'How We Can Begin to Move Forward'

September 13, 2022
Dean David N. Hempton. / Photo: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer
Dean David N. Hempton. / Photo: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

HDS Dean David N. Hempton delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on September 12, 2022.


Good morning, everyone. Happy Monday morning. I'm going to begin my reading where Sarah Whiting left off on Thursday from the Book of Ecclesiastes 1-13.

"There's a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and the time to dance; a time to tear, and a time to mend; a time to be silent, and a time to speak. What do workers gain from all their toil? I know that there's nothing better for persons than to be happy and do good while they live, that everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all their toil. This is the gift of God."

I want to begin this morning with a sense of realism. There's no point in sugar coating it. We're beginning our academic year together at a very difficult cultural moment in this country and the wider world. There's so much pessimism and a sense of crisis. The COVID-19 global pandemic, which is still not over, has taken an enormous toll on all of us, and some much more than others. We're facing the greatest racial justice reckoning since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We're encountering the deepest polarization in American politics since the Civil War. We're facing a planetary climate crisis and the weather catastrophes that come with it. We're experiencing enormous structural inequality as resulting in profound inequality of opportunity. There's a sense of profound unease about the international order and the role we should be playing in it. The cruel war on Ukraine is there all around us.

Every day, there seems to be a new grief to absorb and a new painful memory to process. All this leaves us feeling tired and discouraged. Professionals call it crisis fatigue, languishing, muddling through, sucking it up, hoping for better times ahead, deep sentiment of unease and anxiety, anger and confusion, just plain tired and a bit fed up. So what is there to be said about all this? I want to speak to you this morning about an experience I had earlier this summer, which I'm still trying to process, but which has made quite an impact on my thinking about universities and community, and how we can begin to move forward.

I spent a month at the Bellagio Center in Lake Como in Italy. Someone has to do these things. Together with 13 others from a remarkably diverse set of backgrounds, we were brought together to work on individual projects around human flourishing, but we were able to interact with one another across disciplines in creative ways. It was a very diverse gathering with a group of intellectuals who were simultaneously running conferences on reparations, first in Bellagio and later in Ghana. These included Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times journalist and Howard University professor who started the 1619 Project. Other residents included a MacArthur Genius Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning Native American poet, a Japanese musician and composer, a group of distinguished climate change activists, a Stanford Law professor studying the impact of mass incarceration on our legal system, a public health doctor who led New York City's response to the COVID epidemic, a former Lebanese Minister of Health who now works for the World Health Organization on pandemics, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker who specializes in making films about LGBTQ community, an artificial intelligence ethicist, and so on. We were a group of somewhat random people, united, I suppose, by a desire to make the world a better place, especially around issues of racial justice, climate change, public health crises, and the creative arts.

We lived together. We shared meals together. We even danced together. Argued furiously over very contentious issues—everything from reparations to mass incarceration, from Israel, Palestine, to public health disasters, from structural inequalities to America's dark history over its treatment of indigenous and enslaved people. We also disagreed over some very basic issues. So why am I telling you about this? In some ways, the experience of all of us at Bellagio merge our lives at universities. We are all experiencing something for the first time with high achieving people we have never met before.

So what are the lessons or takeaways from the experience I had? The first is that vigorous discussions and disagreements do not have to be hostile or disrespectful, but they can only happen when people trust one another and respect one another. And trust has to be built. We need to pay attention to one another's life stories and to treat each other as equals, not just as stereotypical assemblages of opinions.

Secondly, be willing to hang out with people you may not feel entirely comfortable with, and be prepared to change our minds. For example, over things like reparation, which I changed my mind over. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak. None of us knows what we don't know. Universities are places to find out about the things we don't know, and to have our views subjected to challenge and discussion. Sometimes that will mean changing our minds upon important issues.

Thirdly, build into our schedules time to have fun together and to lighten up. It's hard to be angry with people you're eating, drinking, and dancing with. Nikole Hannah-Jones led us in an instruction in the Electric Slide and the Wobble, which I've never done before. May never do again. So much of our community operated around a sense of fun and enjoyment of one another's company. There is, in the words of Ecclesiastes, it's a time to laugh and a time to dance. Try to build friendships with people who might not look like you and who may come from very different backgrounds. Most of us did not expect to make enduring friendships with the people we were randomly thrown together with, but we did. Difference does not have to be divisive. In fact, the very opposite.

And then finally, listen to your body and your mind about what works for you, and pay attention to your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. It was striking in our community how people looked out for one another, especially during the little health upsets and emergencies that are sure to come our way, and did come our way in Bellagio. Nothing builds community more than compassion and empathy, especially in times of need and demonstrated vulnerability. Also, nothing builds community more than a sense of fun and enjoyment. Remember the end of our reading from Ecclesiastes, "I know that there's nothing better for persons than to be happy and do good while they live, that everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all their toil. This is a gift of God."

May all of you receive this gift this academic year.