The Human Kaleidoscope and the Unwritten Story of the World: “Radiolab” Creator Jad Abumrad’s Superb Caltech Commencement Address


Ten-year-old boy standing on the mountain side of Lebanese mountains, three generations monarch butterflies and the story of the future.


Beginnings are a beautiful thing — beautiful and terrifying, marked by the wonder of the possible and the weight of the possible.

A beginning is a singular kind of freedom — a vector reaching toward a nebulous infinity of possible endings, yet bound to spear only one; a vector haunted by the knowledge that every littlest step taken along it takes us one way and not another, even the steps we don’t realize we are taking — which, in a reality governed primarily by chance, are most steps. And as James Baldwin — who uniquely understood our delusions about chance and choice — bellows down the hallway of time to remind us, “nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.”

Because the true beginning of our lives is obscured behind the horizon of conscious memory and swaddled in complete lack of agency, different cultures and civilizations have designated various points along the path as the proper beginning of independent life — none more momentous, in this particular culture, than the point at which we leave the safety of the family cocoon and the structure educational system, and leap into the open sky of independence (itself a notion that is, as the pandemic has rudely reminded us, another delusion of our species). One favorite packet of instructions has been created by our culture to help encourage this leap. It is the commencement adress.

Start at RadiolabComposer, creator and general golden person Jad Abumrad comes an especially fine addition to the finest of the genre: his address to the graduating Caltech class of 2022 — a gorgeous meditation on the Rube Goldberg machine of accidents that make each and every existence possible: that rosary of randomness leading to any one life, beaded with chance events stretching all the way to the Big Bang (and possibly beyond it), of which we can only ever glimpse a handful of beads on the nano-scale of a few human generations in our ancestry.

Jad’s father (third from left) with siblings.

At the heart of Jad’s singularly personal story — which is also the universal story — is a reminder that these accidents of chance render the choices we make with our lives all the more meaningful, all the more urgent: a sort of cosmic duty to recompense the universe for the unbidden gift of our lives as we ourselves come to bead the rosary of the future.

Jad’s great-grandfather, Brazil, 1890s.

Jad begins the address with a short guided meditation into presence — the single bead of being we ever touch directly. I find in it a poignant meta-testament to why a great commencement address is such a powerful gift for any life-stage — not only the outset of adulthood: A kernel of all meditation traditions is the idea that, whenever you find yourself hijacked by thought and distracted by story during meditation, you can “begin again.” It is what saves a practice. This principle can also be applied to the practice and maintenance of a healthy life.

Restart.

All day.

Jad’s grandfather, grandmother, and father (first from left) with siblings.

Jad has kindly shared with me the transcript, along with a wondrous private portal of time travel through the family photo album, folded into which — as into any personal history — is a fragment of world-history bridging epochs, cultures, and interwoven fates.

My friends, good morning! It’s a great, great honor for me to be here with you guys today — particularly meaningful because I know this is the first one of these, live, in a couple of years.

OK, let’s take stock: It’s 10:28 AM, June 10, 2022.

You can do me a favour: Take a minute to close your eyes. Bring to your attention a quick-cut montage of 120 million seconds from your education that has brought you here. It is important to keep it in your head:

The waves of pandemics. It was a terrible reality. Friendships. The papers. The Zooms. The masks. The readings. The labs.

All of it — call it to mind.

Now, eyes still closed, feel the air around you — that very particular stultifyingly hot Southern California air — on your cheeks; feel the heat building up between your head and your cap; feel the pressure of the chair on your butt.

Is that the feeling you get when there is pressure and air around? It’s the sensation of everything about to pass you by. It’s the feeling of you, on the brink, about to cross over.

OK, open your eyes. I am grateful that you allowed me to indulge in this meditative time (part of which was generously borrowed from Robert Krulwich).

It was scary to be asked for the commencement speech my first time. I didn’t think I was up to it. All of you are soon to be graduates from the best colleges in the country. You’ve already weathered a singularly difficult moment in human history: What could I possibly say to you, as you stand on the brink, that resembles wisdom?

And then I thought, perhaps that’s the point: There is a void out there. Looming. You all. This void is known as tomorrow. Tomorrow, what will you see? Tomorrow’s events will be a blur.

I can only imagine that some of you already fear this. If you’re not, I bow to you, but perhaps in a few months, when it’s time to go back to college and you realize, Oh damn, there’s no college to go back to. There’s just life — the string of days that is my life, one after another, until I die.

Maybe then, in that moment, you’ll have that feeling of Uh-oh: What. Now. Now what?

It is an existential question that I want to answer and it’s resulting angst. I can feel the heat and a bit of this angst in my air.

I brought two pictures with me to help: I brought a picture of my grandfather — you can’t see this, but just imagine me but with an Arab Man Mustache, sepia — and I brought a picture of a monarch butterfly. They are my offerings and spirit-guides as I take them with me on this journey.

My grandfather was only ten when he died in 1915. In the mountains of Lebanon, he lived in Waidi Sharour. It’s just him and his two brothers and his mom. His dad — my great-grandpa — had gone off to Brazil to find some work. But then he’d gotten trapped there, because this was WWI and the entire country was blockaded — you had the Allied Forces (let’s call them) on one side, and then the Germans on the other — and nothing or no one was allowed in or out. So, the whole country was hungry. It’s a pretty small country — 400,000 people. 200,000 had died. This event is known as the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon.

As I mentioned, my grandfather is just a small boy. And his mom — my great-grandma — has to feed the family. So she decides on this plan, where every week, she, my grandpa, and his two brothers would get produce from their village, and they’d pack it into carts, and they’d walk up and over thirty-five miles of snow-covered mountain, and back down to where the Germans were stationed, and then they would sell their produce to the German army, and in exchange get wheat and flour and dried milk and other things, which they’d pack into carts, drag thirty-five miles the other direction, up and over the mountains, back near their village, where the Allied soldiers were stationed, and then they’d trade that stuff with them.

And that’s how they survived: They traded supplies between the enemies that occupied their country. It’s a particularly Lebanese existence.

The trip was made on foot, once every week. It took them thirty-five minutes one-way and thirty-five back.

Well, one day, on the return leg of one of these journeys, my great-grandma — my grandpa’s mom — stops, clutches her chest, falls over, and dies. So there’s my grandfather — a ten-year-old boy — staring into a void.

I don’t understand what you are doing in this moment.

I imagine him looking at his mom, his two brothers, and the carts full of grains and dried milk that still had to be traded or else they’d starve. It was all he knew. He had a deep knowing somewhere within him. His tectonic plates had repositioned.

What did he do then? He laid his mother to rest on the side road. He continued walking.

Ten years old.

Now, he would eventually have a moment to actually process this — when he was seventy, he’d return to that spot on the side of the road and weep for an hour — but, at the time, he just kept walking.

He now has a wife and two children, the father of which was his dad. To make sure my dad goes to university, he has three different jobs. Although my dad didn’t want to go to college, his grandfather suggested that he do so. It is a good idea to attend university, but it’s not a great idea to become a doctor.It was the first time that five thousand village residents had done this. So my dad went to university, met my mom, they come to America — again, another first for the village — and, there, they had me: this nerdy kid who would go on to make a show called Radiolab. Und hier bin ich.

There are times when I’m walking down the street in New York, just feeling the force of the earth on my feet, and the sheer improbability of this chain of events stops me in my tracks: None of this had to be. My existence was not planned. All of you are not always inevitable. There was no need to be. I certainly didn’t have to be there, because I wouldn’t even exist, were it not for a ten-year-old boy who had to bury his mother on the side of the road.

Why is this so important?

For here we are.

This is a happy moment — not a sad moment! It is one of those moments when everything will change. The future will be more difficult to predict and impossible to conquer than you could ever imagine. And I don’t mean this in a generic sense: It seems to me that it’s your generation’s particular inheritance to be faced with things that are too big, too much, too overwhelming. The planet is on fire — my generation has failed you in that regard. Democracies on fire. There’s a plague of misinformation — again, we’ve let you down. Oh, there’s an actual plague — not sure what we could have done about that, but we probably let you down there, too.

You have no choice other than to follow the example of that 1915 young boy and put your foot forward. And if I have any wisdom to offer you, it’s this:

You don’t have to fully comprehend anything now. Just walk. You just need to get moving and forget about everything.

Caltech’s graduates have the unique ability to see the incredible gravity in the space you’re entering. The gift, and the curse, of the scientific mind is to know that every time we presume to see the whole of something, the plane of reality will tilt to reveal new mysteries — here I’m quoting from a writer friend, Maria Popova — and when reality does that tilt, we’re always “staggered with the sudden sense that we had been looking at only a fragment. The history of our species is the history of learning and forgetting and relearning this elemental truth.”

All of you know this. You’re the ones who have the clearest sense that there is so much we do not know. Caltech’s graduates have the most ability to see the potential in the void. It is to walk in it, create and build what’s impossible.

And one of the wonderful things about my grandfather’s story, to me — and the reason I offer it to you — is that you do not know how the story will end. It was a fantasy world that my grandfather couldn’t have imagined. People could download audio files called podcasts over the internet onto devices called smartphones. And, of course, someone could make a living from this. Imagine what I’d have to tell him if he was right here now. He was part of the creation.

And here I’ll quote the final words of the science fiction series The Expanse:

“You will never know the effect you will have on someone, not really. It doesn’t matter if you know. It doesn’t matter if the universe tells you right or wrong. You just have to try.”

It’s a little humbling, that thought. But I find there’s also a comfort in this way of thinking, in that it’s not just up to you.

That brings me back to my second photo.

Preparing for this commencement, I learned a startling fact: The monarch butterflies that you sometimes see here in Los Angeles, they migrate about 3,000 miles from Vancouver Canada to Michoacán Mexico — that we knew. What I didn’t know was that each leg of that journey takes the monarchs three to four generations. This was discovered by researchers. Every generation will be between three and four.

This is how it looks: A new butterfly takes to the skies from a Vancouver eucalyptus plant. By the time the butterflies get here, to Los Angeles, that mother butterfly is gone, her child is gone, and her child’s child is now doing the flying. By the time they make it to Mexico, it’s the child’s child’s child.

To see yourself only as one part of a stream is quite disturbing. A kaleidoscope is just one butterfly. (Didn’t you know that groups can be called a “kaleidoscope” of different kinds of butterflies? kaleidoscope? Isn’t that cool? I didn’t know this until, uh, yesterday?)

You might not even be the first one. You won’t know it, but you might be the third — or, more likely, the three-hundredth. Take the learnings, the effort and knowledge of others and apply them to your own. In your entire life, you will move the needle in ways that no one else could. And you’re not going to get all the way. And that’s OK. Because without your effort, humanity is never going to get there.

Let me conclude by saying that I wish all of you the best and most fierce success tomorrow. Tomorrow. Und so on.

All of us old people up here — myself included — are counting on you. But we’re also with flying you. When I was in my twenties, my feelings were that the story of my life was my own. I now see I’m part of a larger flow. Now, as I stood up on this platform, I thought to myself: C’mon, grandpa. It’s time.

He’s up here with me. All of the village is here. And all of us, we fly with you tomorrow — a human kaleidoscope.

So: Let’s do this, butterflies. Let’s change the future.

Jad’s grandfather (top left) and father (boy with flowers, front center) with friends and family in their mountain village.

Complement with Rachel Carson’s deathbed letter about the monarch butterflies and the meaning of life — one of the most beautiful love letters ever written — and her own spectacular commencement address about how to save a world, addressing not only one particular graduating class but the generations of the future she never lived to see and of which we are now a part, then revisit Jad’s tender poetry-fomented tribute to his mother, who spent thirty-five years — more than 150 monarch butterfly generations — unpuzzling a single protein.


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