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The Power of Friendship

Commencement Remarks

By Nathan O. Hatch


Because of the honor of hosting Vice President Biden at your graduation exercises, there was not enough time for the customary President’s Address. While I wanted to honor your time on graduation day, I also wanted to honor the connections that we have formed since you and I arrived on campus together in the fall of 2005, and so I share the address that I would have offered. Please know that as you leave Wake Forest you carry with you my best wishes.

— Nathan O. Hatch


Class of 2009, graduation is a deeply emotional moment for you and your families. Think of all you have accomplished in four years and all you have experienced. Think of all your families have done to make this day possible. Think of all that lies ahead — exciting for some, unnerving for others, and gripping for all because it is a vista largely unknown.

And then think about your friends. There is simply nothing like the friendships forged during your college years. In the recent weeks, I have joined you at various end-of-the-year events. I have seen you stop to embrace each other, to reflect on your rich experiences together. I have seen you laugh together and shed a few tears, as well.

We teachers like to think that you are experiencing tinges of sadness and regret because college itself is over — the stimulation of classes, the intrigue of the lab, the reward of late-night study groups.

Experience shows that much of your emotion is actually tied up in connecting with your friends — on the quad, in the Pit, in residence halls and apartments, and, always, it seems, through your cell phones.

In the future, you know that sustaining those friendships will be more challenging without the proximity of college life. So, as you leave this place, I hope you will think about the power of friendship in your life. My message today is this: Cultivate your friends and ponder what it means for you to be an authentic friend to others.

Today it is easy to take true friendship for granted. Why? Because we have come to think of friendship as something easy, almost effortless. We even act as if it is important to accumulate as many friends as possible. Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools are just that — tools — and yet they have shaped the very conceptions of friendship and intimacy, encouraging us to call any contact or acquaintance a friend. At one level that is fine. Knowing and relating to scores of people is appropriate and useful. But we must be careful to know what real friendship means — and it is rare. “Be courteous to all,” George Washington once observed, “but intimate with a few.” True friends are like diamonds, precious and rare.

Experts tell us that fewer Americans today have close confidants in whom they can confide. We are connected with more and more people. And people feel free to share intimate details of their lives with virtually everyone. Yet we still thirst for people who will not only “add” us to their networks or “follow” our updates, but who will stand with us through thick and thin, will revel in our accomplishments, and will drop their plans when we are in trouble.

I recall vividly such a time, although it happened almost twenty years ago. A friend and fellow historian George Rawlyk unexpectedly dropped by to see Julie and me one night. George, a Canadian and a great bear of a man, would have played professional football had he not won a Rhodes scholarship and turned his attention to the craft of history. Professor Rawlyk was fierce in academic debate and feared by his students.

He came to the Hatch household that night because he knew his friends Nathan and Julie were hurting. He knew that we had sustained a professional disappointment that was confusing and hard to accept. I will never forget George Rawlyk sitting in the rocking chair across from us in the family room. As he listened and pondered what we had to say, all of a sudden tears of empathy and understanding began to flow down his cheeks and onto his beard. I have never experienced anything quite like it: this giant of a man, with a great heart, sat there weeping on behalf of his friends.

Friendship has real power only when it runs deep. May each of you graduates know the power and the joy of a few good friends.

A second half-truth about friendship is that it is the key to personal advancement. One hears it said: it’s not what you know, it’s whom you know, or it pays to have friends in high places. This is not to suggest that friends shouldn’t be useful to each other. But it distorts the very essence of relationships if friends are a means to some other end, such as enhancing our own status or building networks of professional advancement.

The digital world easily blurs the distinction between true friendship and networks fostered for commercial advantage. A recent article in Business Week, “What’s a Friend Worth,” describes how companies are gleeful about mining data available from social networks and instant chat providers. Friends naturally have patterns of likes and dislikes around which advertisers can target their message.

True friendship, both Ralph Waldo Emerson and C.S. Lewis have argued, springs from common interests and passions, shared purposes. Lewis has suggested that friendship often begins with the stark realization of shared insight: “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

The power of like-minded friends has accomplished great things in the world. Early in the nineteenth century, the friendship of William Pitt and William Wilberforce did much to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Incessant talking between William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had much to do with the advent of what we now call “the romantic movement.” To use a modern example, the friendship of four high school students at Lakeside School in Seattle in the 1970s and their resolute passion for computers and computer programming led Bill Gates and Paul Allen to found the Microsoft Corporation. For friends with like passions, the whole can become much greater than the sum of the parts.

As you leave Wake Forest, please take note of what a treasure friends can be. Friends are wonderful -but they do complicate life. They take emotional commitment, patience, and the kind of time that young professionals so often lack. Powerful friendships do not just happen; they require sustained investment.

Take this opportunity to celebrate your friends. Their steadfastness will make you a better person. The passions you share with them can accomplish great things. And their presence in your life will be a wellspring of deep joy and satisfaction.