Caring for our neighbors

The president's address to the Yale University Class of 2020.

Peter Salovey ’86PhD is the president of Yale University. In a departure from precedent, this speech—delivered online on May 18—was addressed to all 2020 graduates. (The president traditionally delivers a baccalaureate address to graduating Yale College students.) You can watch the address here.

Graduates of the class of 2020, family members, and friends: it is a privilege to be able to speak with you, even in this unusual way. I know you would rather be on campus—and I wish you could be here—but I am glad we can all do our part to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and stay healthy.

Over the past several months, the novel coronavirus has spread around the globe, infecting millions and claiming far too many lives. It has come to nearly every community; it has come here, to Yale’s doorstep.

This crisis has been a wake-up call for all of us. It has stretched health-care systems to the breaking point. It has threatened economies, both household and global. And, like many tragedies, it has exposed the vast gulf between the most fortunate and the most vulnerable. Long after the pandemic itself has subsided, we will need to commit ourselves to finding new and creative solutions to these long-term problems.

It may be too early to say what we have learned from all of this. But at the least, we see more sharply than before our interdependence as a human community. Our deep levels of connection and need for one another are a weakness that infectious diseases exploit. But our interdependence is also a source of strength and vitality in uncertain times—indeed, all the time.

Many of us have found inspiration in the sacrifices of frontline hospital and health-care workers; in the commitment of essential staff; and in the contributions of public-health experts and legions of volunteers. All around us, we have seen ordinary people transformed into heroes.

What does it mean to be called to heroism, to step out of your normal life and do something extraordinary? How do we know if we will respond to such a call?
Perhaps the most famous story of this kind is the parable of the Good Samaritan. You are probably familiar with it: a man is traveling along a road when he is attacked by robbers, who leave him for dead. Three men pass by. The first two, who are men of high standing, ignore the injured man. The third man—a Samaritan, a social outcast—stops to help. He tends to the dying man’s wounds, puts him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn, where he pays for his stay. He even tells the innkeeper he will come back and pay for anything else the man needs. The Samaritan is a true neighbor to the dying man, and he is the unexpected hero of the parable.

One of the classic studies from my field of social psychology takes the Good Samaritan as its jumping-off point. In the 1970s, two psychologists conducted an experiment to understand why people help—or don’t. They chose a group of seminary students who were studying to be ministers. The students were told they needed to go to a nearby building to prepare sermons on—what else?—the parable of the Good Samaritan. Then they were divided into three groups. The first group was told they had plenty of time before they needed to be at the other building. The second group was told they needed to hurry, or they would be late. The third group was told they were already late and really needed to hurry.

So, we have all these different students on their way to work on their sermons, presumably with the Good Samaritan on their minds. But as they are walking between buildings, each encounters someone needing help—actors, of course, but pretending to be very ill or hurt. In some cases, the actor was lying on the sidewalk, and the seminary students had to physically step around him in order to get by. The researchers wanted to know: who would stop to help?

Well, not many. Although two-thirds of the people who thought they were early stopped to help, fewer than half of those who were told they were just on time did so. Worst of all, only 10 percent of the seminary students who thought they were late took the time to check on the hurt person. That means 90 percent of those students thought it was more important to rush to work on their sermons—about the Good Samaritan—than to take care of someone who was sick or hurt and alone. Maybe this was the real lesson of the parable. As the researchers pointed out, perhaps the first two men were not bad people; they just had busier schedules!

How busy are we? Are we too busy to be neighbors?
If nothing else, that much has changed in the past few months. Faced with a global pandemic of staggering scope, we have had to slow down. We have adjusted our lives and our expectations. And—I believe—we have seen a bit more clearly what is meaningful and essential. Perhaps, too, we have seen our neighbors.
But in some ways, we face an even greater challenge now than the one the Good Samaritan or the seminary students faced. They couldn’t help but see their neighbors; they were right on their path. But in trying to contain the spread of COVID-19, we have had to act with concern for people we don’t know and may never see. We have had to think about neighbors who are very real, but also very abstract. We have been forced to reimagine who and where our neighbors are.
When this crisis is over, this is the lesson I hope we will carry with us: that we must act with urgent concern and compassion for the neighbors we know personally and those we do not; for people down the street, and those on the other side of the globe.

For COVID-19 is not the only pandemic we will face; it is not the only challenge you will tackle. Yes, there will be other infectious diseases, other public-health challenges. But I am thinking, too, of different kinds of pandemics. Right now, our neighbors around the world are already experiencing the deadly effects of climate change. They are living through extreme weather events and rising sea levels. Scientists tell us with confidence that these conditions will only get worse unless we take drastic action to slow the warming of our planet. The lives we save tomorrow depend on our actions today.

What else threatens the health and well-being of the human family? What about the pandemic of poverty, the illness of inequality? Will we act in time, or ignore the problem?

These are questions we must answer together. Our interdependence can be a source of strength—but only if we agree to look beyond our immediate line of sight. Only if we learn how to see our neighbors.

Today, I can say with confidence that the world is full of neighbors and heroes. I think of Chaney Kalinich, a 2019 graduate of Yale College, who has joined others in our community to volunteer with the New Haven Medical Reserve Corps. Chaney is working with some of the city’s most vulnerable residents while completing her master’s degree at the School of Public Health, where she is helping to develop a program to track COVID-19 cases in the state.

I think of a group of current Yale College students who started a company to connect senior citizens with phones, tablets, and other devices so they can keep up with their doctors’ appointments via telemedicine. These students are working with volunteers across the country, and they recently delivered a shipment of devices to patients at the West Haven VA Medical Center.

Across this city and region, countless individuals are steering us through this crisis. Health-care and other essential workers are risking their own health and well-being to care for others. Scientists are working long hours to understand the disease. First responders, members of the National Guard, and volunteers are distributing food to those in need.

On this campus, our remarkable staff and faculty members have made so many changes and sacrifices to ensure the best outcomes for our students and this community.

And you, members of the Class of 2020: In the midst of unprecedented circumstances, you have demonstrated concern for your neighbors, near and far. You have made great personal sacrifices to protect others.

You have given up big moments—recitals, performances, and championship games. You have missed in-person classes and year-end rituals. And you have also missed quieter moments—meals and conversations, walks with friends through Old Campus and down Chapel Street.

Yet in the face of disappointment and hardship, you have remained committed to your studies. You have continued to invent, imagine, and create. You have stayed connected with friends and family members. You have rejected isolation in favor of community. You have strengthened the ties that bind us together as a university and as a human family.

And today, I encourage you to think of the Good Samaritan in a new light: not how great or amazing he was, but how ordinary he was. Life calls each of us, average human beings, to acts of extraordinary courage.

These are no ordinary times. The world needs each of you, prepared to tackle whatever challenges come your way. I am confident that, with eyes open and hearts full of compassion, you will take Yale’s mission of light and truth to neighbors near and far. 

Members of the Class of 2020:
On behalf of the entire Yale community,
Faculty, students, staff, and alumni:
We salute your accomplishments;
we are proud of  your achievements.
Remember to give thanks for all that has brought
you to this day.
And go forth with grateful hearts and helpful hands,
Ready to lead and serve
A world that needs your talents, gifts,
and caring spirit,
Now more than ever.
Congratulations, Class of 2020! 

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