How to Exit a Pandemic
I said it earlier, and I will say it again: what an amazing thing it is that we are all here today!
As someone who loves ritual, festivity, and celebration, I am particularly thrilled we were able to open up this event to so many extended families and friends.
Welcome to Williams!
It has been so wonderful this weekend to recover some of what was lost by welcoming you all in person.
Indeed, we all lost so much this year.
We mourn loved ones who can’t be with us because they were touched by the pandemic.
And we all mourn what felt to many like a lost year of time together, and the fullness of a typical senior year.
This struggle with “lost time” and the ways we respond to it are a profound part of the human experience.
So I am going to take a minute today to acknowledge the role of lost time in your lives and your Williams experience.
That experience has shaped you in ways you’ll spend your entire lifetime understanding.
The Class of 2021 is always going to be just a little bit special within our alumni community. And today is a celebration, after all. So I promise: this speech has a happy ending!
These are topics that have occupied the minds and spirits of people across many cultures.
Within the Western tradition there is famously Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). Proust spends seven volumes exploring the complexities of memory and nostalgia and loss.
There are other important artists from around the world who explore this in their work, from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o to Susan Stryker.
Scientists and theorists, too, have explored the idea of lost time, whether by studying amnesia and the formation of memories or by analyzing the cultural role of memorials.
Well… we’re now exiting a pandemic. How do we want to reckon with lost time?
As a historian I’ve naturally been thinking of precedents.
One is the nineteen-twenties, when young people across many countries reacted to decades of war and revolution with revelry and rebellion and sometimes self-indulgence. Think of the Roaring Twenties, Jazz-Age France or the Weimar era in Germany.
About two decades later, the next generation exited World War II craving exactly the opposite. The Eisenhower era was often characterized as a time of stability and conformity.
The real story in both of these cases was a lot more complicated.
But these are certainly two ways that people of various eras and places have tried to move beyond experiences of hardship and lost time.
So: how will you exit this pandemic—your own moment of lost time?
Are you going to settle down like it’s 1949, or party like it’s 1929?
For you, will this be about fear of missing out? Or fear of the unknown?
There are other ways possible, as well.
Some of you and your peers have been looking inward and recommitting to local community.
Others are seeking environmentally and spiritually sustainable ways of life.
Or seeking out personally meaningful experiences, like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
This, too, is a complicated story. Not everyone has the same goals, or the same means with which to go after them.
But one thing that has struck me, as I speak to graduating seniors navigating this moment, is how many of you are looking to the future with hope and optimism.
This is a striking reality given the challenges of this past year.
The global pandemic, racial reckoning and challenges to our democracy have been sobering for so many of you—and for us.
And yet rather than looking through the frame of lost time or cynicism, so many of you seem prepared to roll up your sleeves and face the challenges ahead with energy, resolve, good will, and even excitement.
Yes, there are immense challenges.
Yes, there are towering injustices and base cruelties in the world.
Yes, you all need to get jobs and figure out your future and quite possibly help your families, too.
But when I look at you what I see is a group of people who are ready and eager to make a difference.
Your enthusiasm and courage give me hope. You remind me that, however atypical and stressful and sometimes just weird this past year and half has been for you, you took that time and made something of it.
Thanks to you, none of the time was lost at all.
With all that being said, I want to offer one parting thought.
When you’re graduating from college, it can sometimes feel like everyone expects something from you.
All the questions from aunts and uncles and acquaintances are about what you’re planning to do next.
And we live in a world that so urgently needs your best efforts.
So, yes: get to it!
But you matter, too: To yourself, and to each other.
When I think about those historical models of making up for lost time, I want you to experience it all: a bit of stability and predictability would be lovely, but also revelry and joy.
And time for yourselves and your community, too.
Coming out of a long year of time lost and then recovered, here on the brink of your life as a Williams alum, I urge you to figure out what brings you joy, and to go after it, even as you roll up your sleeves to also go after the challenges ahead.
And with the help of such things, to slowly emerge from a time of lost time into a very new time of your own making.
That time begins right now.
Congratulations to all of you!