Open Book: The Case for Commitment

Pete Davis expands on his Commencement address.

Illustration of open doors, tied to concept of commitment instead of just seeking opportunities
Photograph by iStock

As the graduate English Orator at the 2018 Commencement, Pete Davis ’12, about to add his J.D., spoke about what he called a “counterculture of commitment” (see harvardmag.com/comm-davis-18). He urged his listeners to move beyond collegiate indulgence in “keeping your options open” toward committing oneself to a cause in the public interest—and “working at it for a long time.” Now a writer and advocate, he has published Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing (Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster, $27) on this theme, timed for the season of graduation oratory, even in a year when there have been few full commencements. From the first chapter:

You’ve probably had this experience: It’s late at night and you start browsing Netflix, looking for something to watch. You scroll through different titles, you watch a couple of trailers, you even read a few reviews—but you just can’t commit to watching any given movie. Suddenly it’s been 30 minutes and you’re still stuck in Infinite Browsing Mode, so you just give up. You’re too tired to watch anything now, so you cut your losses and fall asleep.

I’ve come to believe that this is the defining characteristic of my generation: keeping our options open.

The Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has a great phrase for what I’m talking about: liquid modernity. We never want to commit to any one identity or place or community, Bauman explains, so we like to remain like liquid, in a state that can adapt to fit any future shape.…

For many people I know, leaving home and heading out into the world was a lot like entering a long hallway. We walked out of the room in which we grew up and into this world with hundreds of different doors to infinitely browse. And I’ve seen all the good that can come of having so many new options.…

But over time, I started seeing the downsides of having so many open doors. Nobody wants to be stuck behind a locked door—but nobody wants to live in a hallway, either. It’s great to have options when you lose interest in something, but I’ve learned that the more times I jump from option to option, the less satisfied I am with any given option.…

As I have grown older, I have become more and more inspired by the people who have clicked out of Infinite Browsing Mode—the people who’ve chosen a new room, left the hallway, shut the door behind them, and settled in.…

The kinds of people I’m talking about here are rebels. They live their lives in defiance of this dominant culture.

They’re citizens—they feel responsible for what happens to society.

They’re patriots—they love the places where they live and the neighbors who populate those places.

They’re builders—they turn ideas into reality over the long haul.

They’re stewards—they keep watch over institutions and communities.

They’re artisans—they take pride in their craft.

And they’re companions—they give time to people.

 

Published in the print edition of the July-August 2021 issue (Volume 123, Number 6), under the headline “On Making Commitments.”

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