This is a dark time to be a young woman finishing school.
People may eventually look back on this moment as a turning point in the tide of history—the decline of one kind of international order and the rise of another, something like the wave of change that swept across the world in the early 20th century.
Today, people worldwide are turning away from democracy, from the institutions of global cooperation, and from the rhetoric and values of human rights. At the same time, an unprecedented refugee crisis, civil wars worldwide, and natural disasters have placed more people in need of humanitarian assistance than ever before. People are losing jobs to technological change and losing faith in a system that has not helped them train for new ones, while politicians find it easier to blame minorities, immigrants, and outsiders for these losses than to grapple with the complicated solutions these problems require.
We tend to think of huge social and political forces as being remote from our lives and our personal plans. But these world events shape the very boundaries of how we live. The changing nature of American power in the world will echo into your life in all kinds of ways, as will the backlash against immigration and democracy. These forces frame the boundaries of what lives are possible for us, of what we can say and do, where we can go, who we can marry, which loves we can speak out loud, what work we can do, where we can make our homes, and how protected our safety and our happiness will be.
Let’s consider the beginning of the 20th century through the eyes of one of its famous chroniclers, Vera Brittain. With much difficulty, Brittain persuaded her family to let her enroll at Oxford University at a time when women couldn’t even receive formal degrees—but WWI broke out, and Brittain left school after her first year to become a nurse, only returning after the war was over, and after she’d lost many of those she cared about most.
“When I was a girl,” Brittain wrote, “… I imagined that life was individual, one’s own affair; that the events happening in the world outside were important enough in their own way, but were personally quite irrelevant… But this is so no longer, and never will be again, since man’s inventions have eliminated so much of distance and time; for better, for worse, we are now each of us part of the surge and swell of great economic and political movements, and whatever we do, as individuals or as nations, deeply affects everyone else.”
Put another way, she explained, “when the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.”
Or, to put it another way—to tweak a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s King George in Hamilton—“oceans rise, empires fall, it’s much harder when it’s on your call.”
I’m not writing to depress you. I’m writing to ask you to be indomitable and fearless in this dark time. Because big social, political and economic forces shape the lives that are possible for us all—but then we, the people, push back, and we shape those forces in turn. Each one of us, living our lives—our experiences aggregate up to create those big forces.
And so, the generations that lived through WWI, the Great Depression and WWII tried to build a new world order from the wreckage of the old order. Leaders built international organizations like the UN, the EU, and NATO that to this day help keep a third war between powerful countries from breaking out. Activists who knew bad governments made citizens fear for their lives drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and when governments were slow to grant the people their rights, people built movements to demand them.
People often quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. We know it was bent towards justice by coordinated, difficult work by countless men and women committed to civil rights—by Dr. King, by Fannie Lou Hamer, by Rosa Parks, by Diane Nash, by Thurgood Marshall, by John Lewis, by so many college students marching, organizing, demanding change. They met what seemed like immovable realities with a surge of concerted effort.
As Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ drafters, wrote: “The course of history is directed by the choices we make and our choices grow out of the ideas, the beliefs, the values, the dreams of the people. It is not so much the powerful leaders that determine our destiny as the much more powerful influence of the combined voices of the people themselves.”
What comes after this depends on you—if we are to be delivered from a world in which we fear our neighbors and turn our backs on the desperate and demonize those who are different from us, if we are to build a better world, it is because you will do it. If we are to be pulled back from the brink of catastrophic climate change, it is because you will pull us back.
And you don’t just have to deliver us from a dark future—you have to do it in a world where people will tell you that you don’t matter.
They’ll tell you this when they talk over you in classrooms or in the workplace, or when they pay you less for doing the same work. They’ll tell you this when they’re comfortable looking away from sexual assault on college campuses, or when they minimize degrading language or harassment. They’ll tell you this when they say your race or gender or sexual orientation are obstacles you have to somehow overcome, or when they deny those attributes are important parts of your life experience. All of it may make you question your self-worth.
But here’s the thing: People want to make you question your self-worth because they are terrified of you. Think of Malala Yousafzai, the fearless young activist who famously faced violence from the Taliban for pursuing an education—describing her struggles, the UN Secretary General said, “extremists have shown what frightens them most: a girl with a book.” The violence Malala faced is not, thankfully, the experience every girl faces when seeking an education, but that any girl faces it is a concern for us all—and, truthfully, it’s not just the Taliban that fears educated, empowered women. There’s nearly no corner of the world where a girl with a book isn’t a challenge to the existing order.
All those people who want to make you question your value, who want to minimize or dismiss or shunt you to the sidelines, do it because they know what you are capable of. They think, as Virginia Woolf wrote, that with an education you will “set fire to the old hypocrisies.”
We need not turn to fire—but doesn’t the old lie that you matter less deserve to be destroyed? Wouldn’t doing that bring us a fundamentally better world? And wouldn’t you be the ones to do it? This will require that you are fearless and hopeful no matter how terrifying the world seems. You can tear down the old hypocrisies by living in joyful ways that reject those lies, and by embracing a hopeful vision of the world. In this sense, hope isn’t some hazy fantasy.
As Rebecca Solnit writes: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky… hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency… hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal.”
“To hope is to give yourself to the future,” she writes, “and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
You scare them—all those small-minded people whose lives are built around the lie that you don’t matter, who would drive us to war and trade the very earth for short-term profit. They want to make you think that you can’t transform the world and make it kinder or more just. It’s convenient for them if you get discouraged, sit at home and despair. Because they know that the choices you make, the values you live, the commitments you make—to excellence, to integrity, to protecting others, to preserving the future—they shape the big forces of history, too.
You can live in daily defiance of repression and selfishness and prejudice and greed. In doing so, you use your own life, your own happiness, your own goodness, to drag the course of history ever so slightly closer to that fundamentally different world.
And so, here we all are, at the cusp of all your many possible futures. We have real problems that it will take incredibly hard work to solve. If we are to survive the years to come we will all have to reaffirm our commitment to conservation, to conflict prevention and to ensuring basic rights and dignity to all people.
Your lives, my life, our lives will be defined by how those in power try to manage those challenges—but I’m not afraid, because I look around the world and I see your incredible intellects and your commitment to others and your unique talents. I’m hopeful because we have you.
This is an emergency, but you are the ax.
Break down the old lies. Help reframe the future that is possible for all of us.