The President, Members of the Board, faculty and staff, invited guests, friends and family, graduating students. I was humbled by the invitation from your President and faculty to share a few words with you today. Thank you indeed for this opportunity and honour.
As I prepared these remarks I thought about what I might have wanted to hear at my own graduation many years ago. The truth is that I probably was so full of excitement at graduating and thus no more assignments nor examinations, and an expectation that I also could finally stake my claim in the world that I probably did not listen much to what the guest speaker had to say. So I also do not expect you to remember much of what I have to say, but please remember the following words;
Stop; Challenge; Choose
Stop; to assess what is happening around you.
Challenge; how do you interpret what is happening around you?
Choose; how do you want it to turn out?
Sir Ernest Shackleton, a famous explorer who undertook a successful mission to the South Pole once placed an advert in a London newspaper that read;
“WANTED: People to undertake hazardous journey-small; wages; bitter cold; long months of complete darkness; constant danger; safe return doubtful; honour and recognition in case of success.”
On the occasion of your graduation, those of you who don’t already have jobs will soon be responding to adverts for various vacancies. Can you imagine anyone responding to an advert like that put out by Sir Ernest Shackleton? In essence, our lives are adventures and as you walk out of here, you will be embarking on an adventure. You will find that in your lives at home, work, or in your communities you will undertake often difficult endeavours in which the outcomes are unknown. Success and fulfilment are possible but only at the cost of hard work and a preparedness to take risks. On any adventure you can simply survive or allow the adventure to grow you in ways you could not have imagined when you begun. What I want to discuss is how you can grow and thrive in this adventure.
In his book, “The Power of Purpose”, Dick Leider asked a simple question. “If you could live life over again, what would you change?” Just like his respondents, I imagine if I took a poll among those of us gathered here, the responses would be varied but may end up with the same three main categories he got. These were;
- To see the big picture.
- To be more courageous.
- To have made a difference
So first, how do we see the big picture? Sometimes, we are so busy with day to day living that we never pause to understand who we are and why we are here. Sometimes we think our jobs, or the money or the position we have in society explains who we are and why we are here. Our focus is on ‘ourselves’.
I remember when I had to go into hospital to have my last son. I was reasonably successful in my career and was at that point where I was concerned about just ‘me’. There I was lying in my birthday suit and in walks the anaesthetist, a complete stranger to me. It didn’t matter who I thought I was at that point; I was just another patient on the operating table, completely powerless and at the Mercy of God and these doctors.
It usually is when we are ill or hit with major tragedy that we quickly realize all the trappings we cover ourselves with and just how insignificant they are. We are forced to reflect more on the spiritual aspect of our lives. It is at this point that we want to understand and make meaning of the adventure we have embarked on. It is in our bid to answer the questions why we are here and what life is about that we find our “true” self; not our false self locked up in our ego thinking life is about ‘me’.
So remember this, Class of 2007, to see the big picture, do not walk out of here on your adventure thinking about yourself but about how you can help those around you. It is in seeing the big picture; helping others and doing meaningful work for others that we can express out true selves, our spiritual nature and get the sense of fulfilment that we often crave. It is really not difficult to find ways of helping those around us as there are many opportunities and each of us has a unique role to play.
To be courageous does not mean the absence of fear. Indeed, having some fear is good for the survival of the human being; of course you will be afraid if someone held a loaded gun to your head. That kind of fear is healthy for human survival.
There is another kind of fear, however. This type of fear is the one that can cripple or paralyze us towards a life of no growth. It is the fear of failure, fear of being wrong, fear of rejection and fear of emotional discomfort. What makes us fearful and less courageous? Usually, it is our perceived ideas about ourselves, such as saying and believing, you are not good at Maths, Art or Writing. Other people do it and succeed so why not you? Think you will and you will, it is a matter of the mind!
I remember the first time I used a personal computer (PC). I had graduated from the University of Ghana and I could not use a PC! It seems really unconceivable now! The first time I used a PC, I was living and working in the United States. I was afraid I would do something and loose all the data the computer had. I was also afraid of the embarrassment I would feel if anyone found out about my inability to use a computer but I was determined to not let this fear cripple me. Within a short time, I had figured out the beauty of using spreadsheets and was writing macros for the company! What I had done then without even knowing, was that I had stopped, challenged my fears and I chosen to learn and grow.
Let me give you another example. When one of my sons was still little, he would wake up in the middle of the night crying with his eyes tightly shut. He would have had a nightmare. My husband and I would turn on the lights and would coax him to open his eyes. I remember once he had his eyes shut and was convinced he there was a lion at the foot of his bed. By coaxing him to open his eyes, I was telling him to STOP all his imaginations. Opening his eyes was to CHALLENGE his fears and CHOOSE not to be afraid. The three key words again; stop, challenge and choose. We all need to open our eyes and face objective reality.
Making a difference is an imperative part of life. There is a story I have heard many times that I love. Some of you may have heard it too. A man was walking on the beach when he came across thousands of star fish that had been washed ashore. Most were alive and were struggling to get back into the ocean. He started by picking them one at a time and throwing them back into the sea. Another person came by and saw what the man was doing. He stood and watched quietly and finally asked the man what he thought he was doing. The man explained. The second man remarked how futile it was given the thousands of star fish there were. The first man still went about his business. He picked up a star fish and flung it back into the sea saying “at least I have made a difference to this one.”
In the end we all wish we had understood that the essence of living is to make a difference. No matter how successful or unsuccessful people are; we all hunger to leave a legacy; to make a positive difference.
For more than a millennium, men’s ideas about the universe had been cemented in the theories of the Greeks and Aristotle. Even the Catholic Church in the 13th Century had the view that the earth was the centre of the universe. This view was towed by all to avoid the dreaded inquisition. Then in AD1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published a new thought; the earth rotates daily on its axis and the planet revolves in orbits around the sun. Martin Luther is reputed to have said “the fool wants to turn the whole science of astronomy upside down.” Copernicus did and he was but one man who made a positive difference in the lives of others.