Your fellow John Carroll alum, my friend Tim Russert – I can hear him now, saying, “Well Brokaw, you finally made it. You have a John Carroll degree.”
For those of you graduating with honors, congratulations. For those of you just squeaking by, your speaker is a blood brother.
Tim and I had a friend, the late and exceptionally gifted humor columnist Art Buchwald, liked to conclude his commencement addresses by saying to graduates,
“We have given you a perfect world; don’t screw it up.”
It was always good for a laugh, whatever the circumstances at the time.
It is a little difficult for me to issue the same order to the class of 2010, even in jest.
You are leaving this sanctuary of learning and innocence in a season of uncertainty and anxiety. Daily there are painful reminders that the economic model that has defined your lives was a house of cards . Indeed, it is a shambles that will not be easily repaired, and even then, it will have a far different shape and evoke far different expectations.
We lost our way and allowed greed and excess to become the twin pillars of too much of the financial culture. We became a society utterly absorbed in consumption and dismissive of moderation. A friend, a very successful businessman who nonetheless lives a temperate life, says appropriately we have to replace want with need. It’s not what we want that should rule our lives but what we need. And, it goes without saying, what we can afford.
Something fundamental has happened and there will be long term consequences when it comes to risk and debt and economic assumptions. That does not mean you will be consigned to a life of deprivation and struggle. America remains a land of unparalleled economic opportunities with a standard of living that even in these constricted circumstances is well beyond the hope of hundreds of millions in less developed countries.
It is not a perfect world well beyond the economic conditions, of course.
America remains engaged in two wars with no tidy end in sight. Rogue nations with nuclear arms, or the potential for acquiring them, show no signs of good behavior.
The vital signs of your mother – Mother Earth – have taken a turn for the worse and the prescribed treatment is complex and controversial.
How we fuel our appetite for energy – for consumer, industrial and technological electrical power, for vehicular power – without exacerbating global climate change is an urgent question for your time.
The calamitous oil spill in the Gulf is the latest example of the disastrous consequences of reliance on fossil fuels.
In short, how we live on a smaller planet with many more people is a reality that will test your generation for the rest of your lives.
What more could a generation ask?
We may not have given you a perfect world but we have given you dynamic opportunities for leaving a lasting legacy as a generation fearless and imaginative, tireless and selfless in pursuit of solutions to these monumental problems, a generation that emerged from this financial tsunami and re-built the landscape of their lives with an underpinning of sound values and an eye for proportion, knowing that in fact less can be more.
It will not be easy but I promise you it will be rewarding in ways that a Wall Street bonus or a shot on American Idol cannot compete.
These are the tests that imprint generations for the long curve of history’s judgment. Those who take an inventory of our time a hundred years from now or a thousand will not measure success or failure by the actions of President Obama alone. We’re all on the scorecard, and we cannot escape that judgment by evasion or prevarication. Where to begin?
That is a decision you are best prepared to make. And it will be the most rewarding if it is rooted in a personal passion and carried out with purpose even when the first steps are small.
You have an assortment of nimble and powerful tools that can assist you – the internet with its vast universe of information and capacity for research and communication played out on ever smaller devices across an ever wider spectrum of choices.
But those are tools not oracles; they complement your mind and your heart. They do not replace them.
You’ll not solve global warming by hitting the delete button; you’ll not eliminate reckless avarice by hitting backspace; you’ll not make society more just by cutting and pasting.
And do not surrender the essence of the human experience to 146 characters on a Twitter or a Facebook, however seductive the temptation.
You’ll not get a Google alert when you fall in love. You may be guided by the unending effort of poets and artists, biologists and psychiatrists to describe that irreplaceable and still mysterious emotion so essential to the human condition but all the search engines in the universe cannot compete with the first kiss.
Remember, too, that somehow before BlackBerries and I-phones, lap tops and video games, great and welcome change was achieved.
In so many ways, President Obama is a child of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who when he was just a few years older than you began a historic moral crusade again racial injustice armed with eloquence and passion, courage and conviction. He moved the nation and liberated it, black and white, from the unconscionable weight of segregation
Somehow he managed without a cell phone or lap top, without a cell phone or web site.
In 1989 a lone and still anonymous Chinese student stood unarmed in front of a Chinese tank and gave the world an enduring image of the determination of China’s young to change their nation. He didn’t text message the tank or share a YouTube.
He put his feet on the ground and his life on the line.
In my travels in this country and abroad, to the inner cities and rural backwaters, to the worst neighborhoods in the most impoverished countries, to war zones and sites of natural disasters the most impressive people I meet are not the mayors and governors, the warlords and prime ministers, the generals and ambassadors.
The people I remember are the idealistic young, the courageous and gifted members of your age group who are the foot soldiers in the long march to ease human suffering. They put their boots on the ground and their hands in the dirt; they spend their nights in scary places and they are never more alive than when they are doing this work not for riches or personal glory but because it is the right thing to do.
Those kinds of commitments need not consume your life but they will enrich it if you make a conscientious effort to dedicate some of your time on this precious planet to helping your fellow men and women who are not as fortunate.
I have some other slightly less weighty observations that may be helpful.
You’ve been told recently you’re about to enter the real world. That’s misleading. Your parents and I do not represent the real world. Neither does this institution, for all of its obvious qualities.
The real world was junior high.
You’ll be astonished by how much of the rest of your life will be consumed by the same petty jealousies you encountered in adolescence, the same irrational juvenile behavior, the cliques, the dumb jokes and hurt feelings. The dweebs, the dopes, the bores and the boors – you’ll meet them all throughout your life.
To the women of the class of 2010, be forewarned: Boys who become men take their inner boy (and their baseball caps and sports teams) with them and they never completely understand you.
To the male members of this class, remember this: Girls who become women will continue to spend an inordinate amount of time and money on their hair and shoes. And, guys, you will continue to underestimate their abilities and their ambition – and that’s just the way they want it.
Most of all, remember – you cannot get through this world alone. You need each other – and we need you to celebrate one another in a common cause of restoring economic justice and true value, advancing racial and religious tolerance, creating a healthier planet.
No remarks of mine or parental advice will be adequate substitute for your own determination and commitment to excellence. We’re not your GPS system; at best, as commentators and parents, we’re road signs. You must find your own way and I have little doubt you will.
On these occasions in the past I’ve said, “It’s easy to make a buck; it’s tough to make difference.” Then a parent suggested a re-wording: “It’s tough to make a buck but if you make a lot of bucks, you can make a big difference.” So for a time I offered both observations as a final word.
This year and these times required still another revision:
“It’s a lot tougher to make a make a buck but making a difference has its own rich reward.”
You can begin to make a difference tomorrow morning by arising and committing your self to a new world which is shaped by asking yourself a new question. Not “What do I want?” but “What do I need?”
May your needs be rich in selfless dedication to saving our precious planet and finding a meaningful life on it.
Go forth and become the next Greatest Generation.
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