Hope in Troubled Times

Delivered at the Class of 2020 in-person Commencement on Sept. 18, 2021.

Class of 2020.

How wonderful it is to see you gathered here today. What a delight to be together in person some 18 months after the spring break of your senior year when, like a thief in the night, COVID-19 descended upon us and disrupted the concluding months of your senior year. The pandemic even snuffed out graduation weekend, the culmination experience of your time at Wake Forest.

I am grateful for the resilience and tremendous goodwill that you have demonstrated — in completing your course work at Wake Forest online, in working remotely to support your friends, in staying in touch with faculty members, in demonstrating in so many ways a genuine spirit of Pro Humanitate.

I am heartened that you moved out into the world with verve and confidence in the most precarious of times. You chose to go to medical school in the face of the pandemic. You took up the challenge of law school despite a fraught and contentious political environment. You took up the challenge of teaching in a time when many couldn’t even meet your students in person. And many of you had to begin your professional career out of home offices, foregoing the camaraderie that the workplace normally provides.

We are living in strange times, troubled and confusing times. I typically like to glance through newspapers first thing in the morning: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post. But of late, this reading, with my first cup of Starbucks Sumatra coffee, has become more a chore than a delight. Our national politics lurches from one extreme to another — with little getting accomplished for the common good. Last January, we did not stop an insurrectionist mob from storming the Capitol. We have not conquered a disease for which there are safe and effective vaccines. We just ended the war in Afghanistan, the longest in US history, with more questions than answers and a sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs.

Racial tensions continue to fester. And confidence in most of our core institutions continues to wane: We distrust government, the news media, the scientific establishment, the police or most any institution designed to operate for the common good. And internationally, totalitarian governments are clearly on the rise.

Frankly, as I read the daily headlines, there is not much to brighten one’s countenance. There are not many heroes to cherish. And there are very few evident solutions to some of our most pressing problems: immigration, climate change, racial tension, the alienation of working-class and rural Americans. These clouds seem to offer little reason to be hopeful.

Yet this morning, as you begin your second year as Wake Forest graduates, I encourage each of you to live in hope — despite our dispiriting circumstances.

There is a passage in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” that is so appropriate for today. A fearful Frodo says to the wise Gandalf:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time.”

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

What are we to do with the time given us? My challenge to you is to take heart and to live in hope. Live in hope for three reasons.

First, we should have hope because so often in history, the dawn follows the darkest part of the night. Time and again, even in the worst of circumstances, actions inspired by courage and hope led to dramatic changes for the better: Moses led the slaves of Israel out of Egypt; against the high-handed tactics of the British, young and hopeful idealist took up arms against the high-handed tactics of King George and the British army and in the process created the American republic; abolitionists, women’s suffragists, and civil rights leaders overcame great odds in their struggles to achieve human rights.

Friends, our society and the world have a raft of pressing problems that call for your attention, your creativity, your innovation. The difficulty of the challenge should not deter you. Vaclav Havel, the Czech intellectual, playwright, and statesmen who helped to lead the democratic movement against communism, argued that hope springs not from the likelihood of success but from the rightness of the cause. “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” Doing the right thing is always a rich seedbed of hope.

A second reason for hope is that on a local and personal level we see so many positive and restorative actions. Don’t be mesmerized by the 24-hour news cycle that focuses on national stories — and generally ones about strife, conflict, and disfunction. Look around and see all the great things happening in your local neighborhoods and communities.

One great example is from your own classmate, Isabella Ryan, who in high school became concerned about the plight of juvenile offenders in prison who were far more likely to have PTSD, depression, and commit suicide when they were placed in solitary confinement. She actually introduced a bill to remedy this in the Tennessee legislature when she was in high school, and in June of this year, the legislation was signed into law. Take hope in the signs of shalom, of healing, all around, many of which will never make the 24-hour news cycle.

Finally, we should have hope be because each one of us, every member of the class of 2020, has enormous power and creativity to do good — to renew family relationships, to help build positive work cultures, to volunteer to build and rebuild local communities, to encourage friends facing hard times, to build strong communities of mutual support in churches, synagogues, and mosques and in other organizations, to advance the cause of justice, and to begin to work positively in local and national politics.

Someone has said that hope is patience with the lamp lit. We have hope not because all is well and we can ride a wave of success. Sometimes we maintain hope even with devastating evidence to the contrary. A flickering candle can pierce the darkest night. And you, Class of 2020, have the power to light many candles. Some of those candles will become lamps — and some of those lamps will become transformed into powerful beacons of hope.

As you leave this place, take joy in doing the right thing, even when the future is unknown. Light those small candles, wherever you are, and do so even if no one else takes notice of your good work.”

Thank you.

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