For as long as I can remember, my attention has escaped me. It has always been in a million places at once, split a million different ways. But at some point in my educational journey, I figured out how to direct it toward the standard markers of student achievement — academic excellence, extracurricular participation and the like — that had been mapped out before me. It was an impressive feat for me, a way of recovering what was mine — or so I thought.
In time, taking on so much ownership left me desperate for moments when I could just check out. Eventually, though, those moments of downtime that I craved so very much lost their magic. A nagging sense of responsibility sprouted into listlessness: I should be doing something else, impressing someone else, investing in some other future.
Evidently, something was missing. Not once had I asked myself a most critical question: What do I want? I thought for so long that what I wanted was informed by those around me, and I never could have conceived of finding within myself a true ambition. That changed over the four years I spent at Brown.
Brown, in all its freedom and rigor, asks its students to be explorers; in this quest of exploration is the opportunity for one to take radical responsibility for their life. In an environment in which everyone forges their own unique path, there was no longer a glaring model from which I could derive my inspiration or motivations or wants. For the first time, I was the architect of my own education. Perhaps most surprising was that embracing uncertainty in this process was not only acceptable but fundamental to learning how to learn. How very terrifying this was! In time, however, I formed a friendship with this feeling of fear — a meaningful step in taking ownership of my life, though I just did not know it at that time.
This process of accepting the unknown and looking inward eventually led me to the understanding that what I wanted was very much so before me or, perhaps, within me. Ironically, befriending my emotions afforded me a distance between myself and my thoughts. It was as if I now had my finger on the dial of my thoughts; through intention, I could turn down the noise of everyday life. I didn’t appreciate this unfolding of awareness as it happened, but I certainly began to hear myself more and more. This transformation imbued in me a sense of agency that was entirely new to me. Never before had I conceived responsibility as an inward operation.
A real quest for meaning began to burn within me, and what was most lovely was that I didn't need to look far to discover it. The inquiry I engaged in over the past four years was not limited to academia. Almost every page in this most recent chapter of my life has been marked by the opportunity to dance with change: A learning environment rooted in exploration, the introspection that blossomed from the loneliness of the pandemic and a concert of human connections — both painful and extraordinary — each served as a mirror to a different part of myself.
Through privilege, pain and play I had the opportunity to better understand this world, this life. Learning about the fabric of our society, running the business arm of the publication I am now writing in and feeling all too much at the hands of others left me in awe of the reality in which we reside. For every fact, fiction or future I could wrap my head around at Brown, there are countless questions or concepts that remain entirely unanswerable — our purpose on this planet, the senselessness of love, what happens after we die. How much sweeter life is when we revel in this uncertainty. The truly bewitching mystery of the world almost begets an imperative: Indulge in wonder and abstain from incessant sense-making.
While attending Brown I gained a sense of wonder for this world that made me pause. In that pause, I gained perspective — a meta-awareness of the space that exists between a stimulus and response. This perspective granted me the freedom to observe my own thoughts — thinking about thinking became appreciably more powerful than thinking on its own. It’s a pleasure to investigate which of my thoughts or desires belong to me, and which I have unknowingly adopted from some other source.
Today, showing up for myself looks like giving myself permission to revel in the delights of daily life. Not long ago I would have found it hard to believe that a woolly cloud, a coconut Samoa or a moment’s worth of gratitude could constitute the best part of my day. But exploring and accepting the knowable and unknowable tenets of life on Earth provided me with the necessary frame of mind to arrive at an appreciation for the here and now. It is this mindfulness that abates mindlessness, affording me the agency to dismantle the very illusions — fear of my own feelings, misguided narratives about what truly matters, a desire to control the natural unfolding of fate — that distract from the basic wonders of being. There is significant power in such a self-reinforcing system.
To Brown’s graduates, to the families and friends here to support them and to anyone else reading: I urge you to marvel at the ineffably vast mystery of this life as a means of taking it by the reins. A sense of awe does indeed provide the respite needed to see just a little bit more clearly — to stop, take a breath, look around and give yourself the space to simply be. This radical ownership can lead you to become exactly who you are, even if you don’t know who that is right now or if that continues to change as time unfolds. It will afford you the privilege to accept all of what you feel, and it will allow you to forgive yourself when you do not feel your best. It will coach you in the art of acquiescence, a reluctant acceptance of that which is outside your control, and provide you with the strength necessary to reorient yourself toward the best path forward.
The spiritual teacher and poet Dorothy Hunt tells us that “peace is this moment without thinking that it should be some other way, that you should feel some other thing, that your life should unfold according to your plans.” While I do not know for sure, I think that this peace is just about the most powerful state a human being can pursue. In the space between thoughts and actuality, we find ourselves alive. It was in this space that for the first time in my life I found it so very easy to respect my emotions, accept this absurd reality and adopt a vision of myself as one small part of a dynamic world. I can find myself free not from discomfort but from the needless suffering that arises when I let misery overstay its welcome.
On such a momentous occasion, I write to assure you all — but mostly myself and this fickle memory of mine — that our lives do not begin or end with events like Convocation or Commencement. Enduring satisfaction cannot be plucked from the familiar markers of career success or romantic reward. The sense of flourishing that we all want so very badly begins when we dare to scrutinize the everyday; with careful attention, the familiar becomes profound, our lenses of perception widen and it becomes a hell of a lot easier to locate the transcendent liveliness that we need not look further than ourselves to find.