said I loved my wife on our wedding day I meant something very different and much thinner than when I say I love her today.

At the same time, adults in these successful relationships never let themselves be degraded or subordinated in a relationship.  They know that any relationship in which you are the means to someone else's narcissitic ends is not a relationship at all.  As Martin Luther King said, "I cannot be what I want to be unless you are what you ought to be, and you cannot be what you ought to be unless I am what I ought to be."

Developing these relationships is not, of course, simple. Many of you will have relationships that fail and you will have to restart. Some of you will decide not to have romantic relationships at all.  But if you can undertake the delicate, subtle work of learning to really love someone else well and if you are thoughtful about how you measure love, you can experience kinds of love that are startling real and infinite and true and in their quiet way absolutely dazzling, kinds of love that can in turn enable you to guide young people in the real courage and discipline of developing self-respecting and generous love relationships. And much of what is true about developing caring romantic relationships is true about developing our close relationships in our work—our relationships with the children we teach or counsel or mentor and our relationships with our colleagues.  How we care and love in these relationships is surely as important as our level of content knowledge and technical expertise.

Perhaps most important, as we get older we can not just learn the easy but the hard forms of love and care.  We can learn how to empathize for many kinds of children who are very different from us, how to care for children who irritate us or infuriate us, how to shield others from our damaging moods, how to see clearly how a child sees us, how to hold in our head a complex story of a child.

And if we are careful and attentive we can learn a great deal about how to care and love from children themselves. In my research I talked to a teacher who said she learned about respect and fairness by watching how effectively a 10 year old student navigated conflict in the classroom and I heard from a father who said he learned empathy by watching his 12 year old son. My students have taught me to see the blindnesses of privilege and many hidden forms of racism, sexism and homophobia as well as how to appreciate very different religious and political views than my own.   I have learned from my students how to praise and criticize, how to talk in ways that allow others to really listen and how to listen in ways that allow others to truly speak.

One reason I love my students is that they don’t tend to measure their worth by status or wealth or all the other nutty ways people measure their value in this country. You measure your value by your value to others.  You go to sleep at night asking yourself whether you actually helped a child, or developed a technology or reformed a policy that enhanced learning in another country, or helped to stop an injustice.

And I have such great hope that your lives will become more gratifying as you age because I know that status and wealth are often false idols and the capacity to measure your life in terms of your value to others is in itself a profound gift.  Because of this gift you don’t need to buy into the story that idealism evaporates over time. You can experience many forms of idealism throughout your life that are deep and earned and even at times spiritual, idealism that is also in its quiet way dazzling.

Finally, let me mention one other kind of joy and meaning we wrongly associate only with the young.   We think of youth as a time of wild, exhilarating freedom. But the reality is that there is a far more important kind of freedom that we can exercise at any time in our lives.   The writer David Foster Wallace talks about this kind of freedom.   We all have “the freedom,” he says, “ to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”  But the kind of freedom that “is most precious ” Wallace adds, “you will not hear much talk about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

So let me say again, thank you for this wonderful honor.  And please know that when you feel isolated or defeated, when you see only darkness and hear only deafening silence about things that outrage you, that you are not alone.  That many members of this community have now locked arms with you.  Keep fighting the fight.  Stay in the fray. Take care of yourselves. Make sure to mediate or go to the gym.  Make sure at times to honor your inner couch potato, your inner slacker.

And please keep seizing the freedom that David Foster Wallace describes, the freedom to care and focus and sacrifice and deeply attend.  That kind of freedom is the basis of an ethical life.  That kind of freedom is at the core of love in every meaningful sense of this word.  And that kind of freedom is the best way I know to spend your one breathtaking time on this earth.  

Thank you very much.