Graduation Speech 2017 Annotated

Here are my remarks from this year’s graduation. The speech I delivered is in black. My comments on the speech are in red. 

When you were just in eighth grade, applying, it, like you had just begun. Now 4 years later, it like you is wildly successful, also surpassing high expectations. 4 years ago, it wasn’t sure what direction it would take, but now like you, it has matured and after some tweaks and a bit of reinventing, the addition of some new features and the fixing of certain bugs, it like you has found its place. Its market cap has recently been hovering around 30 billion dollars.

I refer to snapchat. In the digital lives of our students, snapchat has eclipsed all other forms of expression. Twitter is for politicians and Facebook is for old people. Instagram is great but only because they keep copying snapchat’s features. I’d like to spend a few minutes with you this evening deconstructing some of the success of snapchat and seeing what we can learn from it. Honestly, the snapchat schtick was a good hook, but I’m not so sure it fit so organically into what I wanted to talk about….

The underlying principle that makes snapchat unique among social media platforms is that it most closely resembles real life. Snapchat is natural, while others are artificial. Let me explain.

Essentially, Snapchat tries to mimic real life interactions.  When I have a conversation with my friend, I am relaxed and have no fear of my words coming back to haunt me years in the future. Every tweet or facebook post though, is recorded and is searchable until the end of time. On facebook, twitter or instagram, I curate my profile and consciously craft a character that I want to project to the world. Snapchat though is much more like regular conversations that disappear into our memories after we’ve finished speaking. It’s not a juvenile popularity contest of “likes” that you have on instagram or facebook- snapchat has no likes. Even the filters on snapchat, they’re not meant to airbrush my face and make me look like a piece of art as on instagram; no, on snapchat the filters may announce where you are or just add silly sorts of images. We are drawn to snapchat because it seems more real.  Here’s a good article on Snapchat from NYT. 

There’s another crucial aspect of snapchat that makes it seem more real. It’s not just the ephemeral nature of the chats, but the fact that chats focus on faces! This is the point that I really wanted to talk about. So perhaps the snapchat intro was just pandering to the crowd. I appreciate the irony that facebook doesn’t focus as much on faces as snapchat does. 

Parents should know that when you see your child hold up a phone to their face and take a picture of themselves, they’re sending a snapchat. Essentially snapchat functions as a picture of my face talking to you. I read online that Snapchat founder Even Spiegel sees snap more as a camera company than a social media company.  Interesting. 

I’d like to talk to you this evening about a lesson I’ve learned from snapchat- the importance of faces. I’d like to encourage you to embrace the face.  

In 1997 psychologist Arthur Aron published research on a fascinating experiment he designed. He came up with a list of thought provoking questions and then placed a random man and a random woman together and asked them to talk about the questions for 45 minutes and then at the end of the conversation the random strangers were required to stare at each other’s faces without talking for 4 minutes. To awkwardly stare silently into the face of a person you just met less than an hour ago. I’ll share the results in a couple of minutes.

Often though we avoid looking people in the face.  Have you  ever seen someone approaching, someone who is not in your precise social circle, someone perhaps a bit odd and they seem to be headed straight toward you?  And in a clever little act of legerdemain you pull out your phone and pretend to be engrossed in some sort of imaginary email just so your eyes do not lock with the eyes of the approaching person?  We may rationalize though and tell ourselves that we only have a finite amount of time to devote to others and that our time can be best spent focused on people who are closer to us; it’s easier on both of us if I just ignore them. Embrace the face. OK, this little repetitive phrase of “embrace the face” was a last minute addition to the speech. As soon as I said it a second time, I regretted including it. it sounded a bit too hokey. That being said, in the days following graduation a few people said to me “Embrace the face”, so I guess it stuck.

How often do we avoid having a difficult conversation with a friend we care about because looking that friend in the face and being completely honest is hard to do? And then we ascribe that avoidance to some virtue like, we’re just being considerate of our friend’s fragile feelings? Embrace the face.

How often do we avoid looking closely at ourselves, at our own faces because we’re afraid of what we’ll see? How much easier is it to avoid looking at that mirror and to rationalize it by assigning a virtue to it- we don’t want to be vain, we don’t want to turn into some sort of narcissus flower on the side of a pond. Embrace the face.

How much easier is it to avoid looking at the face of a homeless person on the street and then to feel a little bit better about ourselves as we say that that vagrant should be able to take care of himself and that if I treat him kindly I’d only be perpetuating his dependency.  Embrace the face.

How often do we avoid looking at a friend, a teacher, a colleague in the eye and thank them for what they mean to us. We rationalize our behavior by saying to ourselves, well they’re just doing what they’re supposed to be doing anyways.  Embrace the face.

How often do I avoid looking at God in the face- as I shrug off davening seriously or overlook some mitzvot and then rationalize to myself, that I would look inconsistent or hypocritical if I took that on. It’s not me. Embrace the face.

I received some criticism from a friend regarding the above 5 examples. Previously I had commented to him how I can’t stand “straw man” arguments. He told me that he thought I held up a few straw men in the above paragraphs. I think he’s wrong. Each one of those 5 examples are real things that I (and I think most people) struggle with in real life. Not a straw man. #CalmerThanYouAre

Those of us who avoid looking the other in the face have someone reliable to base ourselves on. When God first appears to Moshe at the burning bush,  we read that Moshe averted his glance and could not look at God- וַיַּסְתֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ פָּנָ֔יו כִּ֣י יָרֵ֔א מֵהַבִּ֖יט אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִֽים׃. The Gemara in Berachot  records that ר׳ יהושע בן קרחה criticizes Moshe for his unwillingness to look squarely at God, to look Him in the face so to speak.  Why would Moshe avoid God at this point in his life? How would he explain himself? Perhaps Moshe would have said that he was just being modest and did not want to overstep any boundaries. But R. Yehoshua Ben Korcha teaches that we,  just like Moshe, need to dispose of rationalizations and look the other in the eye.  Embrace the face. That Gemara is incredible. If I had the time I would have quoted it in full and tried to figure out what the dispute there is actually about. 

What happens when we do muster the courage to look another person directly in the face?

Professor Aron discovered that people in his experiment found increased levels of empathy for each other and one couple even got married. A woman who recently experienced Professor Aron’s experiment, wrote a piece for the New York Times in which she described the phenomenon of looking at the other’s face: 

I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.

I felt brave, and in a state of wonder. Part of that wonder was at my own vulnerability and part was the weird kind of wonder you get from saying a word over and over until it loses its meaning and becomes what it actually is: an assemblage of sounds. The author of that piece actually just published a follow-up in today’s NYT. 

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that to look someone in the face, is to be real. It’s not phony. It’s not avoidance. It can be brutal, but there’s no greater thrill than in being real. Whether it’s your social media platform, your interpersonal relationships, or your drive to understand and connect to God, I cannot urge you enough to avoid niceties and polite conventions and to instead embrace the face. The thrill of being real and of being vulnerable are some of the greatest joys in life. Yes, in my original draft I had a paragraph about Levinas and the importance of seeing the other’s face, but I had to cut it out of this already too long speech.

My seniors, to look someone in the face requires a good degree of trust.  You can’t stare someone in the face or tell them something difficult if you don’t trust the person. I want to tell you that I really love you, I see you as family-some literally- and I appreciate the reciprocal trust that we’ve experienced together. That was the only line in which I acknowledged that my daughter was graduating. I thought it would be better to have an oblique reference rather than say something outright.   You have helped foster a climate of respect and cooperation between the students and the adults in school.  Over the weekend when we were in NY, one of you said to me that you like the fact the Florida kids have the reputation in the yeshiva league of being the nice kids.  I loved that! You said, why would someone think it’s not cool to be known as the nice kids? I agree completely. Your kindness, your care for each other, the way in which you’ve shown respect for your teachers and all of your peers have really shaped the school culture in profound ways that we will benefit from for years to come. By celebrating the athletes and the mathletes, the artists and the scientists, the budding talmidei chachamim and the poets you have created an environment in which we all feel safe and in which we all want to look each other in the face.  You’ve leveled harsh criticisms and you’ve also accepted rebuke- but all of that is only effective because you’ve created a trusting relationship. Thank you for an extraordinary 4 years. I cannot even begin to describe how much we’ll miss your faces.  And if you want to add me as a friend on snapchat, my username is jonathankroll. Mazal Tov.



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