Will Palmer: Awake

Thursday, May 21, 2015
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2015

In England, there is a man named Clive. Thirty years ago, a severe infection damaged Clive’s brain. As a result, he suffers from extreme forms of amnesia. He can neither access old memories nor can he form new ones. He lives each moment and then the next moment and then the next.

He keeps, from time to time, a diary:

9:30 AM: I am now awake.

And then that is scratched out.

9:45 AM: I am now really awake.

And that gets scratched out.

And this cycle repeats — for hours. Every moment in his life, Clive feels he is waking up from a deep and long slumber. Yet, as quickly as he wakes, the memory fades. And he finds himself, once more, newly awake, totally unaware of the repeating cycle.

When I was four years old, I looked at my two-year-old sister and said, “Wow, I know so much more than she does.” As a fifth-grader, I said the same about the kindergartners; when in high school, I said the same about the fifth-graders. 

And we look at the incoming Class of 2019 and we surely want to say, “Boy, they don’t know anything yet; we’re much smarter than they are.” It seems likely that, five years from now, we’re going to say, “Boy, those seniors, what fools! We know so much more now.”

It all sounds an awful lot like Clive’s diary.

I am now awake. Scratch it out. I am now awake. Scratch it out.

Boy, I know so much now. Scratch it out. Boy, I know so much now. Scratch it out.

As a first-year at Brown, I was absolutely certain that I wanted to pursue a PhD and become a clinical psychologist. Though my adviser pointed out that, while nearly every first-year in my department intends to pursue a doctorate in clinical work, most will later discover other interests, I insisted that I was different. I was going to get a PhD.

I took pre-clinical coursework. I sought out research positions. I investigated graduate programs. For nearly two years, my confidence in my plans blinded me to other possibilities, and my self-assuredness led me to ignore the counsel of my mentors.

Nearly halfway through my time at Brown, I discovered other possibilities — possibilities even more appealing than the prospect of being called “doctor.” And it was only then that I realized I did not truly want to seek a PhD. It was only then that I realized that I had been completely wrong.

As we learn more, and our understanding broadens to encompass more of this universe, it is easy to believe that we have reached an endpoint, that we understand enough of what there is to know.

And this is a problem. When we believe that we have obtained a sufficient understanding of truth, we lose humility. We lose the willingness to admit we’re wrong, the ability to question ourselves, the longing to learn new things. Without these skills, we will find ourselves woefully inadequate in an ever-more-complicated world.

Occasions like Commencement are when we are most vulnerable to losing these skills. Days which mark endpoints, days which mark finish lines, days which give us good reason to be proud are when it is all too easy to abandon humility and simply say, “I am really awake now.”

It is for this reason that our forbearers, nearly 250 years ago, were wise to name the occasion Commencement. They remind us, even now, that the day is much less an end than it is a beginning.

As Brown graduates, though we have good reason to be proud, good reason to be convinced of our truth, we must be sure always to leave a little room in our hearts and a little room in our minds to be wrong.

Now we can imagine many great things we may live to see in this century. Humans on Mars, humans on the moons of Jupiter. An end to cancer, an end to HIV. Even an end to poverty. These are things we can imagine.

But imagination has limits. Who, in 1915, could have imagined the smartphone?  Could have imagined a lasting peace in Western Europe? Could have imagined the near-total eradication of polio?

It is what we cannot imagine — what we are wrong now to dismiss as impossible — these are the marvels we jeopardize when we declare, “I am now awake.”

William Palmer will be living in Providence and working in Massachusetts after graduation, continuing his life-long tradition of dividing his life between two states.