"do you want to be passive observers?"
Barack Obama's commencement speech at Southern New Hampshire University today, via Andrew Sullivan:
There is a verse from the Bible that is sometimes read or recited during rites of passage like this. Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.”
I bring this up because there’s often an assumption on days like today that growing up is purely a function of age; that becoming an adult is an inevitable progression that can be measured by a series of milestones – college graduation or your first job or the first time you throw a party that actually has food too.
And yet, maturity does not come from any one occasion – it emerges as a quality of character. Because the fact is, I know a whole lot of thirty and forty and fifty year olds who have not yet put away childish things – who continually struggle to rise above the selfish or the petty or the small.
We see this reflected in our country today.
We see it in a politics that’s become more concerned about who’s up and who’s down than who’s working to solve the real challenges facing our generation; a politics where debates over war and peace are reduced to 60-second soundbites and 30-second attack ads.
We see it in a media culture that sensationalizes the trivial and trivializes the profound – in a 24-hour news network bonanza that never fails to keep us posted on how many days Paris Hilton will spend in jail but often fails to update us on the continuing genocide in Darfur or the recovery effort in New Orleans or the poverty that plagues too many American streets.
And as we’re fed this steady diet of cynicism, it’s easy to start buying into it and put off hard decisions. We become tempted to turn inward, suspicious that change is really possible, doubtful that one person really can make a difference.
That’s where the true test of growing up occurs. That’s where you come in...
No matter where you go from here – whether it’s into public service or the business world; whether it’s law school or medical school; whether you become scientists or artists or entertainers – you will face a choice. Do you want to be passive observers of the way world is or active citizens in shaping the way the world ought to be? In both your own life and the life of your country, will you strive to put away childish things?
It is a constant struggle, this quest for maturity, and as my wife will certainly tell you, I haven’t always been on the winning side in my own life. But through my own tests and failings, I have learned a few lessons here and there about growing up, and there’s three I’d like to leave you with today.
The first lesson came during my first year in college.
Back then I had a tendency, in my mother’s words, to act a bit casual about my future. I rebelled, angry in the way that many young men in general, and young black men in particular, are angry, thinking that responsibility and hard work were old-fashioned conventions that didn’t apply to me. I partied a little too much and studied just enough to get by.
And once, after a particularly long night of partying, we had spilled a little too much beer, broke a few too many bottles, and trashed a little too much of the dorm. And the next day, the mess was so bad that when one of the cleaning ladies saw it, she began to tear up.
And when a girlfriend of mine heard about this, she said to me, “That woman could’ve been my grandmother, Barack. She spent her days cleaning up after somebody else’s mess.”
Which drove home for me the first lesson of growing up:
The world doesn’t just revolve around you.
There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.
As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier. There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You’ll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what’s going in your own little circle.
Not only that – we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.
They will tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they’re all lazy or weak of spirit. That the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can’t learn and won’t learn and so we should just give up on them entirely. That the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes half a world away are somebody else’s problem to take care of.
I hope you don’t listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you do have that debt.
It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential – and become full-grown.
The second lesson I learned after college, when I had this crazy idea that I wanted to be a community organizer and work in low-income neighborhoods.
My mother and grandparents thought I should go to law school. My friends had applied for jobs on Wall Street. But I went ahead and wrote letters to every organization in the country that I could think of. And finally, this small group of churches on the south side of Chicago wrote back and gave me a job organizing neighborhoods devastated by steel-plant closings in the early 80s.
The churches didn’t have much money – so they offered me a grand sum of $12,000 a year plus $1,000 to buy a car. And I got ready to move to Chicago – a place I had never been and where I didn’t know a living soul.
Even people who didn’t know me were skeptical of my decision. I remember having a conversation with an older man I had met before I arrived in Chicago. I told him about my plans, and he looked at me and said, “Let me tell something. You look like a nice clean-cut young man, and you’ve got a nice voice. So let me give you a piece of advice – forget this community organizing business. You can’t change the world, and people won’t appreciate you trying. What you should do is go into television broadcasting. I’m telling you, you’ve got a future.”
I could’ve taken my mother’s advice and I could’ve taken my grandparents advice. I could’ve taken the path my friends traveled. And objectively speaking, that older man had a point about the TV thing.
But I knew there was something in me that wanted to try for something bigger.
So the second lesson is this: Challenge yourself. Take some risks in your life.
This isn’t easy. In a few minutes, you can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and go chasing after the big house and the large salary and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy.
But I hope you don’t. Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. And it will leave you unfulfilled.
So don’t let people talk you into doing what’s easy or comfortable. Listen to what’s inside of you and decide what it is that you care about so much that you’re willing to risk it all.
The third lesson is one that I learned once I got to Chicago.
I had spent weeks organizing our very first community meeting around the issue of gang violence. We invited the police; we made phone calls, went to churches, and passed out flyers.
I had been warned of the turf battles and bad politics between certain community leaders, but I ignored them, confident that I knew what I was doing.
The night of the meeting we arranged rows and rows of chairs in anticipation of the crowd. And we waited. And we waited. And finally, a group of older people walk in to the hall. And they sit down. And this little old lady raises her hand and asks, “Is this where the bingo game is?”
Thirteen people showed up that night. The police never came. And the meeting was a complete disaster.
Later, the volunteers I worked with told me they were quitting – that they had been doing this for two years and had nothing to show for it.
I was tired too. But at that point, I looked outside and saw some young boys playing in a vacant lot across the street, tossing stones at boarded-up apartment building. And I turned to the volunteers, and I asked them, “Before you quit, I want you to answer one question. What’s gonna happen to those boys? Who will fight for them if not us? Who will give them a fair shot if we leave?”
And at that moment, we were all reminded of a third lesson in growing up:
Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it’s not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.
After my little speech that day, one by one, the volunteers decided not to quit. We went back to those neighborhoods, and we kept at it, sustaining ourselves with the small victories. Eventually, over time, a community changed. And so had we.
Cultivating empathy, challenging yourself, persevering in the face of adversity – these are qualities that dare us to put away childish things. They are qualities that help us grow.
They are qualities that one graduate today knows especially well.
Richard Komi was born thousands of miles from here in Southern Nigeria. He’d probably still be there today, if he hadn’t been forced to flee when his tribe came under attack. Eventually, he made it to the United States, worked his way through factories and retail jobs, and came here to SNHU, to complete the education he began in Africa. And now, with a wife and kids and lots of responsibility, he’s even taking the time to give back to his new country by volunteering on this campaign.
Richard Komi may be graduating today, but it’s clear that he grew up a long time ago. We celebrate with him because his journey is a testament to the powerful idea that in the face of impossible odds, ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
At a time when America finds itself at a crossroads, facing challenges we haven’t seen in decades, we need to hold on to this idea more than ever.
A lot is riding on the decisions that are made and the leadership that is provided by this generation. We are counting on you to help fix a health care system that’s leaving too many Americans sick or bankrupt or both. We are counting on you to bring this planet back from the brink by solving this crisis of global climate change. We are counting on you to help stop a genocide in Darfur that’s taking the lives of innocents as we speak here today. And we’re counting on you to restore the image of America around the world that has led so many like Richard Komi to find liberty, and opportunity, and hope on our doorstep.
There are some who are betting against you – who say that you don’t pay attention, that you don’t show up to vote, that you’re too concerned with your own lives and your own problems.
Well that’s not what I believe and it’s not what I’ve seen. Instead I’ve seen rallies filled with crowds that stretch far into the horizon; thousands upon thousands signing up to organize online; scores who are coming to the very first political event of their lifetime. And just a few hours before this commencement, I got the opportunity to send off hundreds of people who have chosen to take time out of their busy lives and spend an entire Saturday knocking on doors here in New Hampshire. Because they’re not content to sit back and watch anymore. Because they believe they can help this country grow.
And whenever the doubt creeps in and I find myself wondering if change is really possible, I end up thinking about the young Americans – teenagers and college kids not much older than you – who watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold before them on television sets all across the country.
I imagine that they would’ve seen the marchers and heard the speeches, but they also probably saw the dogs and the fire hoses, or the footage of innocent people being beaten within an inch of their lives; or heard the news the day those four little girls died when someone threw a bomb into their church.
Instinctively, they knew that it was safer and smarter to stay at home; to watch the movement from afar. But they also understood that these people in Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi were their brothers and sisters; that what was happening was wrong; and that they had an obligation to make it right. When the buses pulled up for a Freedom Ride down South, they got on. They took a risk. And they changed the world.
Now it’s your turn. You will be tested by the challenges of this new century, and at times you will fail. But know that you have it within your power to try. That generations who have come before you faced these same fears and uncertainties in their own time. And that if we’re willing to shoulder each other’s burdens, to take great risks, and to persevere through trial, America will continue its journey towards that distant horizon, and a better day.