I’m so honored to be with you today.
Honored, and thoroughly terrified.
You see, President. Brazil has asked me to make this speech twice before, but I found an excuse to decline each time: an important business trip one year; the next, I think I mumbled something about an anticipated case of avian flu.
But the good President was not to be deterred. And his persistence only fueled my anxiety: if I’ve learned nothing else in my post-Trinity years, I have learned this: how pleasurable a task is likely to be—and how ardently you are pursued to do it—are reliably and inversely correlated. Think yoga .
But with this event now looming on the calendar, I tried to place myself under your caps, and thought about what I might like to hear from someone about midway in age between myself and my parents. I tried to steer clear of the staples of commencement speeches past: hackneyed mastery of the obvious and scenes from my life story interesting primarily to–well, me.
I fear that I did not altogether succeed. But what I’d like to share most of all from the 15 years since I was in your seat is a sense of profound surprise.
Surprise is sort of the anti-wisdom. Surprise is an organizing thought for much of life’s fascination: people, events, emotions that we could never anticipate. And ironically, the wiser we think we are, the more likely we are to be surprised.
So my gift to you this morning—offered with deep humility and gratitude for your invitation–will be three major surprises I’ve encountered since graduate school. If they resonate with you today, terrific. If not, file them away in your subconscious. Maybe they’ll make more sense later. In any case, this is only going to cost you 10 minutes.
Before I launch, I should confess that I am a lover of books and, as I age, an ever more shameless plagiarist. But I should still acknowledge my debt to the words and thoughts of these authors:.
-George Vaillant in “Aging Well.”
-Martin Seligman, in Learned Optimism
-Sam Harris, “The End of Faith”
-Rheinold Neibuhr, in “Moral Man and Immoral Society”
-Madeleine Albright, in “The Mighty and the Almighty”
-And finally, Pat Conroy, in his memoir,“My Losing Season.”
So, three big surprises.
Big surprise #1 is how important it has been in my life to try to be an optimist. I say “try” because, by nature, I am a staunch pessimist. In Seligman’s book, there is a test you can take to place yourself on a spectrum of pessimism to optimism. If anyone scores lower than I did, I’ll buy you a drink. I’m sure we’d be a real barrel of laughs together.
I was raised in a home where one of the highest compliments that one could be paid was that he was “realistic,” or a little later,. “pragmatic.” And this comported with my developing world view: life ain’t easy, nobody does you any favors, and the more ready you are to face those facts, the better. The corollary to this world view is that seeing around corners is a valuable skill, and—as a pragmatist—it is more valuable to anticipate negative surprises than happy news.
But there are at least a couple problems with being a pessimist. For starters, it’s tough to experience joy. Worse, it’s tough for anyone else to experience you with any joy, except in small doses.
But maybe most relevant to this audience of leaders: I have found it nearly impossible to be an effective yet pessimistic leader. People want their actuaries to be pessimists. Their accountants. But they *require* their leaders to paint a picture not only that things can be better, but that with hard work and dedication, they will be. The most optimistic words in the English language must be Robert Browning’s: “Grow old with me. The best is yet to be.” While these words usually wind up somewhere near a Hallmark logo, they could just as easily be the words of a great leader. Sure, we’ll be old as dirt some day, but just imagine what’s possible between here and there. And why not even in our dotage? All in 10 syllables. That’s the power of optimism to inspire.
The hard question, of course, is how to retrain our minds if we were not blessed with optimistic DNA. It’s certainly not as easy as Churchill’s famous pronouncement about optimism, but it’s not impossible, either. .
If you’re a pessimist like I am, read Seligman’s book. Retraining your brain circuitry is hard work, but it’s worth the effort. And for what it’s worth, Robert Browning’s not a bad read, either.
Now for something totally different.
Big surprise number two is what I ‘ve discovered to be the twin dangers of certainty and exceptionalism as they relate to religious belief..
Now, I know that’s a mouthful, and I tried like the dickens to boil it down. I tried “the importance of religious tolerance,” but thought it sounded condescending . I tried “the danger of religious extremism,” but quickly concluded, with an assist from CNN and the New York Times, that one person’s extremism is another’s core belief system.
At least 20 million souls were extinguished during the first 95 years of the 20th century, at least nominally in the name of religion, beginning with Armenians in Turkey and ending with the horrors of the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda a decade or so ago .
In the more contemporary sphere, I offer but a sampling of the mortal conflicts in which the reason for killing is explicitly religious: Jews and Muslims in Palestine; Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats and Bosnian and Albanian Muslims in the Balkans; Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland; Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt; Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir; Muslims and Christians in Nigeria; Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia and Eritrea; Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka; Orthodox Russians and Chechen Muslims in the Caucasus.
It would be well after noon before you got your diplomas, and I’d never even get to the 14-century old conflict between Sunnis and Shiia in Iraq, or the infinitely complex and tragic situation which pits Muslims against Christians and Animists in Darfur.
It seems that Sam Harris has a pretty good point. He writes:
“There’s a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world: they are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another. It seems that if our species ever eradicates itself through war, it will not be because it was written in the stars but because it was written in our books; it is what we do with words like “god” and “paradise” and “sin” in the present that will determine our future.”
It’s also difficult, after a scan of the headlines, not to think of Elie Wiesel, who once speculated that the saddest, most tragic figure in the Bible is likely God himself, because of the senseless killing that has happened in his name.
Almost all of our belief systems—and certainly the Abrahamic Big 3– have embedded in them at least a seed of the notion that the truth of our “book” requires the invalidation of somebody else’s. These belief systems tend to square off with Niebhur’s dictum that “open mindedness is not a virtue of people who don’t believe in anything. It is a virtue of people who know that their beliefs are not absolutely true.”
As a kid sitting in a pew at Westlink Christian Church in Wichita Kansas, I must have sung a thousand times the words, “One Way, One Way to heaven. One way, one way through Jesus” . Now, admittedly, at 14, I was less interested in questions of comparative theology than I was in the Arbuckle sisters a couple of pews over. Even so, mine were potentially fightin’ words to the vast majority of my fellow earthlings, who had their own versions of the “one way” hymn, worded pretty differently from mine. And you can be sure, that given I didn’t meet my first Jew or Muslim until college, nobody in Wichita rushed to point this little fact out to me. (By the way, if you type the phrase “one way to heaven” into your google tool bar, you’ll get 92.3 million results. I only the skimmed the first hundred or so, but I’m supremely confident in reporting to this gathering that there is not broad agreement on the matter).
And in retrospect, it’s not hard to see how that seemingly anodyne statement: “one way through Jesus”—led to some of the most shameful acts in my home state over the past 15 years: the bombing of abortion clinics in the early 90s; the successful assault on the teaching of evolution in public schools in the late 90s; and most recently, the terrible protests staged at funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq. The logic for this latest idea: apparently that God is punishing our nation for the rampant homosexuality within our borders. These acts lack the spectacle and arguably the brutality of airplanes flying into buildings. But they are loathsome in the extreme nonetheless, and rooted in an eerily similar smugness of religious exceptionalism.
“One way through Jesus.”
Again, Sam Harris:
“These are mere words–until you believe them. Once believed, they become part of the very apparatus of your mind, determining your desires, fears, expectations, and subsequent behavior.”
Now Harris goes on to argue that the only salvation of the human race will be in the wholesale re examination and repudiation of the world’s major belief systems, and that’s where he loses me. But today, I have a more modest proposition, in three parts: First, an intense watchfulness for the seeds of bigotry in our own faiths, implied or expressed. Second, a keen mindfulness that the atrocities committed by the guy with the “other book” are likely at this very moment matched by someone carrying a book quite similar to our own. And finally, a frank recognition that once we’re dead sure that there’s only one way to get anywhere, or one way to do anything, we’ve suddenly made it on whole helluva lot harder to make friends, either as individuals or as a nation.
Now for big surprise number three, and I’ve saved the biggest cliché for last. The big, big surprise for me has been the sheer speed of time’s passage.
“I once studied Proust and his theories of time and duration. He seemed to think that time…did not exist, or existed only in an very abstract way. I could not help but notice, however, that, according to his biography, he happened to be dead.”
Takes a second to sneak up on you doesn’t it?
Conroy goes on:
“In my own lifetime, nothing has been clearer or more unremitting than the inflexible and man-eating current of time….I remain fully cognizant that my body is a timepiece that can kill me tomorrow or let me live a hundred years. It is this hard, inexorable passage of time that, I believe, is the one great surprise in every human life.”
My dad told me the same thing, probably 30 years ago. I was singing along with Ray Charles on the radio, “Ain’t it funny how time slips away.” Now, my father loved Ray Charles. But I’ll never forget how he turned to me, as deadly serious as I’d ever seen him, and said, “Someday you’ll realize that there’s nothing funny about it.
The last commencement speech I gave was in high school, 23 years ago next Saturday. It was a precocious piece of work, including an 18 year old’s commentary on President Reagan’s foreign policy in Eastern Europe. (I’m sure he was quite interested in my concerns, and indeed I had them). But at its core was my sincere conviction that life must be all about perseverance and struggle; sacrifice and endurance; trading tomorrow’s ultimate satisfaction against today’s pleasure.
My co-valedictorian, Danielle Cullinane, gave completely the opposite speech. Your parents won’t be around as long as you think they will, she said, make sure to hug them every day. Before you know it, she said, you’ll be parents, and then your children will look at you like you’re from another planet, and then they’ll be gone. Cherish them. The way to make the gods laugh, she said, is to tell them your plans. Live every day to the fullest; find what makes you happy and do it.
At the time, I thought it all sounded kind of simplistic, a touch immature, and maybe even a little irresponsible.
23 years later, I’m still in touch with my friend Danielle. And all I can tell you is that I find more a lot wisdom in her speech today than she does in mine.
From Vaillaint’s book:
“What’s the difference between a guy who at his final conscious moments has a nostalgic grin on his face, as if to say, ‘Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon’ and another man who fights for every last breath in an effort to turn back time? Damned if I know, but I sure think it’s worth thinking about.”
Worth thinking about, indeed.
Today’s as good a time to start as any. Friends and parents, I join your graduates in offering my most sincere thanks for your love and support of them. Graduates, please accept my heartiest congratulations for a job well done and my best wishes for a life well lived.
And to all, a request. Celebrate today with joy and thanksgiving by the bucket-full. And every day, try to whip up just a little bit of each.