This and dozens of other essays are compiled in the book Between: Living Live in Neither Extreme. Check it out!
Below is the Baccalaureate Address I gave at Whitman College. With advice for students, and perhaps for us all.
It’s time for celebration! It’s time for family and friends! It’s time to fit in as many fun activities as we can before we leave! It’s time to give a speech that I’ve been told cannot last more than ten minutes!
It’s time…to graduate!
When we think of time, it is easy to think of special events such as graduations because they occur infrequently, they signify change in a life stage, they bring people together from different time zones, and they contain numerous schedules and timetables for the accompanying festivities. Sociologists think of time in terms of how it has been constructed as meaningful in varying cultural and historical settings, and in terms of how it is used to signify boundaries in our social lives. For example, as Phyllis Moen suggests in her book It’s About Time: Couples and Careers, in order to figure out ways to accommodate our changing work and family roles in contemporary U.S. society, we must first look at how taken-for-granted rules about work time and non-work time are enacted – how time is part of the infrastructure and culture of our work and family lives. What is a work day? What is a holiday? Can I spend time checking personal email at work if I do so surreptitiously on my smartphone? How does our understanding of work matter if we have discretion over our time or need to punch a clock? And, as many people may wonder, is there really such a thing as a weekend when I am accessible by email 24/7?
One of my favorite sociologists, Eviatar Zerubavel, has said that we live our lives in “social territories” along a continuum that consists of different kinds of time – namely, we live in public time and private time. I will add that we define certain times of day as more about close friendships or intimate relationships, others more about formal tasks. Some of us may use time set aside for spiritual growth, community involvement, or taking care of our bodies. Some of us take on a little too much and end up sacrificing activities or trying to do too many things in the same time period. We multitask within our social territories.
How we understand the use of time depends on what activities, people, and spaces we think are attached to certain times. For students, if you want to participate in a sociology exercise, think back to your few years here at Whitman and count the number of instances where you have been speaking, dressing, and socializing differently depending on whether you were in my class at 11 a.m. on a Monday in Maxey Hall or in an off-campus apartment at 11 p.m. on a Friday. This example signifies that how we organize time parallels how we organize what we do, the people we are with, and the locations of both. We use time to signify territories of our selves. Territories that are sometimes separate, and that sometimes overlap.
Life transitions do not move in a linear way. Anyone who is a parent here knows this, especially if they can think of stories when their children grew and then regressed and then grew and then regressed, sometimes in the timespan of a couple weeks. For the students here, this weekend may feel like a big transition with a huge directional arrow pointing from the past toward the future. But the way life actually works is that we always circle back and the directional arrow is not necessarily one that points from the past to the future in a straight line. We use the memories of who we were to construct who we are. Our present selves are always made up of what we perceive has already shaped us. Norwegian family scholar Marianne Gullestad has said that certainly what actually happens to us as children affects our adult lives, but our subjective understandings of our childhoods as adults have tremendous power in shaping how we act and think in our adult lives. How we think about what happened may affect how we grow just as much as what actually happened does. We go and grow through life transitions always building on our past selves, never completely starting over, and rarely in a straight line.
For students, you have spent these last four years using images of your future selves to have crafted what you opted to do here at Whitman. Your present experience as students has been impacted and inspired by your vision of your future selves.
So what does this all mean? If we think about the word “then,” it is really not just about the past. It is also about the future. “When you were little, what were you like then?” reads just as easily as “Think about the future…what will you be like then?” During a weekend like this, it is easy to think about how time flies – the “now” quickly becomes the “then.” But it is also easy to see how this life stage transition signifies a jumping off point for present “now” becoming future “then.” If now and then were on a continuum, I do not see a straight line. I see multiple axes, three dimensions, circles, satellites, and the location of “now” and “then” in multiple simultaneous places.
Anaïs Nin said, “We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”
I am so grateful to have been part of your lives, dear students, for these last few years. I hope you agree with me when I say that it is a gift to be part of the layers, cells, and constellations that make up Whitman College. Looking at you now, during this celebratory time, makes me very happy. I wish the world for you. As time goes by, I will think of you and how you’ve been these last few years. I’ll imagine where you’ll go in the future.
And while I thank you now, I’ll see you then.