One of the best commencement addresses I have ever read. It helped me a lot to regain a lost perspective on my life. Not to mention it comes from my favorite author of all times.
“President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.
The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.
Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.
You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.
Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.
I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.
These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.
Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.
I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.
So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.
I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.
I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.
What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.
At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.
I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.
However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.
Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.
So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.
There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.
Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had left behind.
I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.
And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.
Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.
Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.
And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.
Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.
Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.
And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.
I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.
What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.
One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.
That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.
But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.
If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.
I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.
So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:
As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.
I wish you all very good lives. Thank you very much.
AN OPEN LETTER– To the narrow alley beside my office window- not literally “my” office window, my colleague’s cabin window where I have been sitting on most of the pleasant-weather days since the colleague is away to Spain. I sit here precisely to have periodic peeps outside the window to break the cabin fever that bothers me when I have to stay indoors inevitably on an extremely beautiful weather day. (With rain, ofcourse).
Tell me one good reason, why not to write a note to you right now, as I am glancing right at your shabby attire and ragged appearance beside this huge orange and white tower. It’s indescribable, the way this quiet trotting of people over your surface helps me string my haphazard thoughts to a well-defined pattern in which I can relate to my joys and my sorrows coherently and sanely. Right in the middle of work as I glimpse at you O’ dear alley, I am intrigued by the burden you carry as I notice you are more crowded than the average beautiful roads scattered around the city. Is that because may be you have more capacity and resilience like some of us have generous human hearts? Your subdued stillness and hush, in spite of millions trampling you under their feet daily inspires me profoundly. And as of today, this moment, when apparently my ears are listening to the hums of ‘Summer of ‘69’, my fingers are handling database anomalies at work while working in collaboration with my brain and my eyes are drifting every now and then at you O Alley, I know that day has come. A day when my soul finally learnt a lesson from an alley beside the window.
One moment…everything was blurred in front of me, robbing me of any right to see. The surroundings inside and outside the vehicle were blinded by a haze of grey nothingness in spite of the presence of a glowing morning sun. It was as if I could see and yet I couldn’t. Strangely somehow, I was aware that blindness belonged to me only. Everyone around seemed to see clearly and candidly. As I scooted off to a mundane journey, the darkness suddenly started to disperse as the fog started to appear. And as all exclaimed and begin to see the mist across the vehicle’s windows in excitement as the whole town got entangled in strong, powerful wisps of fog streaks, I felt overwhelmed by the sudden sheer clarity of my vision because I could now see things others could not. Open and out, wretched and raw…I have yet to come across a fog this unblurred.
It was only yesterday my life was tied down by the unseen ropes of pressure at work. And just when I couldn’t think of something to fill the shallow pits of my existence, an angelic face barged into my office and I was given an offer to accompany her to a school branch of little kids few blocks away from office as her little cousin had a dance performance in the costume of a Punjabi bride. Naturally I was all eager, so in an abrupt hassle we left. Half running on the road, we kept our pace as we had only 45 minutes to bag the whole thing (allowed by the boss). My spirits started to rise gradually. Now here I’ll clarify why. Running wildly on a busy road, making cars to halt inches from you, and the thrill that comes with it has always been one of the few things that TURNS ME ON. In about 2-3 minutes we entered the gates of the school, and I beheld colours in mass assortment in form of kids’ costumes and the embellishments. The decorations spoke volumes of exquisiteness. My world started to enlighten slowly, and soon I found myself I was squeaking things like “Look at that kid”…”This girl is looking so pretty.” Yes, there were kid fruits (apple and bananas), kid flowers, kid animals (ouch), kid Tarzan, kid Jane, too many little kid brides and grooms, kid army (India and Pakistan separate, since as a nation we love to show how India gets screwed by us in every social activity including as little as kid’s school play.LOL) and not to mention kid Taliban. Then there were some little children dressed up in cultural attires, adorned with lehengas and sherwanis. The teachers were going frantic over the preparations and setting everything right. Here are a few clicks of my ever-damned VGA phone camera (I vow once again to buy a better Digi on first financial reinstatement of my pocket and band account from now on).
Later, I and my girl mate went inside the hall, followed by getting entertained by a series of powerful kid dances on blast-from-my-past songs like the sorts of ‘Im a Barbie girl!’ and ‘Im Tarzan from jungle you can be my friend!’. I loved the moment when any cute, dumb-looking kid will forget the dance steps and stare blankly with arms still hung in mid-air, at his fellow partners dancing in surroundings.Those 45 minutes went up in air as if the time started to travel at the speed of light and I happily returned back to my grey (or rather brown) surroundings of my office cabin with a serene smile on my lips and a reawakening of that kid in my soul that resided in me years ago before I started to act all ‘grown up’. What a voyage to a little heaven it was!
A moment of realization… when I found a bunch of kids, belonging to a class who can neither afford to study nor can it afford three meals a day,gazing through the gate fence at these priviledged and happy kids.
We all are obsessed with things at one or some other point in our lives. When I look back at my trail of obsessions, I see a weird assortment comprising of crazy stuff I get obsessed with-like celebrities (some quite younger to me), songs (that I literally play and listen 100 times in a loop per day), movies (I then watch ’em so many times that I lip-mimic the script lines) and sometimes shoes (wear them till they tear apart.). Quite recently four new obsessions made it to my list. And I’d like to share how:
Obsession # 1- Coffee Art
Last week I accidentally stumbled upon some of the most beautiful coffee art pics over the internet and Boy-oh-Boy! Didn’t i go like completely crazy? I made a decision that I have to master this art and now every time I make coffee, I seriously put some sincere efforts to become a coffee art Picasso :D. Here is my first ever coffee art which I like to name “The rise of Joker (Batman)”. It was inspired by something on the left:
Obsession # 2- My new Sneakers
I always was inspired by these comfortable and trendy kind in shoes. After it was broken down to me by my mom that my old trainers I used to wear in university were given away to someone needy in our maid’s family, my heart broke into thousand pieces. I was sleepless many nights :p. But then motivating myself for sacrificing in sheer love of humanity, I thought to buy a couple of new sneakers. After a tiring episode of finding the right shops and bargaining, i got three pairs and If you don’t have the idea of obsession of shoes, see me wearing them. I have to forcefully convince myself to part with them, while I go to bed every night.OK! now that’s an exaggeration. But I love to wear them as much as I can :).
Obsession # 3- Three Stray Cats taking refuge in our home
No matter how much my Mom scolds me to for making these cats feel “at home” as they are destroying the green coriander patch in our lawn, me and my dad loves to keep them. My dad in an absolute hurry to keep them safe from cold at night, built a beautiful little brick house in an ugly corner of house. And now I’m habitual to come home everyday from office and see these three angels (in cat’s disguises) welcoming me. Not to mention my weekend ritual of giving them milk in an old plastic can.
Obsession # 4 Dates in Breakfast
Along with happiness, sacredness and a sense of joy, my dad’s return from Hajj brought us many pure Arabic dates. I was never a fan of date as a fruit in spite of its nutritional wonders, the abundance of dates at home and the hurry with which i leave home for office every morning some how made me indulge in the habit of grabbing a handful of dates and have them with tea in breakfast. Within two weeks, I have become obsessed with Dates. I now find extra energy and taste in them and I wonder why i didn’t ever include such a wonderful food in my daily diet. According to information I recently gathered from various health websites, this obsession for once will do magic to my health and immunity. 🙂
Corporate culture and friendships? Ok these two sounds pretty much at loggerheads. When I joined my first ever job, many warnings reached my ears, directly and indirectly, that workplace is something like a jail. If you go on acting high-schoolish, you simply don’t stand a chance to succeed. By this, what I guessed they meant was it was time to go through a forceful metamorphosis from a giggling girl to a robot lady. I even was scared to laugh aloud at office. Thanks to the open work environment, as the organization moved temporarily to a customer organization’s ‘warehouse’ after their building caught fire last year, privacy seems a serious joke of the day here atleast.
Most of all I was tipped off about lessons of trust. I felt like a first day at school (Flash Back), when mom used to tell us “Do Not Take Candies From Complete Strangers!”. I was cautioned about how people take advantage of you here and how politics and trusting the wrong person can turn your professional life upside down.
With these lessons, I embarked my journey into professional life and I experienced 2 things:
1- I cannot survive at workplace for 9 hours a day without befriending and trusting.
2- I got to befriend the two bestest ladies on earth. It happens to be my most exquisite and speedy friend finding (making?) ever.
Last night I went out with one of the ladies to eat curly fries- an abrupt plan of the sort. We shared a chicken cheese burger. I got the honor of splitting it in two equal halves which I very immaculately did ending up pooping all the mayonnaise out and with one half consisting all the goodies including most of the chicken and greenies and the other smaller half with all the bun (that my friend ‘explicitly’ complained about as she volunteered to eat that half).
Well, may I say it was the serenest experience, except for the part when a god-forsaken Arab-looking MASSUS interrupted our heart-to-heart conversation and offered to visit him anytime we’d want. (I didn’t know such places existed in Pakistan…as I didn’t know before he showed up what a MASSUS was.).
The scary ride back home in a cab jolted my existence and it was so effing freezing cold that the chills got into my bones and danced with my marrow of life. Defrosting human meat was never a welcoming idea to me, but I couldn’t help relating to it while I washed my hands and feet with near boiling tap water. And I slept with a safe conclusion in my mind last night that opening up to some trust-worthy odd ones out in corporate culture may be isn’t a troublesome act.
Feeling amused by the discovery,
Years ago, when blogging became the ‘IN’ thing for everyone, i despised it for many crazy reasons. One of the most prominent was-it felt like a threat to our private lives. Though a powerful source of expression, it could never take place of raw paper diaries where you can throw all your burdens of soul without as much as a second thought. And if your secret diaries remain hidden (untempered by sibling’s urge to get their nose into your business), they were the best source of catharsis without any judgements or criticism from anyone. Blogging? Of course you can not let anyone have a peek inside your darkest thoughts and let them reach to a safe conclusion that you are as dark as themselves and everyone around them. 🙂
Today, I think differently. Justifying my new motivation to stay positive about every ugly thing in life, here I am, writing my first ever post to my first ever blog after one sacred promise to myself. I would throw out everything off of my soul and mind, no matter how unrealistic or dark or insane my thoughts or experiences would be. Obviously I would fictionize the names and “esteric” all the abuses :p, whenever the need would arise. But at least I can draw satisfaction from the fact that for once I would pour out honesty directly from my heart, without the fear or care of how it is perceived.
P.S: Don’t fret if you find myself talking to myself most of the times. That’s the best part. I prefer monologues. 😉
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