What I would Say to my Students at Graduation

As a college professor, graduations always cause me to reflect on what we have done to help our students find their way in the world. Many of our graduates will be asked, “What are you planning to do next?” Below are the four steps that I would share with them to transform themselves and their places in the world.

First, you must be able to recognize. The poem “in the inner city” by Lucille Clifton comes to mind, particularly one line:

in the inner city
like we call it

The line so eloquently captures how cavalierly we choose words about people and places. What one calls “inner city” another calls “home”, “home” with all its attendant meanings. I want you to understand that too often our words and images have little do with recognizing the reality of another. So susceptible are we to this type of thinking, the classification and categorization of people and places, that we see the label and think we see the person.

The world is changed by precise actions – millions of acts carried out by the right person being in the right place at the right time. If you want to be this right person in the right time and place, you must recognize the person before you, not the label in your mind. When you recognize the one who stands before you, something magical happens, the humanity within each of you is awakened.

People may or may not know the job you have. People may or may not know the car you drive or the house you own. Quite honestly, most people may not remember your name. What no one will ever forget, however, is how you treated them. Your sense of humanity, your ability to recognize another person, is the legacy that you leave behind. At the end of the day, I would argue, your sense of humanity is all that will be remembered.

The second way you transform the world is you move from judgment to accepting. When you judge, you no longer see, you condemn. When you condemn, you lose something powerful. We spend our time judging the most irrelevant of factors, believing, somehow, if we focus on the irrelevant, relevance will emerge.

We judge men by their color of their skin, as if this was the determining factor in one’s abilities, rather than the tissues, heart, mind and muscles, by which a man exerts himself upon the world. Judgments also exist for the language one speaks, as if one language could ever be “better” than another. What matters, significantly, is not the language spoken, but rather the ideas expressed. And, how can the act of love be judged? Love is the ONLY ACT in this world that is complete in and of itself. We are here to live in the grace of love, no matter the form. May none of you be defined by gender, as if this alone sets our course within the world. Male or female, we are human at the core, all having arisen from the body of a woman. For those who identify neither as male or female, or fall somewhere within the spectrum of it all, thank you and bless you. You have shown, with perhaps great risk to yourself, that our most firm, dichotomous definitions, the ones of which we have been so sure, could use dismantling.

I imagine many of you, hearing the above list, have been judged at one time or another. We are not born with such judgments, they are learned. While we often talk about learning in College, because that is what we do, may we not overlook the “un-learning” that may occur with education. The training of the intellect and the Mind is critical for one specific reason- There is nothing in this world that is more powerful than a Mind that believes what it is telling itself. The gift of education is to retrain the Mind to challenge its beliefs and come to knowing. My hope is that as a College we have played as much of a role in your “unlearning” as we have your learning. Otherwise, I fear we have not done our job.

The third step is when you begin to understand the world within you. When you recognize and accept, you can begin to define yourself in a way that is true and authentic. The problem is never in learning about one’s Self, for it is the call of the Soul to know its Self. The problems only arise when the “I AM” is transposed to “You are NOT”.

Not all questions are academic, are they? Most do not escape College without receiving the beautiful and profound gifts of self-inquiry at some point. Over these past years, you likely questioned many things about yourself. You may have asked for strength, the willingness to succeed, perseverance and more. You asked for so much during you College career, and what you most likely found is that everything you have been seeking is already within you. You are the strength, the success and the perseverance that you have been seeking. My hope is that we have served you well as a College, not in the questions we asked of you, but by enabling you to ask the questions of yourself.

Finally once you have recognition, accept others, and begin to understand that you are the answers you are seeking, you can become the answer for the world. They say there are two times in life when the breath stops for the briefest of moments. We all have had these experiences. Times of immense beauty, when the breath stops in wonder, and times of extreme horror, as the body and mind, so confronted, stop for a moment. I am not so naïve as to think you have never experienced these moments. I know many of you, if you were to share your stories with me, would have my Soul on its knees weeping for you.

When such horrors and struggles manifest, those that overwhelm the mind, the plaintive wail will rise, “Why, God? Why, God, why?” And I am here to tell you – leave the question of “Why?” behind, because it is not in your power. You are not here to answer “why”, but you are here to answer every other sacred questions. When someone asks “Who?” know… You…We…Me…is the answer. When someone asks “What?” understand You…We…Me is the answer to what is happening in the world. When someone asks “Where?” know… You…We…Me… is the answer. When someone asks “When?” or “How” know… You…We…Me… is the answer to “when” and the answer to “how”.

Leave “why” to the realm of the Gods or God where it belongs, however you imagine those Gods or God to be or not be. Instead, come to understand that your life is the answer to the most sacred of questions. You are the Who, You are the What, You are the When, You are the Where, and You are the How to what happens in this world.

Until we begin to understand this, nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, in this world changes.

You can transform this world. I do not doubt this. But, this will only happen when you know, not believe, that you are the answer to the most sacred of questions. I hope, in our own way as a College, we have been an answer to your most sacred of questions, as you have been to ours.