I once felt like I knew the shape of a year at Yale. Like so many of you, I measured the progress of our academic calendar by midterms, reading periods, exams and recesses. Layered on top of those dates were other milestones: the first cool day when you need a jacket on your walk to class; the first snowfall; the first redbud and crabapple blossoms announcing the start of spring in New Haven. And then the culmination of all our efforts, commencement.
This year, our routines and customs have been interrupted. Our campus, normally bustling with people, is quiet; only a small number of essential employees are here in person. Students and faculty have discovered new ways to teach, learn and collaborate using online tools, but our classrooms, performance halls, and athletic spaces are empty.
Of course, Yale is not alone in this challenging and unsettled time. Throughout the United States and around the globe, we have altered our lives dramatically to confront and contain the spread of COVID-19. We can see now that the disruptions Yale has experienced pale in comparison to what some individuals, families and communities have suffered. We know that our disappointments, while great, have been in the service of protecting lives.
Yet at this time of the year, when normally we would be gathering together as a community to recognize our graduates’ growth and accomplishments, it is natural to feel a mix of emotions as we mark this momentous occasion in other ways. Some of you reading this would have been celebrating your own graduation at Yale. You have imagined joining with friends and classmates for the procession to Old Campus, waving banners and donning colorful and creative headgear. You may have pictured these moments for years — not only for yourselves, but also for your parents, grandparents, other family members, and supporters who have encouraged you along the way.
In the absence of such traditions and rituals this spring, how will you honor one another? How will you mark the end of this significant chapter of your lives, while looking forward to new beginnings — as commencement asks us to do? For the rest of us, as members of the Yale community, how should we reflect on this spring, which has been like no other?
Each year, in my closing remarks during the baccalaureate services, I ask the graduating class of Yale College “to give thanks for all that has brought you to this day.” I thought about these words again recently, considering what gratitude means for all of us this year.
Gratitude is the primary emotion of commencement. I know this from the dozens of ceremonies I have attended at Yale, and from all those I have been privileged to attend for my nieces and nephews. Commencement gives us a way to express our gratitude — to family members, supporters, teachers, and to the graduates themselves. We give thanks silently and out loud for countless moments of learning, growth, inspiration, friendship and joy.
Although much has changed, we still feel immense gratitude this year — perhaps, more deeply and poignantly than ever before. We understand more clearly what is great and important in our community, and we see the value of both sacrifice and service to others. To the entire Yale community, I am so thankful for your optimism, resilience and selflessness, and for all the ways you care for one another and care about our world. Your efforts and your actions this year are part of Yale history, and I know they will be remembered for many years to come.
The great teacher, scholar and poet Marie Borroff ’56 Ph.D., Sterling Professor of English, passed away last year. I think of these lines from her poem “In Range of Bells”:
I walk in range of bells
where silence (one
by one) marks off each stroke that tells
time ended, time begun.
Daily down Prospect Hill
the tally keeps (nine, ten)
telling with what constant will
time brings me round and round again
Time will bring us together again, and it will bring us back to Yale. A time has ended, but it has also begun — and this is the great promise of commencement, a celebration of both beginnings and endings. Until we return, my hope for our beloved Yale graduates and for all of us is that we find a way to give thanks for all that has brought us, as a community, to this day.
Peter Salovey is the President and Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology. Contact him at email@example.com.