Good morning! And thank you, Mr. Peck, for that wonderful introduction. Like the students here, I appreciate that Holderness has nurtured many different aspects of my career. I have been really lucky to be able to receive the support of Holderness as I have tried out new things and served the school and our local community in different ways.
It is an honor to be your speaker today. For this talk, I promise you two things: to be brief and to encourage you as I remind you of things you probably already know.
First, I’d like to congratulate the class of 2019. We are all so proud of you and so glad to see you sitting in these chairs today! You have done great things and have worked hard. You have accomplished so much since you started school, and we know you’ll accomplish a lot more in the future. You, too, will try out many different paths as you live your lives. That is why we call this commencement: le commencement, or the beginning, of your adult lives. I am truly excited for all of you!
I also want to thank all of the people who have supported you – your parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, and teachers. They have helped you throughout your lives, and they will continue to support you. I hope you’ll thank them yourselves because no one’s life journey happens alone.
Which brings me to the topic of this talk. Mr. Ford and Mr. Barton often refer to Holderness as “counter-cultural” because we do many things here that are not found all that often in the mainstream culture. We ask you to put your phones away when you are in a class or assembly or a meal. We believe in relationships and we go out of our way to create ways in which you are encouraged to make them. We have a community service requirement that pushes you to get out of your comfort zone and hopefully to help you learn about the lives of those less fortunate than you are. We sing at Assemblies. We have a job program where you have to serve others in the school every day. These are all the basic activities that help create relationships and a community where we develop care and concern for each other, and where we learn how to be helpful and to lead each other. We also learn that we accomplish more when we cooperate and that we depend on others to help us, as well. Why does Holderness do these things? Well, at a minimum, we want you to develop a sense of responsibility for your community, whether that is now or in the future. But in the long term, it is also because we want you to be happy.
WHAT? You are thinking. Holderness makes me get up in the morning to wash dishes or clean classrooms or collect recycling to make me happy? I don’t get it. OK, so here comes the part of the talk where I remind you of things you already know.
Our society is good at celebrating the individual and individual achievements. We share common knowledge of individuals who have done impressive things, or who are amazingly wealthy, or who are famous for other reasons. Our society doesn’t always celebrate being other-centered, even though doing work for others is essential to our own lives. Making sure that everyone in our society has a decent quality of life is not only good at the ideological level, it is beneficial to each of us individually: we are all healthier when the whole society is healthy, for example. Confusingly, though, our culture often gives us messages that make our individual lives harder to feel good about: that success means being wealthy or famous, or that what is important in life is to have the most impressive career on record. You know that when someone says “Oh, that person is so successful,” we generally interpret that statement as, “Oh, that person has made a lot of money.” And what does that mean, really? Is everyone who is wealthy or famous truly happy? The number of celebrity suicides over the past several years might give us that answer. So, as you already know, the secret to being happy may not be found in wealth or fame alone.
Now, we all know that doing a job we love is more fun in life than doing a job we don’t love. Your parents and those who have supported you through Holderness have given you that gift, in part, so that you will be able to choose a career you love. And that is great, because we know that you will probably be changing your career path at least a few times in life. What is terrific about your experience at Holderness, and hopefully about your experience in college, is that it will grant you the privilege to be able to do that: to find work you love, to change, and to choose new paths as time passes. But is the goal for your life’s work to have the most impressive career possible? Well, I guess that would depend on whom you are impressing, and whom that career benefits. If you can use your work in ways to make the world a better place, then it is worth having. But if it is a career that limits you solely to economic gain, takes you away too much from your family or community, or is very self-serving or even harmful to the fabric of society in its essence, it will ultimately not provide the happiness you seek in life. There are a few leaders in our society who have reinforced that idea.
Aimé Césaire, a well-known philosopher, writer, and social activist from Martinique, is credited with bringing about change in the way the world viewed colonization. He claimed that colonial power hurt both the colonizer and the colonized and that both suffered in life from that unjust relationship. By the time he was writing, slavery had ended 80 years prior, but many people in Martinique were still living the lifestyle of their enslaved grandparents and great-grandparents. It would have been easy for him to write and speak to incite the people to revolt, to create war, to hate and harm their colonizers. Instead, he stated that the only way to resolve the wrongs of that relationship were for all people to come together with the goal of truly helping one another. He is commemorated at the airport Lamentin in Fort de France with the statement “A small step together is worth much more than a great solitary leap.” We know this statement is true because we know that when we work together, we gain faith in each other and hope for the future. We understand each other at a deeper level, and we are then able to find better solutions to the problems at hand. Today, Martinique is a department of France. People there consider themselves French first, then Martiniquais. As such, they are also voting members of the French government and the European Union, shaping policies on a global scale. Without the mutual goal of working together, that shared identity and power to bring about positive change in the world would not have been possible.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote an article entitled “Five Lies Our Culture Tells,” in which he explored the theme of individualism and individual achievement that our culture seems to value. He believes that valuing our individual-selves over being other-centered is what is causing our nation to fall into a spiritual and emotional crisis. In the article, I found four of these lies pertinent to this talk. First, “Career success is fulfilling”, second, “I can make myself happy,” third, “Life is an individual journey,” and fourth, “Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.” These statements are, of course, all interconnected, and Brooks calls all of them flawed because they are devoid of what we know to be the sources of real happiness: relationships and lasting legacies of things we have done in life that make a difference to others. We all know that while a career that we love is enjoyable, it does not fulfill us in the way that love does, in all its forms of family, friends, and community. We also know that we don’t really ever have individual journeys; a rich life is filled with other people and difficult choices that we often make because of those other people. Individual journeys are often linear, and if you ask your parents, they will tell you how non-linear life’s journeys are, as we commit to each other, to projects and plans, and as we adjust to the changes life unexpectedly throws at us. And as for our importance based on wealth or success? Doctor Martin Luther King answered that question in a speech he gave in 1968. He said:
Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 'The Drum Major Instinct' delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, February 4, 1968
Dr. King tells us that our greatness – our importance - is really about how important we are to other people. When we help people, whether individually or on a larger scale, we become important to them. When we take care of our own children or the children of others, we become an important part of their lives, and through that care, we create a positive impact on the future. When we commit our time to cleaning the environment or improving a neighborhood or fighting for social justice, we become important to those who will benefit from our work. We, therefore, become important because we have worked for something larger than our individual selves. And that kind of importance brings more happiness because we know that it made a difference for others and the world.
Well, class of 2019, I told you that I would be brief and remind you of things you already know, and I hope I have done that. You are all already successful in life, and by continuing your hard work, you will continue to be successful. We send you off today, the day of this beginning, to continue to be successful and to remember that being other-centered is what will make you happy in your life. However, you will need to stay strong. In college and in the workplace, you may not always easily find others who will also remind you of those things. In fact, because they have been brought up to believe the lies David Brooks says our culture teaches us, they may be openly hostile towards the truth you represent. They may call you crazy or unintelligent. They may exclude you from their group. These people will act as though they are smarter about life than you are - at least until they discover that their choices have not made them truly happy.
That’s when you need to check in with us. Come back to your Holderness family, your Holderness friends, and your Holderness teachers and mentors. Like your parents and families, we will remind you that the things you have already learned are right – right for you, and right for others. We have been committed to you from the start, and we will be here for you always.
So as you leave, here’s my wish for you: In your lives, I wish you all many more experiences, many challenges, many hard choices, and many opportunities to be other-centered. In other words, I wish you love and happiness always.