I am delighted to offer my sincere congratulations to the members of the Loyola University Maryland Class of 2011. It has been a pleasure for me to witness the hard work and commitment you have demonstrated as students at Loyola, and I look forward to learning about the personal and professional achievements I know you will attain in the years to come. I am proud, as I know your families are, to celebrate with you today.
While we celebrate in equal measure the accomplishments of both the undergraduate and graduate students, I must take a moment to express particular congratulations and thanks to the undergraduates marking their commencement. You have endured grief and loss with the deaths of Stephanie Parente and Evan Girardi, but you have remained united, perhaps grown stronger still, as a community. Your support for your senior class gift is a moving testament to both the lasting impact Stephanie and Evan have had on your lives, and your commitment to Loyola.
Thanks also to Dr. Ben Carson for being with us today and for his thoughtful and inspiring remarks. It would have been difficult for Loyola to identify a more highly decorated individual to address our community today. Dr. Carson’s achievements in the field of medicine are nothing short of extraordinary, matched only by his commitment to making it possible for young people across the country to develop their own talents and pursue their own dreams through education Dr. Carson is a model of the Jesuit ideal of eloquentia perfecta in that his rhetorical skills both edify and exhort us to ever greater excellence. It is with great pride that I welcome him to the ranks of the Loyola University Maryland alumni. Dr. Carson’s presence in our ranks honors our university and every member of the Class of 2011.
I also extend my congratulations and thanks to Ed Burchell, Bill Baird, the Haig Family, Fr. Brian McDermott and the Loyola Jesuit Community, and Fr. John Swope and his colleagues at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, all of whom have demonstrated remarkable support for our University and the ideals we strive to uphold.
I must admit, and I think Dr. Carson would agree with me on this, that delivering a Commencement Address is a daunting prospect. What parting words of wisdom could I possibly offer that would provide a fitting summation to your years of study or some wisdom to guide you along the journey you’ll take from here?
This year, I have decided to go back to the very beginning of your association with Loyola University Maryland—then Loyola College in Maryland. By this I mean the admission process and most particularly the message that I imparted to you, to your parents, and those who are like parents to you.
Now I will ask my friends in Events Services, who supply all the magic at Loyola, to “hit it.”
So I have suggested that a degree from Loyola University Maryland prepares you to lead a happy and meaningful life. I make that claim in all good faith while acknowledging that happiness and a commitment to meaning—or a perspective on the human good—that leads to a fulfilling life is vexingly elusive. My experience as a human being, a priest and an educator suggests that it is far easier to achieve an “ok” or even an unhappy life than a happy and meaningful one.
It is fair to say then that whatever else your parents, your faculty and student development educators, and I hope for you we desperately want you to be happy. How, then, are we to understand this elusive notion of happiness? We can be sure that it is not simply euphoria, there are many persons who have lots of good times who are also profoundly unhappy. And while the legendary entertainer and Jesuit alumna, Pearl Bailey, had an important insight when she stated that “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, rich is better,” we also know that financial success alone is no guarantee for the genuine happiness that is marked by spiritual integrity and the depth of relationship to persons and communities.
For my part, I have come to understand that authentic happiness can be understood to be synonymous with what Christians refer to as salvation. I trust that you are suitably shocked that I would find a religious angle here!
Joseph Fitzmyer, the great Jesuit scholar of the New Testament, defines salvation, in his magisterial study of the Gospel of Luke, as “the deliverance of human beings from evil, physical, moral, political, or cataclysmic. It connotes a victory, a rescue of them from a state of negation and a restoration to wholeness or integrity. As applied to the Christ-event, the wholeness to which human beings are restored is a sound relation to God himself.” (Fitzmyer, 222)
Notice that Fitzmyer does not suggest that salvation/happiness is essentially an other worldly reality. Rather it is a condition available to all persons in this life and it is characterized by wholeness—that is by avoiding or overcoming the fractured nature of much of the human condition. Mind*Body*Spirit. Educating the Whole Person. Does it sound familiar? All of us, I believe, hope to be fully realized persons, whole and integrated but how do we achieve it? Especially since the Christian tradition in line with human experience itself suggests that this goal is so very elusive for many, many persons.
I found some insight when I learned about a remarkable longitudinal study that’s been under way at Harvard University since the late 1930s. Joshua Wolf Shenk gleaned important insights from this study for his article, “What Makes Us Happy,” in the June 2009 edition of The Atlantic. By following the same group of Harvard undergraduates—individuals who presumably had better-than-average odds of having a “good” life—for an indefinite period of time, the study, called the Harvard Study of Adult Development aimed to uncover the secrets of “success.” Many of the original subjects have since passed away; the others are in their late 80s and early 90s, and still provide updates to the researchers charged with continuing the work.
Articles on the study and the individual men who participated (President John F. Kennedy was one) make for fascinating reading, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll let you in on a key finding—there is no simple formula. Plenty of subjects who attained extraordinary levels of what most of us would define as success reported no more—and in many cases, far less—satisfaction with their lives than those whose achievements were far less illustrious.
That is because, I believe, the true, authentic definition of success isn’t a particular title, an extra comma on your paycheck, the admiration (or fear) of others, or a flashy car.
The keys to happiness take different forms for each of us, because each of us has different ways of finding meaning, a different combination of values and priorities that guide us. And it is in these areas where you will find your happiness.
Beyond some mundane but nonetheless significant insights like that persons who do not abuse alcohol, maintain a healthy weight, and exercise regularly report higher life satisfaction, those who have analyzed the Harvard study report that it is spiritual connectedness and deep, stable and enduring human relationships that is most conducive to human flourishing and happiness. Notice that faith and love require self-transcendence; that is they require us to go beyond ourselves and to risk the attempt to connect with the other or the more at a profound level. It is to risk engagement with something greater than ourselves. And I very consciously use the word “risk” in this context because it is the case that the attitudes and commitments that support love and faith do make us vulnerable and can serve to expose our own weakness or neediness. The saddest but probably truest sentence in Shenk’s article is when quotes the psychiatrist George Vaillant who spent his entire career working on the Harvard study as saying, “It is very hard for most of us to tolerate being loved.” To tolerate being loved!!
Let me tie these concerns about the interrelationships between and among faith, love, and happiness by returning to Father Fitzmyer’s discussion of salvation in the Gospel of Saint Luke. Recall that it is his understanding that the human experience of salvation is exactly one of being rescued from the human alienation and fragmentation that undermines the possibility of authentic love—that which we desire more than anything else and that which we also find so difficult to tolerate. And now please note that Saint Luke insists and the Harvard study suggests that the experience of being rescued from human limitation and brokenness requires a Rescuer. For Saint Luke this life-changing rescue is always a gift and it comes only through God. While I certainly do not want to suggest that only persons of faith can be happy and lead meaningful or productive lives, I do want to suggest—as do the insights from positive psychology—that those persons who do acknowledge a dependence on a higher power do tend to have a better and easier chance of experiencing the life satisfaction that we understand as happiness.
So my point in this your final lecture at Loyola: please continue to give faith and religious commitment that nourishes it a central place in your lives. Or to paraphrase John Lennon in a way he probably wouldn’t appreciate (listen to “Imagine” carefully): all I am saying is give faith a chance. Loyola University Maryland’s existence is predicated on the understanding that faith and reason are not simply compatible but complementary and that our students’ (YOUR) ability to grasp that insight will more readily make you a leader in positive change.
I hope and pray that your education at Loyola has offered you a sophisticated and intelligent understanding of the possibility of faith that will act as an antidote to the caractures of faith and the divine offered by the prophets of the New Atheism that is so readily accepted in the media. Remember that faith is NOT certitude. It is, as Paul Tillich, the great Protestant theologian, suggested, “the courage to accept acceptance.” And God is not some cosmic stage manager but rather is encountered when we acknowledge the truth that the mystery that envelopes our lives is ultimately gracious and so the ground for hope and for love.
I hope, in your time here as students, you have had a chance to further discern what is truly important to you, and to consider how to find ways to serve those principles throughout the rest of your life.
I hope that you have made a commitment and connection to something larger than yourself, something that from your perspective, serves the betterment of the world.
Do that, I believe, and no matter what particular form it takes, you will be happy.
And in that happiness, you will find success.
If there is one thing I know with great certainty about all of you, it’s that you are uniquely well-prepared for that journey. You have known hard work. You welcome tough questions. You embody intellectual curiosity. You care about the world around you. You have survived obstacles, disappointment, and loss and emerged stronger.
You are ready to celebrate today’s achievement and the end of this phase of your life and move on to embrace all that life has in store for you.
Your dedication, talents, and remarkable personal gifts have made Loyola University Maryland very proud, and we are committed to remaining a University you can be proud of as well.
I usually end my commencement remarks with three words, God bless you! This afternoon I will use two words: Be Happy! It is the same thing.