Joanna Waley-Cohen at Commencement 2022
Chancellor Tong! President Hamilton! Vice-Chancellor Lehman! Friends! Colleagues! Parents! Ladies and Gentlemen, Near and Far! Salute with me our great students of the Class of 2022! Dear students, on behalf of the whole NYU Shanghai community, from the bottom of my heart I offer you congratulations upon your graduation. We are very proud of you, and we are especially proud of your inspirational perseverance through to this moment despite often highly trying circumstances.
This has been quite an unpredictable time. Some of you are not where you expected to be at this moment, and some of you may have taken classes you did not expect to take, or have taken them in modes you did not anticipate. Some of you may have ended up separated from the friends you expected to graduate with, and yet your friendships may have deepened at long distance and you likely have made new ones. For out of unpredictability can come adaptability; out of crisis can come opportunity; out of disaster can come new experiences and self-fulfillment. We cannot say that the unexpected is necessarily all bad, or that predictability is necessarily all good, and in fact we cannot really say that anything can be categorically declared to be all good or all bad, for everything contains the seed of its opposite.
Just last month it happened that on the self-same day two different people used in conversation with me the same Chinese saying, with which at that moment I was still unfamiliar. Many of you will know it; it is “塞翁失马，焉知非福” which means something like: The old man lost his horse, but it all turned out for the best. Something that appears to be a complete disaster may have a “silver lining.”
This saying comes from the Huainanzi, a 2nd century BCE text which, ancient as it is, was not the first occurrence of this kind of sentiment. That appears to have been the Dao De Jing, the classic text of Daoism dating from several hundred years earlier, where the following declaration conveys a similar idea: “禍兮福之所倚，福兮禍之所伏。孰知其极?” Misery is what happiness rests upon. Happiness is what misery lurks beneath. Who knows where it ends? –
These words came to mind again just after that in a completely different context. For me, one of the better outcomes of being locked down for several weeks was rereading some of my favorite novels, and the one I want to refer to now is Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first in a series of four wonderful novels published only a few years ago, about a lifelong friendship which lasts from when the protagonists are schoolgirls all through their growing into young women and becoming mature adults. It contains many profound insights about the nature of the love that is friendship, about how one doesn’t always understand why the friends that one loves say or do what they do, and whether in the end that matters; and about how one can sometimes misinterpret words and deeds and can suffer agonies of jealousy; about how at moments of personal unhappiness and self-doubt one can almost hate a dear friend because of their seeming success and happiness, and ultimately about how one might decide that despite a difficult spell, a particular friendship is too precious to throw away. Misery and joy co-exist; suffering and celebration succeed one another; one cannot foresee how things will turn out. So what this tells us in particular, drawing on Laozi and the Huai Nanzi, is that if things sometimes do not go exactly your way, do not rush headlong to utter pessimism about the long term. Instead, accept unpredictability and the power of happenstance, embrace a conditional optimism that imagines a path forward and figures out how to make it happen. You know you can do it.
Class of 2022, you already have done it!
So, dear students, as you advance to the next stage of your lives, not only must you savor your brightest moments, knowing that darkness and sorrow may lurk underneath them, but never forget that your darkest moments may soon give way to light and joy. In short, if you lose your horse, don’t worry, for a greater and more wonderful steed may be waiting round the very next corner to carry you onwards through life. Who knows where it will lead you?
Congratulations, Class of 2022!