Anna Quindlen: 'Be Not Afraid'

None of what you've learned in college means anything without the courage to use it in the world.

BY: Anna Quindlen


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You understood this message in your marrow even four years ago. You had to have some essential bravery to even choose Barnard. It is not the easy choice; many of you have had to explain yourselves--the university, the city, the single-sex institution. At its core it must have spoken to something within you that was daring, that was confident, that knew that you knew best what was best for you.

And it was not an easy time, when most of you began here. Two weeks in and the golden city was bombed and bereaved and burst into flames and then smoked for weeks after, so that the smell of something burning even reached this far north. Dean Denburg remembers being downtown less than a week afterwards, on Fifth Avenue, and coming upon a group of students wearing Barnard tee shirts, passing out leaflets calling for tolerance for people of all backgrounds and all religions at a time when tolerance was the last thing on most Americans minds.

What a brave thing to do. What a Barnard thing to do.

I have a Barnard tee shirt, too. Many of them actually, but the one I like best is the one I wore this winter to midnight breakfast. It says: Barnard: you got a problem with that?

There is a wealth of subtext behind the slogan, but the most elemental is this: don't mess with me. I am a woman who was educated at the epicenter of education for women, a woman who grew to adulthood in a place that told her, every day, that her opinion was not only important, that it was absolutely required.

People write all the time to my places of employment with the suggestion that someone should have put a stop to my declarations long ago. They have dismissive words for a woman who does the job I do. Opinionated--a word used only for women, usually meaning having strong opinions when one ought not to have them. Bossy--taking charge, but without benefit of a Y chromosome. Feisty. Ooh, it makes my skin crawl. It's a word that suggests the petite who argue, perhaps in very high voices.

All three are apologetic terms. I'm so sorry I have strong opinions. I'm so sorry I take the lead. I'm so sorry I refuse to take no for an answer.

I say to you today: No apologies. Graduating from Barnard means never having to say you're sorry.

There is plenty to fear out there. Last year I gave into it myself, writing a column at just this time called "An Apology to the Graduates," telling the class of 2004 how sorry I was about the unremitting stress they have been under all their lives.

In part I wrote:

There's an honorable tradition of starving students; it's just that, between outsourcing of jobs and a boom market in real estate, your generation envisions becoming starving adults. Caught in our peculiar modern nexus of prosperity and insolvency, easy credit and epidemic bankruptcy, you also get toxic messages from the culture about what achievement means. It is no longer enough to make it; you must make it BIG. You all will live longer than any generation in history, yet you were kicked into high gear earlier as well. Your college applications looked like the resumes for middle-level executives. How exhausted you must be.

Here is what awaits you: you will be offered the option of now becoming exhausted adults, convinced that no achievement is large enough, with resumes as long as short stories. But what if that feels like a betrayal of self, a forced march down a road trodden by other feet, at the end of which is--nothing you truly care for?

Fear not. Remember Pinocchio? There is a Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder. It is you, your best self, the one you can trust. The only problem is that it is sometimes hard to hear what it says because all the external voices and messages are so loud, so insistent, so adamant. Voices that loud are always meant to bully.

Do not be bullied.

Earlier this year I attended a session of Dennis Dalton's Political Theory class. The students were studying the Tao. Professor Dalton graciously gave me my own pocket-sized copy. I now read it every day, especially this passage. It makes me despair of ever saying anything original. And it keeps me honest.

It says:

In dwelling, live close to the ground.

In thinking, keep to the simple.

In conflict, be fair and generous.

In governing, don't try to control.

In work, do what you enjoy.

In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself,

And don't compare or compete,

Everybody will respect you.

We live in a world in which the simple, the generous, the enjoyable, the completely present, above all the "simply yourself" sometimes seem as out of reach as the moon. Do not be fooled. That is not because anyone has found a better way in the millennia since the Tao was written. It is because too often we are people shadowed by fear. The ultimate act of bravery does not take place on a battlefield. It takes place in your heart, when you have the courage to honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations and yes, your soul by listening to its clean, clear voice of direction instead of following the muddied messages of a timid world.

That voice is strong now. Go take a leap of faith and fearlessness into the arms of the great adventure of an authentic life. Courage, and congratulations. Bless you all.

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