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‘A keener sense of sympathy’: The 2021 valedictory speech

<h5>Taishi Nakase at Princeton University 2021 Commencement</h5>
<h6>Charles Sykes &nbsp;/ Associated Press Images for Princeton University</h6>
Taishi Nakase at Princeton University 2021 Commencement
Charles Sykes  / Associated Press Images for Princeton University

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here

It is one of the greatest honors of my life to be standing before you today. I want to start with some words of gratitude. To all the faculty who challenged us and encouraged us to pursue our studies, to the dining and facilities staff who fed us and kept us safe and to our families and friends who provided us with love in our moments of sorrow and joy, thank you. Our growth throughout our time at Princeton and this very Commencement Ceremony today could not have been possible without your support. 

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As a student of infectious disease, I have defined for myself a goal that I regard as worthy of all of my energies. I hope to join the community of men and women who devote their lives to studying and eliminating the biological scourges that continue to threaten human life. Before March 11th, 2020, my study had been mostly academic. But then the pandemic hit, Princeton closed its doors and the course of our young lives changed. Infectious disease came home, and I was forced to return to my own. 

I hadn’t spent a great deal of time in Melbourne since leaving for college three years before. When I left my father at the airport for the 20-hour flight to Princeton as a first year, I didn’t know when I would come back. I was determined to carve out my own path and build the life that my father was denied but had always wished for me. A life not constricted by financial struggle or the limitations of an unfinished education: the freedom he himself didn’t have.  

In the middle of my efforts to secure this new life, I was thrown back into the childhood bedroom where I thought I’d never sleep in again. All of a sudden, I was alone and like all of you I suppose, staring at screens and seeing the fracturing of the life that we had been working so hard to build. Yet, in the midst of this grief, I had moments of unexpected happiness. I got to sit down and have dinner with my father once again. It may not seem like much, but it was a joy to be with him. It was just me and him as it had been for many years. We talked about his work, my studies and the latest Netflix release. Growing up, our shared meals were always a way for us connect across the divide that his long work hours and my ambition created. And now, I had returned home, and I was my father’s son again. I never expected to have these moments with him. I don’t know when I will have them with him next. For a brief moment though, in this remarkably ordinary act of sharing a daily meal, my father and I bridged the gap that my years abroad had created. 

This global pandemic has affected us all in different ways. We have felt alone. We have felt uncertain. We have felt loss and at a loss. Our moments of loneliness, grief and even private joys ought to be recognized, for they can and should move us. Whether we know it or not, we have shared this aloneness together. I don’t want to dwell on the past, but I do want to honor this profound time in our lives when our naïve youth was abruptly replaced with a coarse reality filled with both extraordinary loss and ordinary disappointment. In reflecting on our shared moment, I am reminded of George Eliot’s words about a young woman’s disappointment at the prospect of her new life:

Not that this inward amazement of Dorothea's was anything very exceptional; many souls in their young nudity are tumbled out among incongruities and left to "find their feet" among them, while their elders go about their business. Nor can I suppose that when Mrs. Casaubon is discovered in a fit of weeping six weeks after her wedding, the situation will be regarded as tragic. Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

- George Eliot

Dorothea’s feeling of disappointment is by no means extraordinary. But that is Eliot’s point. We have all surely felt some faintness of heart and some true loss within this new reality that the pandemic has thrust upon us. Yet, the ordinariness and frequency of our feelings does not diminish their significance. Our disappointment at the loss of all those things that we had come to think of as our due, the annoyances of Zoom classes, the uncertainty of our futures and even my unexpected time with my father constitute an epic as good as any. 

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My wish for all of us as we move forward with our lives past FitzRandolph Gate and past this terrible pandemic is to find within us a keener sense of sympathy. A sympathy that not only turns us towards grand historical feats and game-changing research but stretches forth to the ordinary acts and feelings of individuals that are too often left unremembered and unnoticed. A sympathy of feeling for ordinary human life as George Eliot sought to capture in her words. I know we are all capable of this sympathy. I know it. I felt it in the food my father cooked for me as I was struggling with feelings of having lost a portion of my youth. I have seen it in the efforts of so many of you as you care for the health of your family, your friends and people who you may never see again. I have seen it in my professors who acknowledge our challenges and attempt to recreate the intellectual community we had lost. 

I know there is pressure for us to do grand things. I feel it too; I don’t think I would be here otherwise. Sometimes what is required of us, however, is not to change the world but rather to recognize what is extraordinary in the ordinary tragedies of our own lives and those of others and try to honor those small, simple acts of kindness that can have so great an effect on those around us. As we find our feet in this new chapter in our lives, I hope that we can develop the courage to hear the roar that lies on the other side of silence and to live our lives faithfully with sympathy in our hearts. And so, with wandering steps and slow, we embark on our lives beyond Princeton at once alone and together in the common joy, loss and triumph we shared here.  

Thank you and congratulations to the great Class of 2021. 

This speech was delivered during the commencement ceremony May 16. You can read The Daily Princetonian’s coverage of the event here.

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