Well Class of 2021; you’ve made it! Through pandemic and civil unrest, you’ve made it. Through cancellations of every kind and through months of quarantine, you’ve made it. Congratulations! It’s hard for me to believe that exactly 17 years ago, on May 16, 2004, I was on the other side of a microphone not dissimilar to this one. Life was stretching out before me and I had every confidence I would conquer the world. That kind of confidence unique to the newly minted college graduate. A confidence I hope is in each of your hearts and minds this morning.
And yet the world is such a different place than it was those 17 years ago. While I spent my college years believing I understood what John Donne meant when he wrote that no man is an island entire of itself you lived the sunset of your college career in and out of quarantine; certainly to be forgiven for feeling that you were indeed alone on an island. That your troubles were yours alone to bear. Your joys to be celebrated alone.
I had the luxury of ruminating over Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and seeing the fight for civil rights through the rosy leans afforded to us by retrospection. Meanwhile, in your young lives you are witnessing firsthand and in real time the beauty and horror that it seems always accompany seismic shifts in society.
It will have taken many of us nearly half our lifetimes, or more, to understand some things that -at your young age- I expect you already know to be true. It doesn’t take physical proximity to be together. It is not necessary to have commonality of thought to achieve unity of purpose, and to have love and respect for one another. It is my belief then, that while you may have lost some in-class instruction time, your educational experience has been rich indeed.
I don’t want to diminish your losses. In fact, you have lost much over these last 18 months. But I want you to know that while you may have lost some college experiences, history has found you. History has found you for the single reason history always finds individuals. History has found you because it has need of you. This college, this state, this world – has need of you. It needs you to serve it. For alas, the world is replete with those who desire to be served by others, but those who desire to serve others are a rare commodity indeed.
The writer and critic John Andrew Holmes perhaps put it best when he said, “it is well to remember that the entire population of the universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.” You know, we are more frequently than ever are told that ideologies and extremism are the sole culprits of what ails humanity. And make no mistake, a world that robs its inhabitants of the right to be human – the right to have thoughts that differ from our own without being denigrated as somehow less than human – is not a world likely to survive, let alone to thrive. But I submit for your consideration that it is egotism, and when I say egotism I mean the overwhelming love of self to the detriment of others, that egotism is the underlying disease that has run with pandemic-like efficiency through our world. And I fear that if left unchecked, it will be our undoing.
But thankfully for the rest of us, you’ll now be joining the fight Wofford College Class of 2021 and we desperately need your help. Well, you may be saying to yourself, maybe the world does need me to fight the onslaught of egotism and do so by serving others. But I’m not Mahatma Gandhi and don’t intend to be. So how do I fight egotism in my everyday life? There are any number of answers to that question, but I’ve dusted off a Forbes article from 2018 - with some modifications -for a few tasks you might undertake and you may accept or discard them as you see fit.
Engage in intentional acts of kindness. I appreciate the concept of practicing random acts of kindness, and that is very good, but it has been my experience in life that anything I wanted to be good at doing, I had to be very intentional about doing. So -- set a specific number of acts of kindness you will accomplish in a week. And then do so. And get in the habit of doing so. They may be small acts of kindness, large acts of kindness, done anonymously, done for those you know. Set your metric. And then accomplish it with Terrier-like tenacity. Because it’s a lot more difficult to be focused on yourself when you’re being intentional about focusing on others.
Practice gratitude. To a certain extent this is the inverse of engaging in intentional acts of kindness. I encourage you to do your very best to spend time in introspection thinking about the intentional acts of kindness you’ve received. Bearing in mind that you are inherently entitled to very little according both to the laws of nature and the laws of man. And yet you have been given much. Moms and dads, if your graduate truly does this you should expect a phone call, email or text, effusive with praise and thanks before too long.
And finally, take responsibility. This is perhaps the most difficult of the three tasks I’ve set before you. In a world filled with egotism taking responsibility is something that’s easy to forget. It’s incumbent upon each of you to join us in the fight, not rest idly in comfort, safe in the knowledge that others will take up the work to which your hands should be set.
So, I have some questions for you Class of 2021. What will you do with the hard-earned, precious wisdom the vicissitudes of life have afforded you? Will this time of forced stillness have taught you no more than the importance of good lighting on video calls? The proper way to wear a mask? Or perhaps how to eyeball a distance of six feet. I hope it will have taught you to be kind to everyone and remember all of the kindnesses afforded to you. To cherish your loved ones. To remember life is only ten percent what happens to us, and ninety percent what we do with that.
But I know you have cars to pack, last goodbyes to say, and diplomas to get! So, I’ll take my seat. But before I do, my hope for each of you is that as you go on to this next stage of life, you’ll remember that the world has need of you.
You, Annika Gadson, who is off to a graduate program in genetic counseling at the University of South Carolina and wants to use what you learn to help those who don’t have the financial wherewithal to receive those kind of services. The world needs you to remind us that one’s worth is not measured by one’s wealth. You, Olivia Miller, who is on your way to the speech pathology program at MUSC. The world needs you to work to give the power of voice to all who are set before you. Because one day you may be giving the power of voice to that person we all need to hear. Who will tell us all how to love one another more perfectly. And the world needs you Henry Lesesne, who has just been commissioned as a 2 nd Lt. in the U.S. Army. An accomplishment that comes with the duty to, if called upon, fight for people with whom you disagree and who very well may not like you. The world needs you to appreciate that you are not fighting for disembodied beliefs or metaphysical rights. But you are fighting for real flesh and blood human beings. And in so doing show us all how to love one another more perfectly.
Wofford College Class of 2021, history has found you. Because it has need of you. So, we all wait with anticipation to see how you respond to history’s need; and what you will make of it. I wish Godspeed and success commensurate with your efforts in all your future endeavors. Conquer and prevail!