The following letter is adapted from remarks delivered after the graduation of the MICDS Class of 2023 at Commencement on Sunday, May 14.
In the latter days of the Roman Republic, an entrepreneur named Marcus Crassus would take advantage of the capital’s frequent municipal fires by buying up all of the homes in harm’s way at a deep discount. He would then order the craftsmen and builders who were enslaved to his authority to create a protective firebreak by tearing down and removing the residences most immediately threatened by the blaze. The risk of their destruction having been eliminated, the remaining properties that Crassus had acquired on the cheap suddenly soared in value, and he rented them at immense profit. Whether Crassus himself started the fires that set these predatory transactions in motion, I do not know, but he conducted his unscrupulous commerce with impunity, and he is among the wealthiest human beings who ever lived.
The Roman Republic lasted for 482 years. The American republic has lasted for nearly 247 years so far. Whether these are its latter days, I also do not know, but they are indisputably challenging ones. In Rome, suspicions of the corruption and dysfunction of established institutions propelled the decline of senatorial rule and the rise of military rule. Crassus himself was a Roman army general, and a majority of senators were rumored to owe him money. In our own American republic, suspicions of the corruption and dysfunction of established institutions also propel political and social unrest. In 1964, 77% of Americans said that they trusted the government to do what is right most of the time. Last year, only 20% of Americans said this. In 2010, 74% of likely voters believed that American society is basically fair and decent. By 2021, that figure had dropped to 54%. What is to be done?
The 1997 film Life Is Beautiful tells the story of Guido Orefice, an Italian Jewish man who, along with his wife and young son, is interred in a Nazi concentration camp toward the end of World War II. His wife, who is gentile, is incarcerated separately. Left alone with his child, Guido convinces him that their situation is actually a complex game of hide and seek: that the armed guards are only actors playing the part of, as he says to his son, “real mean guys who yell”; that points will be earned for being very quiet and for performing the tasks that Guido gives him; that points will be lost for crying or complaining that he is hungry or saying that he wants his mother; and that the first player to earn a thousand points will win a tank. Through the elaboration of this ruse, Guido saves the life of his child, though he cannot save his own. In a voice-over at the end of the film, the man whom the boy became says, “This is the sacrifice my father made. This was his gift to me.” The narrative returns to the boy on the day of his liberation from the camp, embracing his mother. “We won!” he exclaims to her, unaware of his father’s cruel fate. “A thousand points to laugh like crazy about! We came in first! We’re taking the tank home! We won!”
“To laugh and to cry comes from the same point of the soul,” said the writer and director of Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni, who also won an Academy Award for playing the role of the heroic Guido. “I’m a storyteller. The crux of the matter is to reach beauty, to reach poetry. It doesn’t matter if that is comedy or tragedy. They’re the same if you reach the beauty.”
Paul Simon’s song The Boy in the Bubble from his 1986 South African album Graceland opens with an episode of terroristic violence followed by non sequitur lyrics of hope. “There was a bright light,” Simon sings, “a shattering of shop windows. / The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio.” Then he pivots:
These are the days of miracle and wonder.
This is the long-distance call,
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo,
The way we look to us all,
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky.
These are the days of miracle and wonder,
So don’t cry baby, don’t cry, don’t cry.
“Hope and dread,” Simon explained in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine when the album was released. “That’s the way I see the world—a balance between the two, but coming down on the side of hope.”
Ancient Rome was forever burning. Twentieth-century Europe, apartheid South Africa—the world is forever burning; and the world is forever healing and new. I am reminded of the divergent senses of the noun “riot”: that of an outraged mob bent on mayhem; and that of a garden flowering in this very season of the year, a riot of blooms striving from the fecund earth. Life is beautiful. It is my most earnest hope today that MICDS has equipped you, Class of 2023, you riot of blooms, with the capacity for hope in the face of any dread that finds you. Did you just hear the great news? In 2021, a majority of American voters—54%!—believed that our society is fair and decent; and I forgot to tell you that last year, it was 60%. That glass is more than half full. Come down on the side of hope with me. The water is warm.
It feels impossible not to quote Emily Dickinson in this moment.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
Behold your riot of fans! You have our devotion as you continue to sing your tunes. In life’s complex but beautiful game, may you each earn a thousand points to laugh like crazy about. These are the days of miracle and wonder. So don’t cry, baby, don’t cry.
Congratulations to the Class of 2023.
Head of School
This week’s addition to the “Refrains for Rams” playlist: The Boy in the Bubble by Paul Simon (Apple Music / Spotify)