Sunday, May 30, 2010


Sunday Reflection: Love and graduation

Below is the text of the graduation speech I gave at Vanguard College Preparatory School on Friday. The word "love" appears 32 times.

I will let you in on a secret—I worried over this speech. I talked to a lot of people. One of them is a guy who is one of my personal heroes, a philosopher named Bob Baird. [I love saying that—that I know a philosopher. But when you work at a University, things like that happen].

Bob Baird gave the commencement address here many years ago, and he still remembers every bit of it. He gave me some very good, pithy advice. He said to have something for the students, for the teachers, and for the parents. And I’m smart enough to take the advice of someone whose profession is “philosopher.”

Then, to the students:

All of you, every one of you, is going off to college. That’s an incredible and amazing thing, and very rare. That alone marks this as a special school.

Here’s what I want you to do when you go to college next year: I want you to fall in love. By that, I mean totally, crazy, silly in love. Love does funny things to you when you are 19—it will make you stay up all night, it will make you blurt out stupid things, it will make your friends jealous, because you aren’t really the same person when you are in love.

I can see some of the parents getting a little worried.

It’s ok—I want them to fall in love with an idea. An intellectual idea, a transformative idea. It can be about art or politics or almost anything that exists at that point where the mind meets the world, but just let yourself fall in love. I am in love with an idea. For me, it is the idea that there has to be some role for mercy in our system of justice, or it was not really justice. And that has become the life and love of my mind.

Some of you have already started dating an idea. I have seen that in my interactions with you. That’s wonderful; just don’t be afraid to go all in for love.

Another thing, too—you might have to break up with your idea and start over. I did. For years, I believed that there was no such thing as genius—that what we think of as genius is really just our opinion, rooted in our own experience and culture. That all got blown up in a few minutes. I was in Florence, Italy, and turned a corner and saw Michaelangelo’s David. It stopped me cold. It was undeniably a work of genius, as proven by the fact that I stood there, stunned, surrounded by people from all over the world. It was a quick break-up.

Think of your hero, someone who really did change the world. It is easy to know what idea they loved—Martin Luther King, Ronald Reagan, Keith Haring, whoever—they are beloved because of the idea that they loved. You will be, too.

You are not average kids, and this is not an average school. To you, to this group of not-average students, I say go love an idea, and that we can’t wait to see where that ends up.

To the teachers:

I am one of you, and I have had a little window into what you do here. I hope people realize that what these teachers do is an act of love, and at this school that love is very obvious.

I come from Detroit, a place where people build cars. There is something you see there sometimes that still amazes me. You will be walking through a parking lot and there will be some guy standing there looking at a car. Not too long ago, I saw a guy standing there, stock still, looking at a Dodge Viper, for example. I stared at him staring at the car, wondering if he was wanting to buy it or drive it or what. But then I noticed his jacket, which said “UAW, Mack Avenue Chrysler Plant.” That’s where they build the Viper.

This man was staring at that car because he built it.

That car was his life’s work.

Students, you are the life’s work of these teachers. For us teachers, you are what we have devoted our lives to. Someday you will run into one of these teachers, and he or she will ask what you are doing, and you will brag on yourself some (it happens), and that teacher will get a little choked up. Please understand what is going on there. What is happening is that you are fulfilling everything that teacher works for. You carry that with you, that amazing and wonderful love that good teachers, THESE teachers, have for what they do, and for you.

To the parents:

You have known these students a very long time. This morning, I gave the commencement address for St. Paul’s sixth-grade graduation, to an audience that included big bunches of three and four-year olds sitting there politely in party dresses and tiny bow ties. It wasn’t that long ago, was it? And you remember back further than that, you remember these kids, these giants, when they were so small you could hold them in one arm, touch each tiny finger as it reached out for you. You remember the newborn baby, so fragile, so vulnerable, so needy, that newborn baby who now is about to go off to live in a dorm and fall in love with an idea.

You love these graduates. You always have, though that changes with time.

For several years, I worshipped as a Quaker, in silent meeting where nothing happened until someone was moved to speak. One Sunday morning, we were sitting there quietly when the voice of crying infant drifted in from the nursery. A moment later, a woman rose and began to speak. I remember exactly what she said: “When those babies are born, the love you feel is so pure. There is nothing to cut into it, to dilute it, nothing but pure love. But then they grow up, and there are arguments and problems and uncomfortable moments, and sadnesses, and the love you felt for that tiny baby is buried under everything else. But it is still there. You just have to see it, to feel it.

So today, when you see these graduates, take a moment to indulge yourself in that pure, unadulterated love, the love you felt for this child when they were so tiny you held them in one arm. Look at them with the eyes of the parent of a newborn. It is, after all, the same person, and always will be, and now that pure love can mix with pride.

And this is a time for love. To love these students, to love this remarkable school, to love one another. I am an outsider to this school, just a guy who is about to move away, but I see what you have here, and it is something to celebrate.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.
A time to be born, and a time to die,
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what has been planted,
A time to break down and a time to build up,
A time to weep, and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn, and a time to dance,
A time to love, and a time to hate.

This is the time to laugh.
This is the time to dance.
This is the time to love.

Mothers and fathers, Grandma’s and Paw-Paws, Aunts and Uncles, Brothers and Sisters, love on!

Because for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.

Beautifully said, Mark. Words worth keeping and remembering, even if some of the Vanguard grads don't quite realize it ... yet.
Oh you and your Ecclesiastes.
Well put! Love on!
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