Commencement Address by Ms. Jennifer Sichel (CAS ’06), May 14, 2006

Commencement Address delivered by Ms. Jennifer Sichel (CAS ’06)
School of Management Auditorium, Boston University, May 14, 2006

Good evening and welcome.

I am very grateful to be here.

I am grateful for this small piece of time that we’ve all set aside, in our very busy lives, to join together in mutual pride and shared joy. It’s really quite remarkable.

We’ve all worked hard to be here—we, the graduating class—but also you, our parents, relatives and friends, and especially, our teachers. And here we are… taking time, pausing together to commemorate the end of one phase, the end of one period of time, and to celebrate the beginning of the next.

And that’s what I’d like to speak about tonight, time.

We fracture our lives into units of time. We count days, we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. We say that we’ll meet in an hour, that we’re running five minutes late, that time passes too quickly or too slowly…

But, as St. Augustine poignantly asks, “What is this time?”

“If no one asks me, I know,” he says, “If I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know.” (It’s funny how that works!)

It seems, though, that on a basic level, we can divide time into three distinct units: past, present and future. Yet the past is gone and the future hasn’t happened yet, so neither past nor future exist.

All that we have is right now, the present—but what is the present? The present is a point when future becomes past. It is a point so short and so fleeting that it is not extended at all. As St. Augustine so eloquently puts it: “The present, cries aloud that it cannot have length.”

Before we can even call it our own, the future has already become our past. Time exists only in that it constantly slips away from our grasp.

So, what do we do about this? How do we do to hold onto time?

We strive. We “strive for the savor of eternity,” as St. Augustine puts it. But how do we strive?

We strive by using our minds. We strive by remembering, attending and expecting.

We have an extraordinary power to turn the past into the present by remembering it. We can likewise bring the future into the present by expecting it. And, perhaps most importantly, we can hold onto the present by paying attention. It is only when we stop paying attention that we forget. And once we forget, our time disappears. Time then exists, quite literally, in our thoughts, as an extension of our minds.

And we hold onto time by extending our thoughts, by thinking.

By looking closely, by listening carefully, by thinking deeply and critically, we can stamp the contour of a particular moment into our minds. By concentrating, by being aware, we have the power to seize and to hold onto our impressions. And once we have done this, we have the power to make them present again as memories.

Last week, as I was struggling to write this speech at Espresso Royale (the coffee shop across the street), Professor Roochnik happened to walk in. I went up to him, hoping for inspiration, and I got it. He asked me what, in about 20 years from now, I think I’ll remember from college. He shared his own experience with me, and then I shared with him the following story:

About two months ago, on one of those really cold days in March, I bought a cup of tea at Espresso Royale. The tea was too hot to drink, and so when I returned to my table, I set it down. As I started typing on my laptop, I noticed how the steam was billowing from the cup: It began by swirling around the rim. Then it rose, in a perfectly straight line, for about two inches. And then (and I don’t know why or how) the line of steam curved to form a perfect spiral. As the spiral effervesced, another one formed. And these spirals, disappearing one after another, varied in size and thickness as they danced into the air. And so, for about 15 minutes, I watched the steam—I tapped the cup and I blew at it a few times, and the steam continued its little dance.

Although I am, admittedly, quite easily distracted, this wasn’t just one of those times that I let my mind wander instead of doing my work. At that particular moment, I decided to pause and watch the steam. For some reason, it struck me as a really important thing to do.

That steam, I told Professor Roocknik, is one thing I’ll remember from college. And I’ll remember it because I paused to pay attention to it. I watched it, I thought about it, I wondered and marveled. I enjoyed it… and now it’s stamped into my mind, it’s a memory. And I’m lucky, I can bring that steam into the present, anytime I want to, by remembering it.

What else will we remember? What, in 20 years, will be our memories of college?

Well, we will remember what we looked at closely and what we listened to attentively. We will remember the things that we took time to think about and to analyze. We will remember those moments when, at the time, we decided to pause and pay attention. So by choosing when to be acutely aware and when to think critically, we can create our memories.

And that’s what we’re doing here, at this graduation ceremony. We are making a memory. We are pausing, all together, in an act of attention. We are taking time to let ourselves be proud about what we’ve accomplished and to be excited about what we’re about to do. We are stopping, right now, at the end of one phase and the beginning of the next, to reflect. By thinking, looking, and listening, by taking time, by paying attention, we are impressing this moment into our minds. We are striving to make it last forever.

So, to return to where I began, I am very grateful to be here.

I am grateful for this small pocket of time that we’ve all set aside, in our very busy lives, to pay attention, to join together in mutual pride and shared joy. It really is quite remarkable.

Before I conclude, I would like share with you the experience of entering the Philosophy Department, on the fifth floor of the School of Theology, because it speaks to the type of community that our professors have fostered for us. Whenever I step out of the elevator and look down the hallway, I always, without fail, see a long line of open doors. Our professors are available and they literally keep their office doors open for us. And it’s wonderful—we’re always invited inside to chat, to argue, and to think.

So many thanks to the Philosophy Department and congratulations class of 2006!