Commencement Address by Dr. Don Howard (CLA ’69), May 20, 2007

Commencement Address delivered by Dr. Don Howard (CLA ’69)
School of Management Auditorium, Boston University, May 20, 2007

Distinguished faculty and Chairman, graduates, families and friends, it is a pleasure and an honor to be here.

Graduates, I know this has been a long day for you but as Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”. After this day and four years of university, you are looking very strong! I have but a few moments to try to pass on to you the perspectives of a lifetime. Instead of giving you answers, I am going to ask you questions. This, you might say, is your final exam.

The lightning bolt of awareness struck when I was 15 years old. It was a sunny beautiful day in the summer of 1963. I was walking alone, when, as in the words of William Butler Yeats, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born”. It was at that moment I became a truly conscious being, aware of my awareness. Thus began my quest for answers. It was many years before I realized that finding truth in life is less about finding the right answers, than about asking the right questions.

I began my studies at Boston University majoring in biology, hoping to go to medical school. The summer after my freshman year, I met a senior Philosophy major whose intellect and knowledge fascinated me, and inspired me to change my major to Philosophy. My father asked me what I was going to do to support myself with my degree in Philosophy (sound familiar parents?). I told him, “Go to medical school”. He laughed. I was not wealthy. On the contrary, I was living what I nobly told myself was an existential existence. I was hungry and homeless that first summer, sleeping in the back of other people’s cars. Working two jobs year round, I earned my way through this University. My degree in Philosophy, a medical degree, a Ph.D. in science, a career in academics, medicine and business, five children and eight grandchildren later, I am here giving this address.

As an undergraduate, I believed that by studying Philosophy I would find answers to the ultimate questions of the Universe. As a doctoral student I began to understand the importance of questions. As graduate students in science we would never ask ourselves “What is the answer?” We would simply design an experiment to give us the answer. The question begets the answer.

In physics, there are theories which explain the macro-cosmos (Einstein’s theory of relativity), and theories which explain the micro-cosmos (quantum mechanics). There are even theories which attempt to reconcile the mutual incompatibility of these. Physicists call it “String Theory”. There is also a concept beyond string theory, known in Physics as the “Theory of Everything”. As a student I wanted to find the philosophical equivalent of the scientific “Theory of Everything”. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The hidden harmony is stronger than the visible.” I was searching for the hidden harmony. What I found instead were questions. I would like to share with you some of the questions I have posed to myself over the years. Of the hundreds and perhaps thousands of worthy questions, I have chosen just five.

First question: Is there a God? I believe so, despite being an existentialist as a young student. And if God exists, does God really care whether we worship as a Christian, Jew, Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist? I think not. If I were God I would be too busy with “Everything” to care whether I was approached from the left or right.

Second question: What is our responsibility to the world, to humanity? War, suffering, disease, poverty, ignorance, climate change are desperate problems which desperately require solutions. It is said that “No snowflake ever feels responsible in an avalanche”. But an avalanche changes all in its path. If we are but snowflakes in this large world, together we can effect change. To do so we must take responsibility for our lives and commit a portion of our life’s energy to the service of humankind. To quote Thomas Huxley “The great end of life is not knowledge, but action”. Graduates, take action. Change the world!

Third question: What does it mean to be a nation, an American? This, in part, is a question pitting probability against possibility. What we are, whether black or white, male or female, born rich or born poor is determined by chance, by probability. But who we are, who we become, what we make of our lives is what is possible. We cannot control probability, but possibility depends on many things – freedom, democracy, equality, stability, opportunity. These are American values. They are worth nurturing, supporting, and if necessary defending, for without these the possible only becomes the probable. Whether you are a democrat, republican or politically independent, separate your duty and responsibility to maintain the values of this great country, from the politics which seek to corrupt it. Look around you in this hall, or on any day in this wonderful city of Boston, at people from all over the world – Americans. Look at the shapes, sizes, colors, religions and ethnic origins. To hate America is to hate the whole world. To love the best of American values is to love humankind.

Fourth question: What is really important in life? Consider two – family and community. A sense of belonging is an essential part of the human experience. Time travel is not impossible, not in a metaphysical sense. We travel into the past through observations of the world, the study of history, and our memory. We travel into the future, by way of influence – the lives we touch, the children we raise, the friends we help, and the deeds that we do for our human community. Do you want to travel far into the future? Then I submit, place the emphasis of your life here.

Make the earth a better place for you having been here. Financial security is very important to most of us. But money should not come at the expense of integrity. Our choices determine who we are and we can always choose to do the right thing. I often ask myself when I am at the last moments of my life, alone, with only my thoughts as companions, which of these (thoughts) will be my last company. Surely they will not be the great business deals I pulled off, or the money I made in the stock market, or the fast cars I drove. My last thoughts will be of the people I have known and loved and who have loved me, those I have helped or those who have helped me. They will be of the goodness I have encountered, or created, in this world. They will be of the beauty of the earth, the wonder of music, and the magic of life. Honor is a gift that one gives to oneself. Give yourself that gift and give your gift to the world.

My last question: Who am I and by extension who are we? I am a sentient, aware, conscious, creative, moral being, with free will and a conscience. These separate me from all other things in the world and connect me with all human beings in the world. Pablo Neruda said that “Every casual encounter is an appointment”. Today, my appointment is with you.

Forty years ago I began my studies in Philosophy, here at B.U., a poor and struggling student. A few years later I was sitting where you are now, graduating from this great university with my degree in Philosophy. Now, with almost a lifetime gone, I am here, giving your commencement speech. Life, each and every moment an unrepeatable miracle, and isn’t it over in a blink.

Congratulations graduates, this is your moment. Some day, one of you might be giving this address. What questions would you ask? Remember, as you go forth into the world and ask your questions, the words of the Little Prince, “It is with the heart one sees clearly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”