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Stay sharp: Remarks to the Wheaton College Class of 2024

Hello! Congratulations! And thank you so much for this amazing honor, what in the world, this is still not quite real – I have my husband and two kids here just to make sure I don’t think I’m dreaming later – thank you. What a thing. And from a community I know is asking what it means to be open, to be curious, at a time where that can feel risky, scary, and wrong.

Let me tell you a story I heard some years ago that, when I do the work that I do, is never far from my mind.

Some years ago in Washington state, on one side of a field that’s a little like this one, there was a protest over a war. On the other side of that field, there was a counter-protest. Crowds of people moved and chanted on both sides. There was a lot of passion, some anger, and loads of certainty. 

A man sitting at one of the protests looked across at the other and noticed a woman holding a particularly sharply worded sign. The more he looked, the more he wondered. And then, he got up. 

The woman noticed the man walking toward her and braced for whatever confrontation was coming. When the man got there, he just smiled, introduced himself, and started asking questions. Not veiled attacks — she was on the lookout for those — but just honest, perceptive, and somehow completely non-judgmental questions about who she was and what had brought her to that side of the field that day.

As the two talked, they relaxed. And a long while later, something amazing happened. The woman thanked the man, put down her sign, picked up her things, and left. She had just realized that she had no reason to be there. Invited to examine her own opinion by someone who didn’t share it, somehow who saw and wondered about its whole shape, she had learned that she didn’t actually believe what she thought she believed. And she wasn’t upset to know this, or embarrassed — goodness, why? — she was grateful.

In all my travels across this beautiful, confounded country of ours, to Red states and Blue, I have come to believe that having curious conversations with people on the other side of these warping, fun-house-mirror divides isn’t just the only way to see those other people clearly. It’s the only real way to see ourselves clearly, too.

It is so easy when things feel so scary to stay put, stay braced, not question anything — least of all yourself. 

But like-minded conversation, where there’s little to no contrast to reveal anything, dulls us over time. Think of a pencil. Used again and again to write, to speak, to express… no matter how carefully you lean the tip one way against the paper this time, then the other way against the paper that time, it will lose its point — its crisp, knowable, readable edge — unless you give it one thing: friction. 

With friction, a pencil remembers what it’s made of. It’s not comfortable for the pencil. That sharpener, it’s a grind. The pencil puts its skin in the game. It doesn’t always go well. Shove the pencil in too hard, twist it too forcefully, too recklessly, and something breaks. But even when it’s smooth, it’s a mess. All those shavings…

Welcome friction into your life, and pieces of you — or at least, things you had thought were pieces of you — might also fall away as you twist and turn in the rumble of it. But through it, eventually, the pencil finds its point again. And so can each of you.

You and your generation are going to find a braver way through the challenges out there. I’m seeing it, I’m feeling it. You have the hunger in your bones now, in your biographies. When I think of the storms you’ve seen, high school class of 2020. And the isolation! How the distance we keep putting between us — between you! — fails, and fails, and fails.

You’ve seen the shows and showdowns we stage when we project into our disagreements. When we misperceive what they’re even about. You’ve seen us be too afraid of someone different to get close to them and also too afraid of what they’ll reveal if they get close to us. You’ve seen us tell ourselves that our disengagement with the “other side” is our strength. Our protection. That it’s all because we know ourselves. 

And I think you know better. 

Wheaton College Class of 2024, the world you’re about to change does not need more smashers, shamers, snappers, or haters. But it sure could use some sharpeners, and whole new crowds of people who are brave enough to be confronted with their own opinions and find out — over and over again — who they really are.

Stay curious, stay sharp, and congratulations, Class of 2024!


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