Greetings, thanks, and congratulations ‘08!
I’m honored to speak to you on this special occasion, humbled to share this platform with your two dazzling classmates, each of whom articulated the deeper meaning of this moment in terms that are achingly real. What struck me most was the intensity of their stories, the joy, the struggle, the sense that today represents a community triumph, the collective effort of teachers and parents and loved ones and children and sisters and brothers. Everyone in this room is part of the accomplishment of these fine young people because everyone is connected in the intricate web of relationships and struggles and shared hopes. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it this way: “In a real sense all life is interrelated, all humanity is caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, united in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” This is the reality, and so we applaud the graduates, and, at the same time, we appropriately applaud everyone else in the room.
The New City High School has been a special home for you in these last years, and it is worth noting that it is a place powered by a particularly precious ideal—the belief that education, at its best, is an enterprise geared to helping all human beings reach the full measure of their humanity, inviting you to become more engaged, more thoughtful and powerful, more fully human in your pursuits and your projects. That ideal—always fragile, never easy nor simple, always, always revolutionary and never more so than today—is central to achieving an open and democratic society. And like democracy itself it is an ideal that is never finished, never finally summed up—it is an aspiration that must be defended vigilantly, fought for ceaselessly, and achieved anew by every individual and each successive generation.
A school like this one wants you to grapple—both now and in the future—with a question central to the spirit and heart of democracy, a question both simple and profound, straight-forward and twisty: what’s your story?
All human life, of course, is in part a story of suffering and loss and pain. When that pain is preventable, that suffering undeserved, we resist, and in that resistance is another common-place in our human story.
Sometimes our stories are ignored or diminished by others, sometimes we are seen through the lenses of stereotypes and labels, our undeniable and indispensable three-dimensionality suffocated and diminished, our hopes handcuffed and our possibilities flattened and policed.
It’s here that you draw on your education, on our own mind and your own spirit, to lift yourself up and beyond the negative and the controlling. What’s your story? Who are you in the world? What in the world are your chances and your choices?
Telling our stories, trusting our stories, and listening carefully and empathically to the stories of others is part of the work of democracy. Everyone counts, and nobody counts more than any one else. In a real democracy the full development of each is the necessary condition for the full development of all.
What’s your story? How is it like or unlike other stories? Of course, you’ve now written your high school story—the good and the not-so-good, the beautiful and the weird—and that story is in the books.
But what’s next? What will you do now, as the poet Mary Oliver urges, with your one wild and precious life? What is the next chapter going to be, and the chapter after that, and after that? No one knows for sure, for only you can write those next chapters—and even so, only partially, for every life is also a dance of the dialectic, a sometimes difficult negotiation between chance and choice.
Stuff happens, and some of that stuff we can’t control. Still, education urges journeys—voyages of creativity and construction. So let’s focus on choice, the things you can decide to do or not to do here and now. And let’s keep it simple, again channeling Oliver, and lets call this three simple steps to the next chapter in your story.
Step 1. Pay attention! You cannot be free if you are living in a bunker— a barricaded space of your own or any one else’s creation. Open your eyes. Get out more. Your family, your faith community, your neighborhood, the United States—these are all fine starting points, but they are not the end of it. Reach further. Get in dialogue with different people, people with unpopular ideas, get in touch with a world outside your own beneficent (but limited and limiting) dogma. See how things look from another perspective. Take risks to see more and know more—the payoff is your own freedom. As Bob Marley sang: Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.
Step 2. Be astonished! There’s so much beauty in the world, some days it will make you ache. There’s so much unnecessary suffering and undeserved pain in the world, some days it will make you weep. Love the earth and the sun and the animals. Embrace the humanity of others. Despise riches and hate tyrants. Walk freely with the downcast and the despised. Love life. Be astonished.
Step 3. Trust your story! Intentionally, deliberately, with devotion and discipline. Act on what the known demands of you. Write it up, write it down. In a culture that seems to worship celebrity, always choose accomplishment instead; in a society that settles for stereotype, always choose to see yourself and others as an infinite universe of possibility.
That’s it—three simple steps—and it adds up to this: Love everybody! James Baldwin insists that love can take off the masks that we hide behind, love asks us to see beyond ourselves. I use the word love here to mean more than a superficial and personal sense of being “made happy.” No, I mean love in the way Baldwin used the term: love as a state of being or a state of grace, love in the tough and universal sense of quest and challenge and daring and growth.
Care about other people—really care—and be willing to sacrifice something of yourself in the tiny, unsung, unsexy ways every day that make life bearable. Give assistance and advice to everyone who asks, no exceptions. Devote your income and labor to others.
So in this election year, and in the years to come: VOTE LOVE!
For all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances.
Embrace a new world in the making, and dare to taste it with a kiss.
Just Vote Love!