Biden at Yale: New Beginnings

Spring is, of course, the season of optimism, not only from nature's annual re-beginnings but from the emotions at the thousands of graduation ceremonies around the country.

Commencements are occasions for wisdom and inspiration, but few of this season's events will match the remarks Vice President Joe Biden gave at Yale's recent Class Day event.

I like Biden. I share his political philosophy, appreciate his commitment and approach to public service and admire him as one of the most consequential vice presidents in our history. Others do not. But whether you're a Biden admirer or critic it's well worth spending a few minutes to read and consider his Yale Class Day remarks. They're better read than summarized (which won't deter me from what follows). My guess is that when Biden began his remarks, Yale's Class of 2015 and their loved ones in attendance included those in both groups yet I'll bet that when he finished most present recognized that they had heard something special.

After his introductory comments, Biden offered some general lessons about life. The students who had invited him had praised his "compassion" but Biden said it was not "difficult, folks, to be compassionate when you've been the beneficiary of compassion in your lowest moments not only from your family, but from your friends and total strangers. Because when you know how much it meant to you, you know how much it mattered. It's not hard to be compassionate."

The students should each try to find their "sweet spot" which, borrowing from his father, Biden defined as "that thing that allows you to get up in the morning, put both feet on the floor, go out and pursue what you love, and think it still matters." Biden had been lucky; inspired by JFK, the civil rights, environmental and anti-Vietnam War movements, he "learned early on" that engagement in public affairs was "what fulfilled me the most, what made me happy." The students should each make a personal choice, whether it was Teach for America or Wall Street, music, medicine, government or something else. The happiest and most successful people had found that "sweet spot between success and happiness," between "life and career."

Although there was no formula to find that balance, Biden suggested some approaches built on character to help in the quest. First, most happy and successful people recognized that "a good life at its core is about being personal" about being there for people at times of joy and loss. Biden urged his listeners to question others' judgment, not motives, a lesson he learned after criticizing the motives of Senator Jesse Helms in opposing programs to help the disabled only to learn that Helms and his wife had adopted a disabled teenage stranger who felt rejected by the world. We generally can't judge another's motives, Biden suggested. Moreover, it becomes difficult for people to work together when motives, rather than judgment, become the basis of their critical assessments. Students should look beyond the caricature and try to build real relationships, even with those with whom they disagree.

Second, Biden encouraged his audience to treat all with dignity and respect. Academic credentials were fine, Biden suggested to his audience at one of America's most elite institutions, but no diploma could confer "the heart to know what's meaningful and what's ephemeral; and the head to know the difference between knowledge and judgment."

Third, Biden cautioned that "[r]eality has a way of intruding" as it did in Biden's case when shortly after he achieved his ambition of being elected to the United States Senate his wife and daughter were killed in an accident. Biden found redemption in focusing on his sons, in commuting hours each day to be with them. Ambition is important, said Biden, but "ambition without perspective can be a killer." Biden urged his listeners not to fall victim to the human tendency to rationalize choices which pursue ambition at the expense of the needs of their loved ones or which pursue socially-mandated preferences over their own North Stars.

Finally, Biden advised that even the most successful cannot escape from a social responsibility to engage the world's problems. "You can't breathe fresh air or protect your children from a changing climate no matter what you make. If your sister is the victim of domestic violence, you are violated. If your brother can't marry the man he loves, you are lessened. And if your best friend has to worry about being racially profiled, you live in a circumstance not worthy of us."

Biden did not simply encourage his listeners to give their opponents the benefit of the doubt; he modeled that behavior in going out of his way to praise Jesse Helms and President George W. Bush. Biden's Yale Class Day remarks are profound in their insights but they are especially compelling because they reflect the public life he has lived. They offer important lessons for all of us optimistic enough to see spring 2015 as a time for new beginnings, personal, political and societal.