The Last Lecture: The Virtue of Uncertainty




The Last Lecture: The Virtue of Uncertainty by Susan Celia Greenfield

May 25th, 2014 reset - +

ON SEVERAL COLLEGE CAMPUSES students annually elect a faculty member to give what is eerily known as a “last lecture.” The genre, as the late Randy Pausch puts it in his book with the same title, encourages professors “to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them […] What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?” When Pausch gave his last lecture at Carnegie Mellon in 2008, he was dying of pancreatic cancer and the 400 audience members knew it. This poignant timing was, however, merely coincidental. You don’t have to be fatally ill to give a last lecture.

Nevertheless, when I learned that the 30 or so graduating honors students at Fordham University had elected me to give their 2014 Last Lecture my reaction was mixed. I love the students, and, as someone who never had a prayer of becoming a high school prom queen, I was pleased by my sudden middle-age popularity. But I didn’t relish the idea of imagining my doom, nor was I happy to know that the students were happily anticipating it. Still, I immediately said “yes” to the invitation and then spent months trying to avoid depression and figure out what on earth to say to them. I finally came up with the following response.

            — Susan Celia Greenfield 

¤

So, it is a beautiful Tuesday in March. We at Fordham University in the Bronx have had a brutal winter. Lots of snow and cold weather and missed school days. But today, as the weather maps predicted, it is positively spring. The birds are chirping. The breeze is warm. There is a young woman ahead of me wearing only sweat pants and a bright green tank top.

I enter the Fordham gates and the tall, welcoming security guard in sunglasses who is always so nice says to me, “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

And I say, “It will get worse.”

I am certain of this because I’ve been paying attention to the weather, which predicts rain for Wednesday and snow flurries for Thursday. I am certain of this because the weather has become insanely erratic. I am certain that this is because of climate change. I am sure that a beautiful day in early March is an aberration. Things will get worse.

In retrospect, I see my response as a defense mechanism against fear. I am afraid of climate change so I adopt the certainty of doom. That way I feel in control. I don’t have to be afraid of the weather tomorrow — or of any day for that matter — because I already know things “will get worse.” Pessimism is a kind of certainty. As such, it ironically, becomes a form of comfort.

The security guard says: “Now why do you have to go do that? You see you just brought all this negativity to the world. Why can’t you just enjoy the day?” 

And I realize that I had done the very thing I was planning to tell you all not to do when I delivered this last lecture. I had assumed a position of absolute certainty — in this case absolute certainty about the weather, and more broadly, about the future. And I had been planning to deliver a last lecture on the virtue of uncertainty. I wanted to celebrate uncertainty. I wanted to tell those of you who are graduating that it is good to reach a time when you are forced to pay attention to what is always true but often repressed about human life: we cannot be sure of what we perceive and we do not know what will happen next.

For let’s face it, those of you who are graduating from Fordham University are facing uncertainty, even if you have very definite plans for next year. You are leaving a familiar college, with well-known friends and routines, and are about to undertake what many see as the final rite of passage to adulthood. I remember graduating college very well. I “knew” what I was doing next. I was working for a year before starting graduate school in English literature. But my world felt bigger and more nebulous and that made me uncomfortable.

Now I realize that this uncertainty was not simply a sign of my own stage of development. It was, and is, a central truth of the human condition. Of the many uncertainties in life, the inevitability of uncertainty is not one of them. But human beings — at least in the Western world — have a history of denying or obscuring this essential awareness. As John Dewey puts it in his 1929 book The Quest for Certainty: “Man who lives in a world of hazards is compelled to seek for security.” Dewey suggests that this is why people have developed religious beliefs and tried to control nature. In a recent book the historian Teofilo Ruiz reiterates the role of religion in helping us manage our “anxieties about the world in which we live.” Other coping mechanisms include “acquiring material goods and accumulating wealth” or building one’s life “around the pursuit of knowledge, art, and beauty.” In short, people try, in one way or another to make meaning and order of what might otherwise seem an existential experience.

For all our efforts to deny it, uncertainty is so obvious that clichés about it abound. “Who knows what tomorrow will bring,” people say. “This too shall pass,” they tell you. When I was little, my beautiful and often anxious grandmother used to sing me this song. “Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be; the future’s not ours to see. Que sera, sera.” My grandmother had as much trouble living by the words then as do I today. Yet the melody often runs through my mind like an involuntary mantra. In the 18th century, David Hume made the same point in a more esoteric way. We assume as fact that the sun will rise every morning. But, Hume writes, “[t]he contrary of every matter of fact is still possible” and, “That the sun will not rise to-morrow is no less intelligent a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.” “In this world,” Benjamin Franklin said, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” 

In case you are worried, I have no intention of arguing that religion or the pursuit of knowledge, art, and beauty are simply illusory. I have, after all, spent more than half my life teaching the art of literature at a Jesuit university (though I am not Catholic — but that’s a subject for another last lecture). Nor am I implying that there is no God. I personally try to pray every day.

As for the title of this talk, “The Virtue of Uncertainty,” I’m not saying that uncertainty — like patience or humility — is itself a virtue. I am saying that uncertainty is the very stuff of life. And I hope, by this lecture’s end, to suggest how accepting uncertainty can be a virtue, at least in certain circumstances.

Perhaps this seems counterintuitive. Just last weekend, when I told the title of my talk to my daughter’s friend Isaac who is getting a doctorate in economics, he was appalled. “Uncertainty sucks,” he said. “Economists hate uncertainty.”

But English literature often tells a different story, if only by way of contrast. In literature, characters that have certainty are often problematic and sometimes horrifying. Let’s begin with God in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a character who, as one of the honors sophomores put it last Fall, is “a total _____.” You fill in the blank.

Milton’s God is also absolutely certain about the future. Looking down as Satan prepares “To stoop with wearied wings, and willing feet / On the bare outside of this world,” God predicts Man’s fall to the devil’s planned temptation. This happens in Book 3 of Paradise Lost. But the fall itself is not described until Book 9. Of course, we know from Genesis that the fall is inevitable but the poem’s chronology creates problems the Bible does not share. For one thing, God seems both furious and defensive in advance. “Whose fault” is the fall, he asks. “Whose but [Man’s] own? Ingrate, he had of me / All he could have.” God sounds like an infantile parent having a temper tantrum. If any of your parents have ever been reduced to calling you an “ingrate” you probably know what I mean. What’s more, if God knows human beings will Fall, then why doesn’t he stop it? And if he does nothing to stop it, how can he claim no fault?

Actually, there is logic to God’s argument. He made people “[s]ufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” That is, he gave people free will and made them capable of resisting Satan, and that was all they required. Had God done otherwise — had He, for instance, made people incapable of falling — they would not be free. But still God is not nice about it. Plus, the whole debacle is designed to advance his glory through the second coming. To put it as generously as possible, Milton’s God acts like a selfish egotist.

Meanwhile, Adam and Eve’s fate is sealed from their birth but they do not know this. And when they are evicted from Eden at the poem’s end, they know nothing about their immediate future. Nevertheless, the poem’s final lines suggest that there is something poignant and beautiful about this uncertainty, something far more appealing than Godly foreknowledge. Earlier, Adam and Eve’s only choice was to eat or not to eat from the tree of knowledge; now “The world was all before them, where to choose.” Having lost Paradise but gained the world, “They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow / Through Eden took their solitary way.” As with all human beings, each character’s path to death is solitary. But precisely because they don’t know when that will occur and they don’t know where they are going, Adam and Eve decide to care for and depend on each other as they go forth. On the poem, their acceptance of uncertainty creates the foundation of true human love. This is one of the virtues of uncertainty, not just for Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost but for all of us: because life is precarious our need to embrace and help each other is especially urgent and rewarding.

About a half century after Paradise Lost, the hero of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe swings from certainty to uncertainty about his control over the Caribbean island on which he is stranded. When sure of his power, Crusoe is the consummate imperialist and he says things such as: “I was king and lord of all this county indefensibly, and had a right of possession [...] as completely as any lord of a manor in England.” Ultimately, Crusoe enslaves a native from Trinidad, justifying it on the grounds that this is what both God and the native himself desire — as if anyone would actually desire enslavement. Crusoe renames the native Friday, and when cannibals again arrive on his island, he orders Friday to murder them “in the name of God.” By the massacre’s end, 21 men are dead, most killed by Friday. In Robinson Crusoe, certainty in general, and certainty about God’s desire in particular, become the justification for colonialism, slavery, and mass murder.

To be sure, Cruose has the right to protect himself from being cannibalized. But justifying Crusoe’s massacre of the cannibals is not so simple. First, at no point is Crusoe himself ever in danger of being eaten. Second, before the massacre, Crusoe fantasizes about it with all the blood lust of a homicidal maniac. Even he eventually recognizes that his obsession is deranged. I could not, he says, possibly enumerate “all the contrivances I hatch’d [...] for destroying these creatures [...] and I was so full of it, that I often dream’d of it.”

Crusoe’s saving grace occurs when, in a fit of uncertainty, he has an astonishing moment of moral clarity and self-reckoning. “‘How do I know,’” he asks, “‘what God Himself judges in this particular case?’” What authority or call have I “‘to pretend to be judge and executioner upon these men as criminals, whom Heaven ha[s] thought fit for so many ages to suffer unpunish’d [?]’” Realizing that to kill the cannibals “would have been no less a sin than that of wilful murder,” Crusoe gets down on his knees and gives “most humble thanks [...] to God, that He had thus delivered me from blood-guiltiness.” When he is uncertain, Crusoe has the humility and self-awareness to recognize his ignorance about God’s intention. When he is uncertain, Crusoe thanks God for turning him away from murder. Later, when Crusoe is again certain, 21 men are dead.

No murders take place in the genteel world of Jane Austen’s novels, and there is little direct reference to God. Jane Austen was a faithful Christian, but by the late 18th century when she began writing, the novel had become a more secular genre — at least on the surface. Perhaps because she evades direct questions about religious belief, Austen, unlike Defoe, is able to be openly skeptical of human claims to certainty. This is beautifully epitomized in the famous opening of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” One need barely pause to recognize the dubiousness of this declaration. A rich, single man may at some point choose to marry, but he probably plans to fool around a lot first (and probably after he is married as well). There is no reason to assume he feels he must get hooked. Actually, as the subsequent sentences make clear, only the parents of fortuneless single daughters universally acknowledge this truth. What they mistake for certainty, is really deluded belief and wishful thinking.

The smart heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, is usually smart enough to be skeptical about claims like this. Yet she immediately accepts unfavorable truth claims about Mr. Darcy. After overhearing him insult her beauty, she confirms the neighborhood’s assessment of him as “the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world.” Later, when Darcy shocks her by proposing, Elizabeth says,

‘[…] from the first moment, I may almost say, of [our] acquaintance [...] your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation [...] and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.’

In short, from almost the moment they met, she was certain of Darcy’s unworthiness and of her hatred of him.

She is wrong, of course. But Elizabeth cannot change until she sees that some of her “fullest” and most dearly-held “beliefs” are untrue. The process begins when Elizabeth realizes that she fell prey to slanderous lies about Darcy because she never forgave him for his original insult. She was driven by a wounded ego. “‘I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away,’” she declares. “‘Till this moment, I never knew myself.’”

A few months later, Elizabeth agrees to visit Darcy’s estate at Pemberley when she is assured he won’t be there. Having been humbled by her past mistakes, Elizabeth arrives knowing enough of her own “ignorance” to be free for new perceptions. These are provided by Darcy’s housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, who swears she knows the absolute “truth” about Darcy. Mrs. Reynolds says “‘he was always the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted boy in the world,’” and that he is now “‘the best landlord, and the best master [...] that ever lived.’” Her words are as hyperbolically positive as the original lies about Darcy were negative. Later Darcy himself will contradict them, telling Elizabeth, “‘I was spoiled by my parents’” and taught “‘to be selfish and overbearing [...] Such I was, from eight to eight-and-twenty.’”

But at Pemberley, Elizabeth internalizes every hyperbolic word the housekeeper says. Soon after listening to her, Elizabeth sees a large portrait of Darcy in the gallery. Austen writes, “There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth’s mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original than she had ever felt in the height of their acquaintance.” Replacing the actual, “original” Darcy with her own idea of him, Elizabeth Bennet re-conceptualizes the man. She thinks of Darcy’s “regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before,” and, as if she were the painter of the portrait, “soften[s] its impropriety of expression.” In her newly informed role as observer, Elizabeth Bennet creates the object she observes. It is, I think, at this moment, that Elizabeth Bennet falls in love.

Elizabeth Bennet’s experience before Darcy’s portrait reminds me of the observation effect in quantum mechanics. Okay, I know this is a huge leap. And I realize I’m not a physicist. But bear with me because I think the association between Pride and Prejudice and quantum mechanics is a helpful one. In quantum mechanics, the observation effect states that you can never precisely determine the position of an electron or subatomic particle. That is because the photon used to locate and measure the particle actually changes the particle’s position. To put it another way, the instrument of observation changes the state of the object perceived. So here is the link to Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth is like the instrument of observation in quantum mechanics. She observes the object, in this case the portrait of Mr. Darcy that stands in for the real man. And in the act of observation, Elizabeth changes the object. She regards Darcy’s image “with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before,” and she “soften[s] its impropriety of expression.” Having changed the object, Elizabeth, the observer, now falls in love with it.

The little I know about quantum mechanics was inspired by the play Copenhagen, written by Michael Frayn, which I had the good fortune to see on Broadway many years ago. The play focuses on Niels Bohr, a Dane, and Werner Heisenberg, a German. Though both men inaugurated quantum mechanics, Heisenberg alone made the field’s most famous discovery; in 1927, he founded the uncertainty principle. The play takes place many years later, when Heisenberg made a mysterious visit to Bohr in Cophenhagen in 1941. Something Heisenberg said at their meeting infuriated Bohr and ended their already strained friendship. At this point the men represented warring countries. Heisenberg disapproved of Nazism but was nevertheless a member of Germany’s nuclear program. Bohr was a Jew in occupied Denmark. Frayn’s play addresses the great uncertainty about whether or not Heisenberg visited Copenhagen to pick Bohr’s brain about fission so that he, Heisenberg, could go back to Germany to build the atom bomb. You can imagine why this would infuriate Bohr — a few years later, he himself would barely escape the concentration camps. Yet, some say Heisenberg deliberately sabotaged Germany’s nuclear program to keep the bomb out of Hitler’s hands. And to this day, nobody knows what really happened.

The phenomenally popular television series Breaking Bad captures the more sinister implications of Heisenberg’s history by giving Walter White — the chemistry teacher turned murderous Meth dealer — the pseudonym Heisenberg. I was too terrified to watch the series. (Spoiler Alert) But, thanks to my kids Anna and Lenny, I know about the moment when Walter’s brother in law, Hank, who works for the Drug Enforcement Agency, finally realizes that Walter is the lethal criminal he has been seeking for years. Take a look at the scene on YouTube.

The representation invokes the uncertainty principle in Hank’s uncertainty about Walter. It also suggests that Walter’s uncertain behavior as Heisenberg resembles Werner Heisenberg’s uncertain behavior in the German nuclear program. Like Hank who does not know his brother-in-law, we do not know exactly who Werner Heisenberg was; we do know the deadly possibilities.

But the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, developed before the famous Copenhagen meeting, has nothing to do with the atomic bomb. Here is the layperson’s version of the principle as described by the author David Lindley: “You can measure the speed of a subatomic particle, or you can measure its position, but you can’t measure both. Or; the more precisely you find out the position, the less well you can know its speed. Or, more indirectly and less obviously: the act of observing changes the thing observed.” When I saw the play Copenhagen, I was positively riveted by the scene in which the uncertainty principle is dramatized. Here is the movie version of that scene: 

All of quantum mechanics concerns the atom, the fundamental stuff of matter, with its neutrons, protons, and electrons. At the heart of the matter, my physicist friend Tim Halpin-Healy told me, “quantum mechanics says that there are things regarding material particles that remain forever beyond our measuring instruments; ultimately, this is because an overtly material (one might say “point-like”) object such as an electron can possess both particle-like and wave-like properties, depending upon the experiment performed.” The mathematician and statistician William Byers puts it this way: “We want to say, ‘What is it really? Is it a particle or is it a wave?’” But the “solution is simple — the electron is characterized by the total, ambiguous situation.” 

Actually, you don’t need quantum mechanics to prove that science is, by nature, an uncertain enterprise. Still, many non-scientists expect guarantees. There is, Byers explains, a “popular belief in scientific certainty” based on the premise that “objective certainty exists” and that science can determine it. Yet this belief is “illusory and that the human need for certainty has often been abused with noxious consequences.” I will get to these noxious consequences in a moment. But first, let me quote the late Lynton Caldwell, dubbed “the grandfather of biopolitics,” who describes scientific uncertainty this way: science is the process of “separating the demonstrably false from the probably true.”

Countless scientific conclusions point to the “probably true.” In our time, the most important such conclusion concerns climate change. It is probably true that we are in the midst of global warming and that the effects may be catastrophic. On March 18, the world’s largest scientific society issued a report that declares: “The evidence is overwhelming [...] [A]bout 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.” The report does not — because it cannot — claim absolute certainty. As The New York Times puts it, the report describes “a series of potential consequences of planetary warming.” These are “possibilities, not certainties, and the distinction is crucial for an intelligent public debate about what to do.” But what is “extremely clear,” the report’s lead scientist explains, “‘is that there’s [...] a very significant risk [...] You don’t need 100 percent certainty to act.’”

The point should be self-evident. Why even say, “we don’t need 100 percent certainty to act” to limit climate change? Because the fossil fuels industry and its advocates have long invoked scientific uncertainty to discredit reports of climate change. This is a common strategy on the part of health-endangering industries like Big Tabacco. The same is true for certain politicians. For instance, a 2003 memo to the Bush administration, written by the political strategist Frank Luntz, and later leaked to the press, suggests the following: “Voters believe there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community [...] Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the detabe. . . . The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.”

When it comes to climate change it is a virtue to know that science is uncertain. For, those who require certainty to acknowledge the crisis are not just asking for the impossible from science. They are asking for the impossible from life on earth, and in so doing, potentially jeopardizing it for all of us.

Guess what? I’ve returned to the very subject with which this lecture began. You thought I was careening about like some maniacally immeasurable electron. But here I am, back in orbit, talking about climate change. It was climate change that triggered my need to tell the security guard the weather would “get worse” when he said, “It’s a beautiful day isn’t it?” It was climate change that made me want to control the future by feeling certain of its bleakness. 

But surely simple pessimism is not the best way to respond to climate change. Something must be done. Now here I could trot out all the things experts recommend to help the planet. I could enumerate the number of environmental organizations I support and detail my personal efforts to avoid driving and to limit air conditioner use. But you don’t need me to tell you this and I don’t feel like it. Frankly, it just about killed me to figure out the basic details of the uncertainty principle.

So instead, I’m going to end by telling tell you what I personally do to manage the inevitable uncertainties of life, big and small, whether that is the uncertainty of climate change or where my son will go to college, the uncertainty of the global economy or if you will like this lecture.

I meditate. Not religiously. But regularly. And meditation, more than anything else, has taught me the virtue of uncertainty. To be clear, I am not recommending meditation as a substitute for political or social action about things like climate change. I am recommending meditation as way to face the uncertainty and terror of our times and to sustain ourselves for action.

In the course of developing my meditation practice I have turned to books and tapes by American practitioners who have adapted Buddhist teachings for a Western audience. The little I know about Buddhism and meditation comes from these “teachers.” My current favorite is a woman named Pema Chödrön. Formerly known as Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, she was born in 1936, raised in New Jersey, and trained as an elementary school teacher; she had two children, two divorces, and is now a Buddhist nun. My dear friend Allyson Booth, who teaches English at the Naval Academy, turned me on to Pema Chödrön and she faithfully supplies me with updated CDs. 

For Buddha, Pema Chödrön explains, it is not impermanence or

[…] even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering […] Rather it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation […] When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment […]

I like to think of it as being caught in a riptide. If you resist and try to out swim the riptide, you increase your suffering and chance of drowning. But if you flow with the current, you can reach safer waters. A fundamental goal of meditation, Pema Chödrön says, is to develop “a genuine, passionate relationship with the fundamental uncertainty, the groundlessness of being human.”

This is a tall order! And I have come nowhere near achieving it. But I have benefited enormously from even the smallest efforts to integrate that wisdom. The most basic technique of meditation is to focus all your attention on your breath. Your thoughts will clamor to be heard. The bills you have to pay, your recent argument with your neighbor, your itching ear — all will interfere. Meditation instructs you to recognize each thought, each irritation, acknowledge it, and return your attention to your breath. When I first started to meditate I could sit for maybe three minutes before I wanted to scream. Over the years, I’ve been able to sit for maybe 10 or 20 minutes a day. If in that time I manage to focus — really focus — on my breath for one or two minutes it is a miracle.

After many years of this thrilling and boring and exasperating exercise, one day I had an incredible revelation. I realized that my breath is always changing. I realized that not only are the separate experiences of inhalation and exhalation profoundly different, but each step of inhalation — beginning with the expansion of my stomach and the slow pressure of rising air — is different. The same is true for exhalation. For those of you who have never tried this exercise, I strongly recommend it. Give your undivided attention to one full breath. I think you’ll be amazed. It is cliché to compare anything to lapping waves but it is the best analogy I know in this context. Lapping waves often look the same, and yet they are constantly changing. So too with the breath. 

The realization that my breath is in flux helped me more than I can say. I came to see myself, at the most basic level I know, as living in a steady state of change. I came to see constant change as the organic foundation of my experience. In so many ways the uncertainty of change is what makes me afraid. But the change of my breath is what keeps me alive. I breathe. Therefore I am.

Meditation has not erased my fear of uncertainty — and it certainly has not erased my fear of climate change. But it offers a tool for fear that extends the foundational focus on the breath. When you are afraid, the teachers advise, focus on the feeling of fear, just as you might, in a more basic context, focus on the in and out experience of the breath. As I suggested at this lecture’s opening, our habit when we are afraid and uncertain is to repress the feeling or try to resolve it by exerting some kind of control. Meditation teachers say you should turn towards, not away from, the feeling. Get to know it intimately.

So here is an intimate description of my fear. It feels like a nauseous lump in my throat, a hot tightness in my chest. The rest of my body disappears, seems to vanish into shaking emptiness. For me, this is a sense of groundlessness. But sometimes when I focus on the physical manifestation of that fear — the nauseous lump in my throat or the hot tightness in my chest — the feeling appears to recede. It’s like a whining child tugging on your leg. You can keep ignoring the child and keep suffering from the whining. Or, you can look down, listen, and maybe pick him or her up.

Ultimately, though, the goal of meditation is not to forever dispose of fear — or any other painful feeling. That is impossible. Rather, in the case of fear, for instance, the goal is to open to the feeling, develop a sense of compassion for yourself and extend this compassion to everyone else who is afraid. Ironically, focusing on the physical reality of your own negative feeling — indulging it even — becomes a positive way to transcend selfishness. I know this sound schmaltzy and I wish I could better clarify the teaching, but I am a novice. The best I can do — as has often been the case in this talk — is offer a quotation, this one again from Pema Chödrön: it is “only when the fearful ‘I’ is not pushing and pulling at life, freaking out and grasping at it, that full engagement [with the world] is possible.” From this perspective, facing fear and uncertainty become the mechanism for social action and change. I am terrified of climate change. Let me feel that terror and face it and listen to learn how I personally can do my share to address the problem.

When you open yourself to the continually changing, impermanent, dynamic nature of your own being and of reality, you increase your capacity to love and care about other people and your capacity to not be afraid [...] And you begin to think of your life as offering endless opportunities to start to do things differently.

So what do I want to say to all of you, but especially to you graduating Fordham seniors who are in the midst of an uncertainty people normally try to deny? I want to say that you are in the privileged position of touching the very stuff of life. And if you turn towards and not away from that uncertainty, and if you are open to the world as it is with all its wonders and all its horrors, you may well discover your greatest virtue and know how best to help our suffering planet. Your contribution will invariably be small. Pema Chödrön’s teacher, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, “if you can hold the pain of the world in your heart, but never forget the vastness of the great eastern sun, then you can make a perfect cup of tea.” Only by accepting the vastness of hardship and the vastness of glory can we, as individuals, do our own small share in making tea.

As for me personally, I love drinking tea. It helps to keep me present. And I keep trying — sometimes with more, sometimes with less success — to focus on the here and now. I keep trying, like Buddha said, to be awake. And on the rare and wonderful occasions when I am truly present in my daily life, I know that nothing else is certain, and I know this is okay. At times like that, when the Fordham security guard or any other person anywhere speaks kindly to me, I can look up and out and around and say, “Yes. Indeed. It is a beautiful day.”

¤

Susan Celia Greenfield, Professor of English at Fordham University, is the author of Mothering Daughters: Novels and the Politics of Family Romance, Frances Burney to Jane Austen.

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