Good morning/afternoon! Welcome back to this beautiful chapel, where you officially began your career as Dukies at Convocation just a few short years ago.
It’s fitting, then, that you should return for the beginning of Commencement weekend, which is the formal celebration of your academic careers at Duke. This is the moment you’ve been preparing for, practicing and planning for, both actively and unknowingly, throughout your lives on campus.
This weekend’s events are the result of a tremendous amount of active planning by many people. I know, I’ve been in the meetings. Let me just say that if you’re still trying to decide where to go to dinner tonight, it’s probably too late.
The next few hours are going to fly by – at least as soon as this speech is over. So, I encourage you to make time for saying thank you to all the people in this crowd who have supported you over the years. First, your family. Let’s all give those family members joining us here today a thunderous round of applause for all that they have done to make this day possible!
And let’s thank the community of staff and faculty here on campus – the teachers and mentors, the cooks and groundskeepers, the advisors, counselors and coaches, for the roles they have played in your success.
By the way, for those of you with last names ending in [A through Q | I through Z | R through Z] – if you’re here, you’ve successfully hacked the baccalaureate system.And of course you share this moment with your friends – at least those in your third of the alphabet.
Like most of you, I’m enjoying my first Commencement weekend at Duke. But as a veteran of many graduations, I can tell you that one of the highlights is the Baccalaureate service, with two organs and a full choir that lend this occasion a fitting degree of inspiration, pomp and circumstance.
You just processed in to a triumphant march composed by Herbert Brewer, who wrote the piece for Gloucester Cathedral in England, a medieval sanctuary that looks a lot like this one. Each booming chord was meant to reverberate through the nave and off of the vaulted ceilings, so that you can still hear the music echoing for a few moments after the piece has ended, like the afterglow of a sunset over the horizon.
The beauty of Brewer’s march is not so much in the melody itself as in that echo: the rising and falling in the spaces between the notes, and the anticipation of each towering chord to come. On the sheet music, this is often denoted by a squiggly line – a simple mark for such a powerful effect, the passage from the lowest depths to the highest highs.
Today, I’d like us to think about those spaces, the spaces between the notes.
Of course, today will feel like a high note. As it should. And indeed, we tend to think of life as a series of high or low notes. The thesis completed, the relationship that ended badly, the bowl game or championship won, the job offer accepted. I know that as soon-to-be minted Duke graduates you are all ready to make good on those plans you’ve been making, to continue to excel, to hit the high notes to come.
But the richness of life really is the space in between: the minute steps that we take every day toward a future that is never entirely clear to us, the decisions that we make almost without realizing it that come to define who we are, and who we want to be. In the scores of our lives, it’s those squiggly lines indicating a glissando, or the bars or dots marking rests between the musical notes.
I’m the first to admit that it is often very difficult to focus on those spaces in between. We all feel a natural urge to strive for our next impressive achievement; and I know that our parents – I’m one of them – relish in bragging about them.
At Duke, you’ve worked hard to play all the right notes while keeping one eye on the future. And amidst your great successes, you’ve probably found that this can feel stressful, overwhelming, even chaotic. We can get so lost in the playing that we forget to pause and listen to the beauty of the music, listen carefully enough to hear those echoes, and those silences.
Chances are, when you look back on your time here, you won’t think of the time you spent studying orgo or your brilliant analysis of Shakespeare, or of graduation weekend – or this speech.
You’ll remember instead the nights you stayed up late laughing with your roommates. You’ll remember the spontaneous road trip to Asheville to see the leaves changing in fall; the guest speaker who inspired you to work part time on a political campaign; painting your face for your first home game in the student section – or celebrating that national championship three years ago.
And I’ll bet that some of the classes you remember most fondly over the years may not be the required stepping stones toward a future job or profession. They will be those classes you fell into when you stepped off the pathway. Those moments when you surprised yourself, or got stopped in your tracks by something or someone who made you pause, and think, and look around and see things in a completely new way.
Those times you allowed yourself space between the high and low notes, space to relish in the everyday moments of reflection and gratitude when friendships are forged, creativity is fostered, curiosity sparked, and convictions strengthened.
These moments are frequent but fleeting. They may come when you’re on a morning run or winding down for the evening, when you’re commuting to work or waiting in line at the grocery store.
…Or they may come as your President drones on at Baccalaureate and you are waiting to process out of this Chapel for the second and final time as Duke students.
In just a few minutes, the organ will begin booming again for the recessional, courtesy of Robert Parkins and Kit Jacobsen, the University and Duke Chapel Organists. Kit is up here at the Aeolian organ, and Bob is sitting way up in the Flentrop crow’s nest behind you.
Playing the organ is a feat of mental and physical coordination. It’s no coincidence that organists gave us the expression “pulling out all the stops.” If Bob and Kit only play the keyboard, no sound will come out. They also have to pull on a series of levers, or stops, that allow air to flow into and out of the pipes, which in turn produce the high and low notes and leave behind the beautiful echoes. So, as they carry the melody, they constantly have to see two, three steps ahead and prepare the mechanisms for the notes down the line.
We may all feel that way sometimes.
As you depart from Duke, I know that you are well prepared to plan for the brief lows and soaring highs to come. You have accomplished so much here, and your work will long echo on our campus.
But I encourage you to take time for the squiggly lines and to remember that there is so much to celebrate in the quiet pauses of a life well lived.
Thank you, and congratulations to the great class of 2018.