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Words to the Graduates

by | May 11, 2021 | Blog | 0 comments

In recent days, an editor at the New York Times asked readers to send in their wise words that they try to live by. The best responses appeared in two Sunday editions in April. A few examples follow.

A Missouri resident named Dave Dillon said, “Always behave as if someone were watching.” Kristy McCray, of Ohio, said she lives by the Platinum Rule. “Treat others as they wish to be treated.” Norma Douglas, of Idaho, quoted her dad. “You are not better than anyone, but no one is better than you.”

Ronald W. Pies, of Massachusetts, said that he follows Marcus Aurelius’s words, “There is but one thing of real value—to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger, in the midst of lying and unjust men.” He also likes the Dalai Lama’s words, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

David Pastore, of New Jersey, quoted John C. Maxwell, a leadership expert, who said, “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”

Thomas P. Roberts, of North Carolina, says that he subscribes to H. Richard Niebuhr’s essay, “The Grace of Doing Nothing.” Roberts admits that “In personal relationships, I have found the wisdom in sometimes doing nothing. It’s incredible how well those interactions go by saying nothing.”

Alexander Von Nordheim, of Maryland, said, “Find what makes you happy, do it, and do what you can to help others find their own happiness.”

A favorite is from William Dock of Seattle, who saw a small sign on the end of a dock that warned all boat owners, “Your Wake Defines You.” He writes, “No matter what I am doing, I always pay attention to the impact my choices have on others. If my impact is too destructive, I change course.”

Graduation season is upon us. Last Saturday morning, a windy day, officials at my alma mater, University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, read off the names of well over a thousand graduates.

I am curious. What should any graduate hear at their graduation? Here are some ideas.

David Foster Wallace, a college professor and novelist, delivered the commencement address to Kenyon College’s class of 2005, and in it, he said,

“The cliché that any college teaches students how to think means that you will learn how to exercise some control over how and what you think. You will learn to choose what to pay attention to.” To that I would add: what to ignore, and what to shout down as wrong, bigoted, or unjust.

A graduate should also hear words about perfecting his or her communication skills, and also with numbers. Lee Iacocca said, “there were a lot of people smarter than me when we all graduated in 1945, but I surpassed them all. How? My communication skills, my ability to speak and write.”

He added, “The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”

Although Iacocca died in 2019, if he could, he would encourage you, a graduating senior, to study numbers and words. Learn to decipher numbers, and never pass up an opportunity to speak in public, to teach a class, or to draft a letter, an essay, or an article. Take advantage of the opportunities that appear.

To all the above, I would add, a graduate might strive to develop ambitious curiosity. An idea strikes and a typical person will dismiss it, lay it aside, but another may dig deep, work toward a better understanding, and in that process learn a new vocabulary and details that will prove most rewarding.

For example, right now, I am trying to learn of a connection between two alternative numbering systems, the hexadecimal and the binary. The former is based upon the number 16, and the latter is based upon just two numbers, 0 and 1.

Computers use the binary system, 0 for switched off, and 1 for switched on, but the 0’s and 1’s can then be converted into the hexadecimal system, an easier method for men and women to read. I still have much to learn. More about this later.

Last Friday, May 7, I noticed that the lilacs had bloomed on the corner of my property. This brought on a startling memory, of a poem I read years ago, Walt Whitman’s poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” from his book Leaves of Grass.

He wrote it in the spring of 1865, after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, when the nation was in deep mourning. He writes of “lilacs,” and of “a drooping star,” the planet Venus that was there but then had disappeared in recent nights. “O powerful western fallen star!” he cried out, voicing his grief.

A biographer described a young Ralph Waldo Emerson as a “mind on fire.” Because so many ideas rushed through Emerson’s mind, that on occasion he would give up composing sentences in his journal and just draft a catalog of nouns, without verbs, a list that would run for multiple paragraphs.

Ambitious curiosity, communication skills, finesse with numbers, elements of justice and kindness and our effect upon others: all of these a college graduate might work on in the days ahead.