some sociological inspiration
To start the year with some sociological inspiration, I thought I’d pass along the text of a commencement speech I gave last year.
When I say “commencement speech I gave last year,” by “commencement” I mean a ceremony for our department’s sociology graduates; when I say “speech” I mean simple remarks with nowhere near the grandeur of a Steve Jobs, J. K. Rowling, or (my personal favorite) Mr. Rogers address; and when I say “last year,” I actually mean last month, during my university’s low-key December graduation.
Nevertheless, I thought the text might be of some comfort to those of us still stinging from the recent posts by Fabio and others about how the public is just not that into us sociologists. In it, I make my own, personal case for why sociology matters. (Of course, I also plug my new book on long-term unemployment, now available in fine booksellers and Amazon fulfillment centers near you.)
Below is my commencement speech graduation oratory agglomeration of words:
As we say farewell to you, sociology graduates, I want to say some words that are different, perhaps, than what you have been hearing this week, in all the speeches, family advice, and Dr. Seuss books being bestowed upon you.
I want you to think for a moment not about what you’ve accomplished, not about the successful careers you will begin, not about the bright future ahead of you.
I want you to think about relationships, about community, about the people who are—and who will be—part of your lives in the years ahead.
For as important as success is, it’s not everything. Nor can it be everything.
By definition, not everyone will achieve success—however defined. There are winners, and there are losers. A poet once said, “Don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” But of course, everyone, sometime in the course of life, finds out what it means to be on the wrong side.
If you young people don’t know it now, you will, by the time you are as old as those of us on this stage.
I could tell you that failure makes us stronger, failure makes us smarter. And that’s true to some extent. But there is another side to this. Failure can be wounding. Failure can be heartbreaking.
The research I do is about long-term unemployment. In this country in particular, it is difficult to be unemployed. Work is so central to who we are. “What do you do?” is one of the first things we ask someone when we meet them. Work gives us a sense of our importance, of our contribution. It provides a routine, a structure, a deep meaning to our lives.
As social scientists have found, long-term unemployment hits people with a psychological blow that is comparable to divorce and the death of a loved one. To put it in its bluntest terms, it means being a loser in a society that values winning at all cost.
I know something, personally, about long-term unemployment. My father lost his job as an engineer when I was in middle school. An immigrant with poor English skills, he struggled for a decade to find another good-paying job. For a time, he drove for a car service and worked as a janitor at an elementary school.
As a kid, I couldn’t really appreciate what he went through, being out of work for so long. But I knew it hit him and my mother hard. In our home, there were harsh words. Even worse, there were silences.
When I was writing my book Cut Loose, I got a better sense of what my father may have gone through. I want to read you a passage about one of the unemployed workers I got to know.
John Hope lost his job in 2009. For fourteen years he had worked at a car plant near Detroit, heaving truck bumpers onto the practiced balance of his lean, muscled arms and machine-polishing away the wounds in the rough steel, readying them for immersion in a chemical bath that would gild each piece with a thin layer of luminous chrome. It was a work of magic, conjured up in a foul, fume-drenched cavern, an industrial alchemy that transformed masses of cheap base metals into things of beauty and value.
John, fifty-five, excelled at the work. Every day on the job meant handling metal and machinery that could, with a moment’s indecision, crush or maim him. He took pride in the strength required to hold the bumpers without tipping over, and the skill needed to buff each piece precisely, so that every hairline nick or abrasion disappeared, the chemical sheen wrapped perfectly across the smooth steel, and the bumpers arrived at the end of the line looking like lustrous silver jewelry. “If I ain’t doing it good, you’re going to lose the money,” notes John in his Alabama drawl.
His Southern roots linger in that whirling, excitable, workingman’s voice, but his job—and the pride, status, and paycheck that came with it—long ago separated him from a personal history of vicious rural poverty. Deserted by young parents when he was just a baby, raised by a grandmother who had to abandon him a decade later when she went blind, John learned to fend for himself. For a time he and his older brother slept in vacant houses and cast-aside cars, on porches and forest floors.
In the seventies, the lure of Detroit’s auto plants, with their union-won wages, took hold of his imagination. John followed a cousin up there and took a job at a plant in Highland Park. For over a decade John saw his income rise steadily. It was enough to support his family of four, enough to buy a red-brick ranch house in the city, enough to give his daughter and son video games, clothes, and other trappings of a middle-class American childhood. It was enough for John to look back and feel pride in what he—an abandoned child, a once-homeless boy, son of the dirt-poor South—had accomplished.
Then the Great Recession hit. As America’s automakers fell, the damage spread to the plants that supplied them. His company decided to ship all the work to one of its larger factories, to cut costs. More than a hundred workers at his plant were terminated, John included.
Now it is the middle of winter, and John is feeling the loss of income hard. When I visit on a frigid day in January, two stove burners have been left fired up, providing heat. The furnace is shut off because John doesn’t have $1,000 to repair it.
“You’re used to working, and getting what you want,” he says. “When you’re not working, it’s like being in jail, but you have to get your own food.” He slaps his knee and shrieks with laughter. It is the way he deals with adversity—with a smile and a devil-may-care quip.
Ask him how he copes, and he will flash a wide grin. “I feel good. I got a great sense of humor.” Ask him about his job search and he’ll say things will work out. “As long as you believe, you’re going to be all right,” John says.
But as the conversation goes on, the certainty starts to unravel, the defensive smiles recede. “I’ll be back to work soon,” he insists—but then adds, after a pause: “It can be stressful.”
The job was more than a job. “To me it’s real bad,” he says slowly, forcing out each syllable, “because the thing about my job—man, it makes me think—my job was like my mother and father to me.” Quietly, John starts to sob. He wipes the tears on the denim collar of his button-down shirt, rubs his eyes gently with his fingers. “It’s all I had, you know,” he goes on. “I worked hard because I had no mother and father. I was cut loose. I hate to think about them. . . . When you growing up young, your mother and father, they take care of you. And I ain’t never had that. . . . All my life I depended on my job as my mother and father. If I could only make it every day, I know I’m all right.”
I’m not sure what you say to someone who has lost their livelihood and identity, the way John did. You can tell him that his failure will make him stronger, his failure will make him smarter. But that is just a hope.
What I can tell you is that failure can have meaning. Viewed in a certain way, it teaches us to appreciate what we have. It teaches us to question the end-all, be-all importance of success. It teaches us to have empathy for what other people go through, when they falter and fail.
Perhaps it draws us closer to other people, knowing that we are all, in our own ways, flawed.
What I think sociology is fundamentally about, is the ability to see the big picture—this big picture.
Yes, you graduates will come out of here with analytical and critical skills that will serve you well in whatever career you pursue.
But the greater lesson of sociology is, I think, something more basic: understanding.
If we truly understand what others in society go through—what we all must go through, someday—we cannot help but be more grateful for the lives we are so privileged to live, day after day.
We cannot help but be more compassionate.
The astronomer Carl Sagan wrote eloquently about these themes in his book Pale Blue Dot, which was inspired by Voyager 1’s photograph of Earth as a tiny blue speck against the vast blackness of space.
Amid the competition and cruelty of human civilization, Sagan wrote, this image underscored the, quote, “folly of human conceits” and our responsibility to “deal more kindly with one another.”
We don’t have to take such a grand perspective on existence to recognize the importance of gratitude and compassion.
As we all know but often forget, what ultimately comforts us at the end of our lives is not that we had the most money, or most fame, or best career. What tells us we’ve lived a life worth living is the difference we’ve made in the lives of other people—even just one person—especially just one.
All of us have what it takes to do this. And all of us have what it takes to view life not with judgment, or blame, or complaint, but with appreciation.
Gratitude—that was something I learned from John, the man from Detroit.
“You don’t know what the next day brings,” he told me. “Sometimes it’s a good day, sometimes it ain’t. But you got to make them all be the same.”
“I feel I ain’t got what I used to have. But maybe the stuff ain’t meant for me. God may not have meant that for me. I thank God for what I have, and that’s it.”
I’m not religious, but I take inspiration from the saying, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It is an idea that is at the heart of the book I wrote, and I hope, my dear graduates, that it will be in your hearts as you go out into this world.
As you leave this place, I wish you success, I wish you joy, and I wish you gratitude. Congratulations, graduates.