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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Biggest Tree

Yale Law's Class of 2009 made an appropriate and affectionate choice for their graduation speaker: Harold Koh.  Koh, an international law professor at Yale since 1985 and its dean since 2004, was nominated this March by President Obama to be Legal Adviser to the State Department.  So, at the behest of his loving students and faculty, Koh returned to Yale from his extended leave to say a few words.  (After his soon-to-be "boss" Hillary Clinton popped by, making a surprise cameo and an energetic exhortation for this year's grads to come to work in the Obama administration.)

And Koh's words were compelling and simple and emotionally-charged, laced with humor and humility and the odd inside joke. One (of the many things) he said that stuck with me: 

The biggest tree gets the wind.

Now, I'd be lying if I said I knew exactly what Koh meant by these words.  But I will give it a shot.  Koh implored the graduates (and all of us) to be big, to live big, to do big things. To make a splash, to leave a mark.  But it also seems that he warned that the biggest tree qua biggest tree is in many ways on its own and necessarily so.  It doesn't blend in with the others.  No, it sticks up and out.  It gets buffeted, knocked around by the elements.  Translation: putting yourself out there means getting knocked around a bit by the world.  But isn't it worth it?

Now I am a sucker for good metaphors, particularly those about the natural world.  So I liked this one. Loved it.

But this Korean proverb also made me laugh.  Why?  See the tree depicted above?  The big one?  That was our view at the Commencement Ceremony on Yale's Old Campus earlier yesterday morning.  Maybe we lingered too long over our hotel eggs benedict, but our seats were not very good.  

And yet we didn't miss a thing.  No, we took it all in.  The Memorial Day air, ripe with music and metaphor. The ubiquity of sun and smiles. The soft and occasional gust of wind tickling that tree and whispering words and wisdom.

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