‘Being Human Means Being Emotional’

Assistant Professor of Psychology Leah Dickens calls for graduates to “live life in full embrace” of their emotions.

By Leah Dickens
Leah Dickens

The following is the prepared text of the Baccalaureate address delivered by Assistant Professor of Psychology Leah Dickens on May 20, 2022. Dickens was selected by the senior class to deliver the address prior to their graduation.

To the Class of 2022, I am so happy to be speaking to you today. Thank you so much for this honor; I only hope I can provide you with the wit and wisdom you deserve. I’ll try to focus mostly on wisdom because I have a supreme fear my wit will fall flat, and it’ll be awkward for everyone.

Of course, they have only asked for a short speech, so I will also do my best to be concise and not my usual wordy, prone-to-tangent self. I also can’t do my usual pacing the room, or teaching with my whole body, so we’ll see how this goes.

Many of you know I teach a course called Positive Psychology, which is all about “the good life” — and what psychological science has to say about living well and flourishing. 

We have had a couple of hard years, to say the least. Living well has been a challenge and may have felt impossible at times. We are still dealing with a lot of hardship, and we might have a ways to go. As I always say, people are complicated — and beyond that, our relationships are complicated, our conflicts are complicated, and our treatment of this one earth — and our relationship with it — is complicated. 

But I am very happy that we are here, on this hill, and we are celebrating your accomplishments, together, today. And I think your accomplishments deserve to be focused on, regardless of the rest of things.

There’s a lot I could say about living well. Trying to truncate all of the content of a semester-long course into 10 minutes is a real challenge, it turns out, and is frankly impossible. So instead I want to focus on just two key things from my own research that I hope will serve you well as you move forward in this life. 

I am a social psychologist who studies emotions. What y’all are experiencing right now — the happiness, the pride, that bittersweet feeling that’s hard to name — these emotions are my favorite things to think about. And I want to encourage you to feel your emotions and to feel them deeply. Because it turns out, believe it or not, emotions can be functional, adaptive. They can focus you on what’s important. 

My classic example — I believe 100 of you students have heard this, in one of my classes or another: imagine you are walking on Middle Path. And all of a sudden there is a bear right in front of you. Huge bear. And he looks mad. That fear you feel? That’s, hopefully, going to help you survive. Your immediate fight-or-flight response — that quick action keeps you alive. You climb a tree, you run away, you survive. 

If you didn’t feel that fear, you might be standing there, like “Huh. How interesting. A bear on Middle Path. Wild! What should I do? I suppose one option is … ” People! People. While you’ve been musing and pondering your options, the bear attacks. I’m sorry, but he was angry, he attacked. I don’t know what else to say.

(Well, what I will say, because learning doesn’t only happen in classrooms, and you’re never too old to learn, and your professors are never too old to learn — here’s the thing: I have been told by some knowledgeable sources that sometimes running away from bears or climbing trees is actually ineffective … it depends on the type of bear! Okay? So just as a public service announcement. Maybe do some research before you go hiking in the wilderness.)

But my point is: fear serves a purpose. Maybe it was a little tiny bear cub, you ran away, you survived. Yay. Fear helps us avoid danger, threat and harm. 

And it’s not just fear that serves a purpose; it’s all emotions. And as you might guess, given that I teach Positive Psychology, I personally enjoy researching positive emotions. And — it just so happens — my two favorites are absurdly relevant for today. Pride and gratitude.

First of all, let me just say, in case, somehow, no one has said it to you yet: Class of 2022, you should be so proud of yourselves today. You have accomplished a feat that — in non-pandemic times — would’ve been challenging. Remember your sophomore spring, spring 2020. All of your professors were like, “Okay, have a wonderful spring break! We’ll see you when you get back!” and then it was “Hey actually, see ya never!” and we gave you three hours to pack, or we shipped you your books and we went remote. We learned what Zoom was and sort of figured out screen sharing … somehow we all pivoted — that was the word of the year — and we made it work. Admittedly, things weren’t ideal, things didn’t work optimally, but as I liked to say at the time, it was good enough. 

You all have made it through virtual classes, and semesters masked and socially distanced. And then, when we decided maybe we could take our masks off, we got hit with the worst flu ever. Oh, we have had fun.

You have risen to challenges none of you asked for, and you have earned this Kenyon degree with your resilience and your dedication, as well as your intellect. 

I know that pride is an emotion that sometimes gets a bad rap. The social norms of our society have taught us that we aren’t supposed to brag about ourselves. We hated that one girl who would say “Oh my gosh, I got a 100!” Oh, we loathed her. Because she sounded arrogant. She sounded full of herself. But really, perhaps, she was just proud, and she couldn’t help but express that. (I know what you’re thinking, maybe she was also arrogant, I don’t know.)

But the thing is, it’s good to feel proud of yourself. You should hold onto that positive feeling of achievement, and just enjoy it. You’ve earned it. Let that positive feeling motivate you to keep achieving, because that is the function of pride. Despite the work it may entail, pride pushes us to try hard and do better and earn more for ourselves.

If it feels weird or wrong to say that you’re proud of yourself, because, you know, it goes against your whole life’s upbringing, maybe you could say that you’re proud of someone else. And say it to their face, even. I imagine you’re all proud of your friends, but we don’t usually express it. Maybe that, too, feels weird. But just go with it. We should express pride in others more often than we do. Especially this weekend. 

Gratitude is in certain ways similar. We don’t always express it to those for whom we are the most grateful. We can take our relationships for granted. We can assume they must know that we’re grateful. But in all of our relationships, gratitude is really important. 

Today, and this weekend, we are celebrating your time and your success here at Kenyon. You have taken many classes, played on many teams, been involved in many extracurriculars, made many friends, maybe made amazing enemies … your life has intersected with the lives of so many others on this hill. In my mind, it is a shame when we feel gratitude but we don’t express it. It’s a real missed opportunity. 

Why, in our culture, are we so wrapped up in politeness? We teach our kids to say thank you before they can possibly understand gratitude. We send thank you notes out of courtesy or obligation. We have the Kenyon norm of saying thank you at the end of class sessions — which I love (and maybe there is gratitude there). But you’ll even thoughtlessly say thank you when turning in exams … which is a little weird.

But for some reason, in our society, we aren’t as wrapped up in true expressions of gratitude. When someone does something so kind for us, whether it’s big or small. Even if it’s just someone bringing us those dark chocolate peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s. “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” That’s what Aesop said, in the fable, The Lion and the Mouse. (As a random note, one tangent: this quote also used to appear on a bench on the Gap trail, by the dog park, but the bench has since disappeared! Mystery?)

It’s never a bad thing to be kind, but I will say, we aren’t always mindful of other people’s kindness. We don’t always realize the kind gesture for what it is — another person’s intentional choice to do something for us, out of the goodness of their heart. Or maybe we do realize, and we feel grateful, but we don’t express it. 

I want to say — and I know I’m going to regret this, but, on the topic of gratitude, here’s what I’m going to say: “Gratitude: if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” Gratitude helps form and maintain and strengthen our relationships — that is its function. It can bond us more tightly together with other people, helping us build mutual trust, respect and lasting relationships. But it doesn’t work optimally if it’s kept a secret, if you feel it but don’t share it. I wish we were as good at genuine expressions of appreciation as we are the rote “thank you” when turning in exams. (You weirdos.) 

When people say being emotional is a bad thing, that’s really close-minded. It isn’t bad to be emotional. Maybe sometimes it’s aversive. Maybe sometimes we might regret what we do or say, but certainly not always. I believe, no matter what people might tell you, emotions — and being emotional — this is a part of what makes us so beautifully human. Without any emotions, there wouldn’t be any point of life. There would be nothing to motivate our behavior, nothing to reward our relationships … emotions color our lives in complexity and make each day a bit unique and interesting. Even the emotions that feel bad serve a purpose. And the ones that feel good should be savored and shared and maximized.

You did not make it to this accomplishment on your own. You had friends and family and professors and bosses and coaches and mentors of all kinds — you should feel proud of making it to this weekend, to this huge life milestone, and you should also feel grateful, for all of those who have helped you along the way. 

I will say that I am very proud of you today. And I am also very grateful for having the opportunity to teach you, to learn from you, to be a part of your Kenyon journey. Thank you for your engagement in our classes, for your active involvement in our labs, for entertaining everyone on this hill with your shows and games, and for making good — and bad — pottery with me. 

As a professor, I am grateful to see the growth you have achieved in four short — or oddly long? — years. I am also grateful when I think about the people you will be, and the mark you will make on this world. I’d like to think Kenyon has played a part in helping prepare you for a life of continued pride, and continued gratitude. I encourage you to live life in full embrace of these emotions, to express these emotions to those you care about, and to let these emotions motivate you to both achieve great things and form great relationships. And let all of your emotions help you to live great and meaningful lives. 

I offer you one final quote from the beloved William James: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” But if I may be so bold as to add to this, I might argue that you should act as if what you say makes a difference, too, because it does. 

I’m so proud of you, Class of 2022. And thank you.

View the recording of the Baccalaureate ceremony.

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