Before I begin I’d like to welcome all the family members, friends, and other loved ones for sharing this special day with my classmates and me. This has been a challenging but, for the most part, fulfilling four years for us all, and we thank you for being here to witness these culminating moments.
My initial interest in, and ultimate decision to attend this college, hinged upon the idea that it would help make me a better man. Growing up with my father, and observing the example he set for me everyday, strengthened this idea more than anything thrown at me by the Admissions office or, really, anybody else for that matter.
My first memory as a prospective student was when Chip Timmons, currently the Associate Director of Admissions, came to my high school on a recruiting visit. Three of my very good friends were in the room with me, and are seated out there in a cap and gown right now. Each of our fathers graduated from Wabash College so Mr. Timmons didn’t have to do much to sell us on the school’s merits. The conversation basically turned to us asking Chip some questions about his experience as a student, and we listened as he gave us advice.
As usual, I didn’t listen very well. At one point he was going on about how we’d have to read a lot if we came here. When he started saying this I just kind of rolled my eyes and slouched down in my chair. I did this for two reasons. One: I wasn’t going to let some stranger come in and intimidate me on my home turf. And two, I was 17 years old, so what more could there be more me to learn? Well now I’m 22, and most would say there’s still a lot left out there to discover.
It was a rude awakening though. Within the first month of my freshman year I was behind in every class, like a lot of us were, and counting down the days until our first vacation.
There probably wasn’t much I could have done to prepare myself even if I had taken Chip’s warning to heart. But I could have had a better attitude at least. If I could choose just one thing I am grateful to Wabash College for, it would be for how positively it has impacted my attitude toward the world I’m about to enter into, as well as my attitude toward myself. Instead of a scared and immature child, I can stand here as a person fully confident in what I hope to get out of my life, with a more complete sense of my capabilities, and a very whole grasp of my personal identity. I have strong feelings that you, my classmates, are leaving here today thinking much the same way, even if only in the backs of your minds. Through our common and unique struggles we have emerged, if not quite fearless, then at least secure. The strength that arises from thinking this way is most helpful because of how uncertain and unpredictable the rest of our lives will be.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent most of your life almost entirely wrapped up in your own problems. I’ve frequently overlooked or ignored the needs of close friends or family members in order to keep my life as manageable as possible.
We isolate ourselves for various reasons, but I’ve come to realize I do it most often out of convenience and a certain type of fear. Any day now, the dilemmas we always wrote off as problems for our parents to deal with will begin to present themselves, if they haven’t already, and it would be a terrible arrogance on our part to just automatically assume we’ll succeed any more than they have. The world is always going to have its problems, and there will always be things to be afraid of. However, the apprehension I speak of most, and what leads to the greatest degree of uncertainty in our daily interactions, is not often covered on the evening news. And as a lot of us have come to expect, this concept is only vaguely referred to by today’s version of political leaders.
What concerns me most is the increasingly guarded interactions we have with each other. On an interpersonal level, we frequently reject meaningful relationships for the sake of comfort and safety. We prefer to hold our peers at a considerable distance, in order to evade their judgment. We rarely speak our minds, so that our beliefs and convictions never have to be tested. At the same time, though, you’ll constantly hear students at this school talk about the many benefits and discoveries they have made by being pushed and prodded, questioned and forced to examine the many alternatives to their viewpoint on an issue in the classroom. Nonetheless, only the most successful of us will be able to transfer this sort of thinking to our personal lives in the future. Barely a handful has already reached this level. Luckily for us, we’ve now arrived at a place of starting over. Tomorrow can be more than an ordinary day for those of us who will walk across this stage this afternoon.
Perhaps the easiest thing to do in life is to live passively, and, therefore, avoid criticism and the pains of disappointment other people might bring with them. Yet this sacrifice comes at far too high a price because perhaps the worst thing to have to realize in life is that your memories are hollow and those you could have loved are no longer by your side. Still, we take that risk every day we fail to acknowledge those who have helped provide meaning to our lives, and fail to reach out to others who may do the same. The late writer John Steinbeck said there is a frailty that rests on the surface of our personalities masking our desire to do good and be loved. He said in fact, most of our vices are attempted shortcuts to find this love. We must stop looking for shortcuts because we’re only going to wind up more lost and empty than ever before. Each one of us has different gifts, and each of us will influence the world in different ways. But without love and without firm connections to this world, our legacy fails to distinguish itself or carry on after we’ve left.
It’s through no great insight on my part that I say our country is going through hard times. Hard times without any easy solutions. It may be just wishful thinking, but if we begin by stepping out from the voluntary shelter which unwittingly keeps these problems at a distance, then we begin to move away from the stages of uncertainty and closer to the realm of hope. Armed with a profound notion of who we are, and who we can be, we should lead these gradual efforts. I like to think of progress in this way because I imagine it without any sort of agenda. The only result worth our concern is one of greater happiness for greater numbers.
In a speech he gave the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. forty years ago this April, and a mere two months before his own untimely death, the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy says:
"We have learned to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. We know what we must do. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence. We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled nor enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer. Those who live with us are our brothers, they share with us the same short moment of life. They seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can. Surely, we can learn to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again."
It has become a bit of a clichÈ around here, and I hesitate to say it, but Wabash College does not prepare you for a job. It prepares you for life. There are people who might say these sentiments of mine are all part of the natural maturing process, but I doubt that is true because regardless of whether or not we’ve nailed down the next step on our journey, the most pressing question for people like us is one of application. It’s not if we’re going to make a difference in the lives of others, but when. It’s a question of how and where our influence will be felt most. I sincerely hope we all have many years ahead of us. And if that is the case, with the talents we’ve cultivated, with the empowering sense of self we have all earned, we will meet no end to rich and enlivening experiences and opportunities.
That should be enough to remain hopeful. This won’t have been for nothing. I love you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day. Damn glad.