2005 Portland State University Commencement address
President Bernstine, trustees, distinguished faculty, friends, family and most important, graduates of the Class of 2005.
What a great joy and honor it is for me to be here with you all as we celebrate the outstanding achievements of those who are graduating today. I also want to thank President Bernstine for awarding me an honorary doctorate degree… and for taking a chance on having me speak today. Life is about a few risks!
You all have worked hard to be in the position that you are in, and you rightly deserve recognition. But I think it is equally important to remember that there are many people who are responsible for you being here, who believed in and supported your journey. An undergraduate or graduate degree is a collective achievement. For every person dressed in black here in front of me, I know there are family members and friends, both here today and here in spirit, just as proud as you are, if not even more so.
One of life’s great lessons is this: Whatever we do that is right, good, and lasting, is made possible by the love and support of spouses, significant others, family and friends. I don’t think we can ever thank them enough. But let’s take a moment now to put our hands together for our family and friends - as well as the great Portland State University faculty.
I am also humbled to be here – not only because you are such a distinguished group – but also because I am reminded of how long ago I shared this same experience… and I can’t help but recall that a wise person once compared commencement speakers to bodies at an old-fashioned Irish wake: “You are needed to have the party, but no one expects you to say very much!"
Amazing, troubling, perilous times
Except I cannot help but be astounded by all that has happened during the time you have earned your degrees… and by the incredible challenges that are now before you.
It is no exaggeration to say that your graduating era ranks among the most amazing, troubling and potentially perilous times that any class has faced. Think about it. Many of you in the class of 2005 began your studies four years ago right at the time of 9/11. You all know where you were on that day… it was a watershed moment for our nation and for our world. 9/11 shattered our sense of security and forever altered our futures. Afghanistan, the war on terrorism, Homeland Security, yellow and orange alerts, the Axis of Evil, Iraq... And all the attending implications for global security, for relations with the Islamic world, for peace in the Middle East, and for how the rest of the world now views America… North Korea… these loud echoes form the backdrop of your educational experience.
Then in the final days of 2004, midway through the final year of your studies, you and I witnessed a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions. A tsunami that affected 8 countries, killed 280,000 people, including many children who could not escape the force of the tidal waves, and left 2 million people homeless.
We were all stunned by the magnitude of death, destruction and suffering. Our minds were seared by images of unimaginable tragedy… then something amazing happened. This was not only Indonesia's tragedy, or Sri Lanka's tragedy, or India's. It became the world's tragedy - and the world was moved to heal and repair ... with unprecedented outpourings of compassion and resources.
Today millions of people have resumed their lives. Children are in schools. Farmers are farming. Fisherfolks are fishing. In no small measure because of the world's moral conscience - even though much work remains to be done.
It is, indeed, a profoundly different world today than when you began your studies. What will the future hold? Will the condition of the world be more determined by 9/11 and its associated perils ... or by the world's moral conscience as we witnessed so movingly in response to the tsunami? What will your role be?
These are weighty times. You may feel that the answers are out of your reach, that the condition of the world is beyond your immediate impact. You may be feeling somewhat overwhelmed on this, your commencement day… or just ready to move on in your career. That's understandable.
But as sure as it rains in winter in Oregon – and this is my main message to you - today's times - the challenges of your era – call out for your talents, your moral passions, and your personal engagement… immediately now… if a better future for all is to be built.
9/11 and the tsunami provide powerful lessons for guiding us forward… moving memorials as you build your careers and your lives… and as you take on the big challenges of your age.
The most immediate lesson is this: live your lives fully each day, not as spectators on the sidelines but as players on the pitch, for we are all mortal… and no one knows when we will come face to face with our own mortality. Live your life with passion, purpose and meaning. Indeed, 9/11 moved many of us to reexamine, to renew and to discover the things that matter most, our faith foundations. And the tsunami reminded many of us of the old adage: "Except for the grace of God, there go I."
Look at what we didn’t do. We didn’t conclude that life is so utterly capricious that we should all suddenly live for the pleasure of the moment… we didn’t all go out and suddenly start living self-centered lives - eating, drinking, and being hedonistic for our own satisfaction, as if there were no tomorrows. Isn’t that interesting?
We did not necessarily turn to religion. In fact, so many religious movements today, in America and around the world, express such a narrow, intolerant viewpoint. They seem to be part and parcel of the pitfalls of these times, not of its possibilities. Well, I am reminded of the words of the old African-American spiritual, “Everyone talkin’ about going to heaven ain’t gonna get there…”
The lesson that I am talking about can best be summed up in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
I urge each of you, in your own ways and according to your own beliefs and traditions, to focus more on what lies within, to discover your true gifts and passions, and to renew and strengthen your sense of purpose and meaning. For therein lies the source of moral action, of love, of truly being able to transcend your own self-interests to serve others.
Another powerful lesson of 9/11 and the tsunami is this: family and friends matter more than we can ever measure… and, therefore, it is vital to seek balance between our professional and personal lives. After 9/11 and the tsunami, how many of us did not make a few more phone calls to Mom and Dad, to our siblings, to our closest friends?
For me, I am deeply concerned about the kind of world my children will live in. But I am now more determined than ever to make sure that I share as many of the important, the silly, and the sad moments in their lives as I can. It means that I never leave early on a trip to Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere now without kissing them and their mother, my life partner, goodbye… and then telling them how much I love them by phone and email as often as is possible while I am away. It means that I now sneak in a few more fly-fishing and skiing trips with special friends…
I truly believe this. We must never confuse happiness with comfort, success or fame. And a big part of happiness is living a life with balance – balance between career and family, between work and our personal lives.
Perhaps the most enduring lesson of these times, of 9/11, and the tsunami, is how deeply connected we are to one another, beyond boundaries of nationality, faith, and race. The richest of countries and the poorest of countries are bound by common interests, shared needs, and linked destinies… and that what happens to the poorest child in the poorest country can affect the richest person in the richest country.
Too many in this country have viewed 9/11 through the more dim terrorism lens. And, to be sure, there are bad people, even so-called evil-doers, who need to be brought to justice. Yet, this narrow lens leads to actions based on fear and loathing… on all sides. The tsunami, on the other hand, appealed to our better angels, for we viewed its meaning through a brighter humanitarian lens.
The great question of your era is this: Will these times, will your times, be remembered primarily by looking through the terrorism lens? With success measured in military metaphors, defense budgets, homeland security, terror groups taken out and regimes changed? Or by looking through the humanitarian lens… as an era when we finally overcame those terrible conditions on which terror breeds and feeds – abject poverty, hunger and disease, ignorance, intolerance, fear and violence… a time when all of us as individuals, as a nation, and as a global community came together, seized the moment, and truly made our world a more secure, more just, more peaceful planet for all of God’s children? For a world that is safe for children is a world that is safe for us all…
Looking through the humanitarian lens
When you look through the humanitarian lens, you see the true challenges of these times, at home and abroad. You see globally:
- 100 million children who never go to school
- 7 million children who die each year from preventable diseases
- 1 billion people who live on less than $1 per day
- 42 million people who live with the aids virus; 30 million in Africa
These are staggering statistics. U2’s lead singer, Bono, has called special attention to the plight of Africa and what he calls “stupid” poverty – the kind of poverty that, in a world of plenty, kills a child who doesn’t have enough food to eat, didn’t receive a readily available vaccine or lacks a simple mosquito net to prevent malaria.
You and your generation can transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s accomplishments.
Let's look closer to home in Oregon. We in Oregon like to boast about the "Oregon Way." But sometimes this is false pride because we have nothing to brag about when it comes to meeting the needs of our children.
Consider these statistics:
- A major children’s advocacy group gave Oregon a “D+” grade in child well-being – its lowest grade ever
- Oregon ranks 41st in child poverty. One in five children lives in poverty.
- We're in the bottom 10 percent of states when it comes to both the percentage of residents who go hungry and the percentage of those who are "food insecure" - people who don't know where their next meal is coming from or don't have enough food money to last the month.
Many of you can put a face to some of these statistics because of your involvement with Portland State’s community-based learning partnerships. PSU students contribute admirably around the metropolitan region in a shining example of PSU’s motto, “Let Knowledge Serve the City.”
Some of you put the lessons you learned about social work into practice by counseling at-risk high schoolers in East Portland.
Others helped refugees and immigrants who recently arrived in Portland gain a foothold in a new culture.
You volunteered in not-for-profit organizations, while earning your degrees from the Institute of Nonprofit Management.
These are all great examples of what you can do right here at home to improve the lives of people who need help.
Still, when we look through the humanitarian lens, the challenges may seem staggering. You may wonder if your actions matter, if you can make a difference. “We must never doubt,” as Margaret Meade reminds us, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Vaclav Havel, the great playwright and former president of the Czech Republic, wrote these inspiring words:
“Everything meaningful in life is distinguished by a certain transcendence of individual human existence beyond the limits of mere self-care… only by looking outward… toward other people, toward society, toward the world… and by throwing yourself over and over again into the tumult of the world with the intention of making your voice count… will you really become a person.”
Well, graduates, I can tell you this. Never is your voice more needed than today. And never have there been more possibilities that your voice and your actions can truly matter, can truly make a difference than today.
Whatever specific career path you pursue – as a teacher, as an engineer, as an academic, in business or public service or in the not-for-profit sector – please keep looking through the humanitarian lens. And please stand from time to time on the front lines of poverty, suffering, and despair.
I will never forget holding a seriously wounded, bleeding child in Kosovo while her mother’s wounds were being bandaged next to me, as mortars continued to pound all around. I thought of my own children, and I vowed then and there to do all I could to make sure that no more mothers or fathers would have to see their children suffer and die because of man’s inhumanity.
Each of you has had a similar experience. At times like these, we all know that a friendly word, a simple caress, or caring smile are often worth more than any amount of money. At times like these, we truly experience a deeper understanding of our connections in the world. In these times, with this conviction, we truly have the power to change our communities, to change our nation, to change our world.
There’s an African proverb, one that transcends borders and boundaries, ideologies, and philosophies. It reaches around the world, and it reaches into this arena today. It goes like this:
“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time is now.”
Graduates of 2005, plant on… thank you.