Big Brothers Big Sisters Celebration

Here’s the text from which I spoke to Big Brothers Big Sisters celebration last night. (Loosely — the paper stayed in my pocket.)

It’s an honor to be with you today. I want to start by applauding the graduates. What you’ve done is awesome, and you make all those who love you proud – especially the Big Brothers and Big Sisters here today who’ve stood by you and mentored you along the way. To these fabulous people I want to say thank you for sharing what is most precious: our time.

To honor your graduation I want to make three points. They don’t form a beautiful commencement speech, but they suggest the three things I’ve learned that are most important to me.

  1. We live in a time of miracle and wonder – despite the constant drumbeat of negativity about how tough things are today. For years you’ve heard that the economy is tough, it’s hard to find jobs, the housing market has collapsed, terrorism threatens our way of life – on and on. Of course there are problems – but this emphasis is wrong! As singer Paul Simon said, we live in a time of miracle and wonder.

    a. Technology is the easiest place to start. Those of you who own a smart phone carry the “sum of all knowledge” with you everywhere you go, and can talk to anyone on the planet at zero incremental cost. This is ASTONISHING in the history of the world.

    b. Economics is trickier, because it looks different depending on your age. The housing bust was terrible for older people – but good for young people wanting to buy their first house! The economy is terrible for old people whose skills are atrophied – but good for young, educated people, which is what you’re becoming.

    c. National spirit is trickiest of all, but to me it’s obvious that America is getting better. We are making real progress on our oldest, hardest problem: our “original sin” of racism. Barack Obama may or may not be a successful president; history will judge. But he most certainly is a black man who earned his place as the most powerful person in the world and wields it credibly. Fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr. told us of his dream, President Obama is judged by the content of his character. This change has opened doors for all of us. As an example, this improvement in America made it possible for me to start attending St Stephen church, liberated to join one of America’s great traditions – African-American religious celebration – by Obama’s example.

    We live in a time of miracle and wonder. DO NOT LET THE CULTURE OF NEGATIVITY AND WHINING PULL YOU DOWN!

  2. Perseverance is the foundation of hope. You graduates have earned your degrees. It wasn’t easy; parts of your journey have been struggle, even suffering.

    This is not new. Every great religion teaches that suffering is an essential step to fulfillment. My favorite statement of this theme is in Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he urges his readers (in verses 3-5) to celebrate even the painful parts of their journeys : “We [should] rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope – and hope does not disappoint.”

    I urge you graduates to take hope from your achievement, and to build on the confidence that you can hang in there, LEARN, and achieve in the future. You’ve proven that you can persevere. Your lives will present more tests that require suffering and perseverance in the future. The self-knowledge that you can put up with pain and doubts along the way will help you in the hard times that, whatever you do and certainly if you continue to aim high and achieve, will lie ahead. BE FILLED WITH HOPE!

  3. Pay it forward. I’ve touched on technology and economics, age, race and religion. I might as well close by quoting Benjamin Franklin, as translated in a commencement speech nearly 40 years ago by a great football coach, Ohio State’s Woody Hayes. Hayes told his graduates and their parents and supporters that Ben Franklin invented the term “Pay it forward.” The basic idea is that all of us receive help from people that we can never pay back. Some receive food or shelter from strangers; some have a special teacher or coach who believes in them and shows them they’re special. You have received mentor-ship from a Big Brother or Big Sister. By the time you’ve finished your education and settled into your career, you probably won’t be able to pay back the people here who have helped you on your way. You may live elsewhere, they may have moved on, and some of the older folk who’ve helped you will, sadly, have passed on.

    I’ve been blessed with many gifts that I can’t pay back. When I was teaching in China, two old teachers who’d been political prisoners for decades smiled and hugged me (in the formal Chinese way, by patting my shoulder) every time they saw me, suggesting my very presence brought them joy because of the better world it represented. I had no idea I mattered. And I received a similar gift from my students, who hung on my every word just because I was speaking English – the only thing I really knew. These people taught me that my effort and care and energy mattered, and that they would learn from me and change their world if I would just do my best.

    I can’t pay back these far away friends from long ago, any more than you can pay back the Big Brothers and Big Sisters here in the room and the others who’ve believed in you. So as Ben Franklin (sort of) said, we must pay it forward by passing on good to folks we don’t yet know. I hope that my service on the school board will let me pay forward the debt I owe to my Chinese colleagues and students, as well as to the teachers and others who cared about me.

    I encourage each of you to pay forward the gift you’ve received from your Big Brother or Big Sister in the future by helping a lonely or aggressive kid who needs a caring adult, or in some new way that you invent out of your own unique, creative, changing-the-world self.

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