Meditation on Tradition

For many years, the pealing of the bell in the Memorial Church tower was the lone, solemn sound signifying completion of the rites of Harvard’s Commencement exercises. Strangely enough, I miss those days.

Today, once the Middlesex County sheriff declares the Commencement exercises adjourned, bells across campus—from the Harvard Divinity School bell in Andover Hall, to the Lowell House bells of the St. Danilov Monastery, to the bell of the Harvard Business School—will ring along with it. And in a 17-year-old tradition, various neighboring churches and schools throughout Cambridge will ring their own bells for approximately 15 minutes in celebration of our collective achievements. The size and scope of the event promises to be dramatic—a jarring punctuation to four surreal years.

I suppose that is the intended effect. A wake-up call, more or less. I would rather it were still possible to celebrate Commencement the old way. The mournful way. The contemplative way.

The first time I listened to the bell of Memorial Church was on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001. There was an ad hoc service in the very same place graduation is held annually; (newly minted) University President Lawrence H. Summers gave an address. Ten thousand from across Harvard huddled together—in part just to be near each other, despite so many of us being strangers. Miles from home, having arrived just days before, we stared at each other confusedly. We marked the occasion, as best we could, without ever really grasping its meaning.

I wish I could hear those bells again—in that same way—to remember that sensation of not knowing. Of recognizing the impossibility of grasping what’s really happening. Of time passing. Of unpredictability. It is the feeling that nothing that has come before can prepare you for the events ahead. That feeling strikes me as more honest somehow than the jubilance expected on a day like today.


So much has happened since then. A former editorial chair and I once argued over whether these were truly extraordinary times. He said, “Everyone believes the time they are living in is extraordinary.” Perhaps.

We studied at Harvard during a time when the University was undergoing an (ostensibly) comprehensive curricular review, when the Allston campus was in its earliest planning stages, when the Faculty voted lack of confidence in its own president. We studied at Harvard during a time when marriage between gay and lesbian partners became legal in Massachusetts, when the U.S. invaded Iraq in a so-called preemptive strike, when George W. Bush was reelected in one of the most contested and contentious presidential elections to date. And of course we studied during the time when the Twin Towers were toppled and an incomprehensible number of people perished.

We immerse ourselves in traditions—like today’s rites—to convince ourselves that there exists some continuity between our world and the world that came before. But when the world as we know it shrinks away and leaves in its place a vast fog of uncertainty and instability, our traditions fail us. The bells ring hollow.

Our parents’ generation set out to change the world, and I cannot shake this sense of despair that our own generation might fade having lingered too long brooding in the shadow of their failure. Too often, we fight for our ideals in our parents’ same tired tradition—sit-ins, teach-ins, walk-outs, et cetera. It seems right, and yet sometimes I wonder whether they are staged more for our own peace-of-mind than for the effectiveness of their persuasion.

When President Bush announced that the U.S. was at war with Iraq two years ago—entangling our generation for years in an impossible struggle—many of my classmates and I walked out of class and protested in Harvard Yard. We marched to MIT and continued across the bridge, across Back Bay and into Government Center. We were solemn; we were angry. There were thousands of us. People throughout Boston waved in solidarity. And then we all went home. And nothing changed.

Tomorrow, those of us like myself, who haven’t yet started, will pack our bags and move out of the old Harvard dorms. There will be no pomp and circumstance. Just heavy lifting and chaos. Sometime next week, we will wake up and the realization that we’ve graduated will dawn on us. Maybe it will happen sooner. Maybe not. (Some of us will surely remain in denial for years.) Today we mark the occasion, etch the event in time, so that we may say to ourselves for the rest of our lives, “that was when…” and know that so many generations before us had participated in a similar event. But ultimately the semblance of an orderly passage through time is fleeting .

In the aftermath of the cacophonous bell-ringing in Cambridge today, I imagine there may be a moment of stillness—a brief burst of terror-inducing “What now?”

I wish I knew.

Benjamin J. Toff ’05 is a Social Studies concentrator in Winthrop House. He was editorial chair of The Crimson in 2004.