'All You Need Is Love': Dean's Baccalaureate Address

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Friends and families of the graduates looked down on the festivities from the balconies of Woolsey Hall. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The following are the opening remarks and address presented by Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway at the 2016 Baccalaureate ceremonies.

An excerpt from “A Warm Day,” by Louise Glück:

Little by little, days like this
will seem normal. But winter was hard;
the nights coming early, the dawns dark
with a gray, persistent rain—months of that,
and then the snow, like silence coming from the sky,

obliterating the trees and gardens.
Today, all that’s past us
The birds are back, chattering over seeds.
All the snow’s melted; the fruit trees are covered with downy new growth.
A few couples even walk in the meadow, promising whatever they promise.

We stand in the sun and the sun heals us.
It doesn’t rush away. It hangs above us, unmoving,
like an actor pleased with his welcome.

Mr. President, Mr. Provost, Madame Secretary, College Heads, Deans, colleagues, friends, families, and, most of all, women and men of the Class of 2016, welcome to this day.

I know that I speak for those on stage when I say that we are proud of what you, the graduating seniors, have accomplished in your four years. Baccalaureate is one of the major markers of your Yale journey, and it serves as the closing bookend to the late summer of 2012, when you gathered in this same space for your Freshman Assembly. Baccalaureate invites you to pause during what is an exhausting weekend. So, please, take a deep breath, slowly exhale, and invest yourself in this moment.

See more Commencement 2016 stories, photos, videos, and more.

On this occasion, it is customary for the President to deliver a Baccalaureate Address and for the Dean of Yale College to offer a few readings.

I begin with a selection from Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day.” Here, the speaker is meandering in a meadow when she is overcome by a moment not that different from the one we are in right now:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

You may have asked some of these same questions yourselves this year. You may have asked: “my time at Yale is coming to a close; have I done enough?” Or, maybe, “my time at Yale is coming to a close, what do I do next?” These are big questions, perhaps too big to answer today. So let’s reframe them for this moment and narrow their scope: what are you going to do today? What is your plan for this wild and precious day? On this day of endings and beginnings let me suggest an answer to these questions by daring to think about the redemptive power of love.

Soon-to-be-alumni process into Woolsey Hall. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

On June 25, 1967, a satellite orbiting the earth helped usher in the dawn of a new era. That evening, 400 million people in twenty-five countries watched a global, live telecast. The BBC asked the Beatles to write a song as part of the United Kingdom’s contribution to the show. The result was a song by John Lennon, about the tension between human ego and frailty and the one thing that could mediate it.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game.
It’s easy.

All you need is love.

A few years later, on this side of the Atlantic, New Haven was on the verge of being torn apart by riots as political radicals from across the country came to this city to protest the imprisonment of Black Panther Bobby Seale. John Hersey, the novelist and outgoing master of Pierson College, captured this moment in his book, A Letter to Alumni. In this “letter” he recounted the tensions on this campus and throughout the nation. Looking back at Hersey’s observations reminds us of two things: 1) the past and present are often more alike than we want to admit, and 2) daring to love is difficult, and it demands a constant commitment:

What’s the use of a degree to a man who has a bag of gravel for a heart? What’s the use of a life to a man whose inner temperature is zero?

Why, students ask, can’t universities offer more courses that open windows to feeling—more film, more music, more writing, more art, more photography, more doing, more helping?

A more pressing question for our universities, which they had better start at least thinking about…: Why is this country so open to one set of emotions and their expression—rage, hatred, scorn, put-downs, vituperation, vicious criticism, character-killing; and so suspicious of, so hostile to, another—love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness, trust, praise, encouragement?

Somewhere on campus a radio was playing:

Nothing you can make that can’t be made.
No one you can save that can’t be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.
It’s easy.

All you need is love.

A handful of years before the Beatles’ song debuted and a full six years before Hersey lamented the anger and blindness that were leading our country away from love and caring and forgiveness and trust, critic James Baldwin collaborated with photographer Richard Avedon on an essay titled, “Nothing Personal.” Baldwin, who had just published The Fire Next Time, was at the height of his rhetorical powers and used his talents to articulate a fierce love for humanity and the hope that we would fight our way toward redemption:

President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway pose with graduates and their families at the President’s reception following the Baccalaureate ceremony. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith. Pretend, for example, that you were born in Chicago and have never had the remotest desire to visit Hong Kong, which is only a name on a map for you; pretend that some convulsion, sometimes called accident, throws you into connection with a man or a woman who lives in Hong Kong; and that you fall in love. Hong Kong will immediately cease to be a name and become the center of your life. And you may never know how many people live in Hong Kong. But you will know that one man or one woman lives there without whom you cannot live. And this is how our lives are changed, and this is how we are redeemed.

… I have slept on rooftops and in basements and subways, have been cold and hungry all my life; have felt that no fire would ever warm me, and no arms would ever hold me. I have been, as the song says, ‘buked and scorned and I know that I always will be. But, my God, in that darkness, which was the lot of my ancestors and my own state, what a mighty fire burned! In that darkness… a living soul moved and refused to die. We really emptied oceans with a home-made spoon and tore down mountains with our hands. And if love was in Hong Kong, we learned how to swim.

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need

Moving much closer to our present and urgent day, I turn to the wisdom of Bryan Stevenson, attorney and human rights activist. Stevenson’s book Just Mercy is a recollection of his efforts to fight against mass incarceration. The book, for me, is also a meditation on the human need to offer love, especially in those moments when doing so feels impossible:

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others…. I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and—perhaps—we all need some measure of unmerited grace.

Women and men of the Class of 2016, on this wild and precious day, leave this place knowing that you are equipped to ask challenging questions, that you are prepared to listen to difficult answers, and that you have everything you need to do the hard work to navigate the unpredictable terrain between the two. As you do this work, you will spread your light and your truth to a world that is in desperate need of both. We—the librarians, the professors, the custodians, the dining hall staff, the coaches, the lecturers, the groundskeepers, the counselors, the administrators—we have done all that we can for you. The rest, my friends, is up to you.

One last thought: as the horizon overtakes the tops of these ivory towers, just remember that

Love is all you need
Love is all you need
Love is all you need
Love is all you need
Love is all you need.

Thank you, and congratulations!

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