Graduation from college brings many questions: Who am I? What do I want to do? What kind of person do I want to be? How do I get there? Finding worthwhile answers is not easy.
The editors invited a wide range of individuals—lawyers and artists, peace activists and academics, cardinals and members of the press—to write a message specifically for college graduates. Some have imparted what they wish someone had told them when they graduated from college. Others offer advice, wise sayings or stories. We hope these brief letters will encourage and challenge graduates as they move from campus into the wider world.
It Is Now Your Turn Tim Russert is the managing editor and moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press” and a political analyst for “The NBC Nightly News” and “The Today Show.” His books Big Russ and Me and Wisdom of Our Fathers have both appeared at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
I remember so vividly when, as a young boy, I heard John Fitzgerald Kennedy conclude his inaugural address this way: “With history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking his blessing and his help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
In Albania, a young girl loses her father at age 8 and leaves home for India as a teenager, in her own (later) words “to care for the unwanted, the lepers, people with AIDS, believing works of love are works of peace.” She became a living saint, Mother Teresa.
In Poland, it was a young electrician named Lech Walesa, the son of a carpenter, who transformed a nation from Communism to democracy.
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela—President Nelson Mandela—a brave black man who worked his way through law school as a police officer, spent 28 years in prison to make one central point: we are all created equal.
And on Sept. 11, at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon it was our brother and sister police, fire and rescue workers who properly redefined modern-day heroism.
It is now your turn. You can help save lives, provide prosperity, record history, prevent disease and train young minds.
The best commencement speech I ever heard was all of 16 words: “No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to lift up another person.” That is your charge. That is your challenge. That is your opportunity.
Take a Stand Joan Chittister, O.S.B., a columnist for The National Catholic Reporter, lectures on justice, peace, human rights, women’s issues and contemporary spirituality, and co-chairs the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations. Her most recent books include The Ten Commandments and The Way We Were.
I have lived a pretty standard-brand existence, even in a monastery. As the country struggled with political corruption during Watergate, as the church struggled between reform and resistance, as one society drowned in affluence and others sank further into poverty—I went blithely on, basically unaware, even uninterested. I said my prayers, did my work, went to church. It was all good work, all well-meaning and right-hearted. But it was also safe, secure, satisfying and totally self-centered. I fed the poor but didn’t ask why they didn’t do it for themselves. I visited the sick but never thought about universal medical insurance. I buried the dead who came back from Vietnam but never questioned the war. I never visited prisoners and never ever wondered why almost all of them were African-Americans—and poor.
All of that was someone else’s responsibility.
Then, one day, I read this story: “Once upon a time,” the story went, “a warlord rampaged through the countryside, ravaging, and killing as he went. Word spread quickly from village to village and the peasants fled for their lives. As he strode into the last of the villages, the warlord said with a smirk, “The village is empty, I presume?”
“Well, yes, my Lord,” his lieutenant answered. “Except, that is, for one monk who refuses to leave.”
The warlord was furious. “Bring that monk to me immediately,” he roared. So they dragged the old monastic to the square. “Do you not know who I am?” the warlord shrieked. “I am he who can run you through with a sword without even batting an eye!”
“And do you not know who I am?” the old monastic said, looking him straight in the eye. “I am she who can let you run me through with a sword—without even batting an eye.”
At that moment, I realized there was a power in powerlessness, too. I learned that there are none of us too weak to resist injustice. I learned that there is a difference between “goodness” and holiness. And so, in a world reeking with goodness but short on justice, for all our sakes, I wish you holiness.
Have Confidence in Others Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick is the archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C.
Among all the words of congratulations that my classmates and I received in the numerous graduations of our lives, we were often told to have confidence in ourselves, to make a difference, to change the world and to be successful. That is always good advice, I guess, but as I look back at it, it usually left out something very important.
I wish we had been told that we must learn to work with other people and to have confidence in them as well.
There seems to be a tendency in graduation speakers—and I am guilty here as well—to concentrate on the individual graduate and his or her role in the world rather than to acknowledge that the vast majority of us are not called to be Lone Rangers but members of a team, a group, a family that can take the contributions of each one of us, be they remarkable or ordinary, and make them something special by joining them with those of others.
I wish more graduation speakers would talk to that essential key of our society. This can be a scary world and a lonely one if we are sent into it alone. It is good to be reminded that there is a great multitude of folks out there who are willing to lend a hand, to give a word of comfort, to show us how.
Of course, the new graduate should not go out into the world thinking that everyone is going to be a partner. A quick reality check reminds us that there are good people and some not so good out there. But in life we also meet many people who are ready to work with us, to help us do the really great things most of us can never do alone, even to start changing the world and making it better. And for believers, most of all, there is a God who loves us and whose grace will truly help us to do things we could never dream of doing by ourselves.
Love the Questions
Therese J. Borchardwrites a weekday blog, "Beyond Blue," for Beliefnet.com and is a columnist with Catholic News Service.
In college I once wrote a paper that argued that every person who has premarital sex will burn in hell. I can’t remember the grade I got, but I do remember the teacher’s note. She encouraged me to stretch my mind and consider this and other topics from a more nuanced approach. There is no black and white on this side of death—there’s not even a Crayola box of primary colors.
I’m not sure if my professor performed some voodoo ritual or if God just wanted to nail down that lesson before I procreated and taught little people to be judgmental, but the year after I graduated from school I got tossed into a messy world—a boss who hated my guts, a dad who died and two lawsuits filed against me and my sisters by fellow family members. I had many more questions than answers. And I began to understand what my professor was trying to teach me.
In times like those I take consolation in the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
And I remember that the mess isn’t all bad.
Take Deep Breaths
Chris Eyre is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe of Oklahoma and the director of numerous television movies and feature films, including “Skinwalkers,” “A Thief of Time,” “Skins” and “Smoke Signals,” for which he won the Audience Award and the Filmmaker’s Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998.
Advice I wish someone had given me as I finished school: Don’t color your world in black or white. Don’t subject your life to believing you have all the correct answers. Do not fear fear. Embrace your faults. Own your mistakes. Ride “Soar” at a California theme park. Look at your “worldly” realities and reflect upon the depth of your spirit. Try not to shut doors for good. Challenge the “absolutes” that may limit your ability to explore within. Take deep breaths. Embrace change. Realize, once you have it, you will lose it. And when you lose it you will grow. Follow your heart and spirit. Back down. Be confident. Express love all the time. Sleep it off. Make the first move. Learn from older people and admire younger people. Be humble. Do it because you love it, not for the money. Think outside your group. Get a pet someday. Watch “The Earthling” with Ricky Schroeder. Own a home ASAP. Meditate. Do your part for world humanity as often as you can. Fall in love more than once. Teach yourself to play an instrument. Exercise more than I have. Listen to Linda Perry’s “What’s Up.” Apologize and forgive. Don’t let others hurt you. Travel the world. Cry at funerals. Read Into the Wild. Have children. Don’t be alone when you’re sad. Watch the earth breathe in and out, sunrise and sunset. Don’t hang with bad energies. Discard your daily agenda some mornings. Swim. Do the right thing. Be brave enough to forget what you know. Trust your god and your spirit. Don’t be mean. Report all vandalism. Enjoy your food. Pray. Talk to strangers. Talk to animals. Watch the weather. Love what you do. Ride the waves. Be cool. Work hard to buy your success, then try “giving” it away. Remember, we all begin with nothing and leave with nothing. Always listen to Neil Young. Work hard. Get a job!
Find Reasons for Hope
Mary Kate MacIsaacis a communications manager in Afghanistan for the Humanitarian aid agency World Vision International> A Canadian citizen, she has worked in Israel/Palestine, Kosovo (Servia) and Iraq.
To students graduating from college I would offer this Scripture passage: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Pet 3:15).
In my two years of living in Afghanistan, the most common question I have been asked about the beleaguered nation remains, “Is there any hope?” It’s a good question. Confronted by the shredded reality of three decades of war, there are days when hope is not so obvious.
But neither do I find the reasons for my hope entirely elusive. For me, hope shines in Bibi Hoor, who, married at 12, could only dream of attending school. Today, at 25 and the mother of seven, she participates in a literacy class and speaks of one day running for parliament in an effort to alleviate poverty. I find it also in a young teacher, Adala, only 19, and her female colleagues, who courageously continue to teach other young women at a local school, despite threatening letters and the burning of an area school. These young women are challenging a history and society that once restricted them to the home. Together, they are modeling a vision of a world that could be, a future different from the past.
Since I was 12, I wanted to use my camera to tell stories that mattered. It didn’t always seem a valid career path. The famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh once told me to stick to theology; there was more money in it! As a photojournalist, I have found my vocation striving to bear witness in and to a world so broken—to engage the other, speak out against injustice and humanize those persons too easily forgotten, too long ignored. I have learned that amidst the darkness, one also witnesses God’s grace.
Margaret E. Guider, O.S.F., an associate professor of missiology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in in Cambridge, Mass., is the author of Doing What Is Ours to Do: A Clarian Theology of Life and Daughters of Rehab: Prostitution and the Church of Liberation in Brazil.
Twenty-seven years ago, I traveled to New York City to visit a 37-year-old friend, a sister of the Congregation of Notre Dame, who was undergoing aggressive treatment for advanced leukemia at Mount Sinai Hospital. As a young teacher in Chicago, I had been drawn into the vortex of my friend’s charismatic carpe diem resolve. Even after her initial diagnosis, she would schedule her chemotherapy treatments for Thursday evenings so as to be back in action with her beloved fifth graders on Monday mornings.
On that day, as I stood at a vocational crossroads in my own life, indecisive, wondering about a call to religious life and yet aware of the declining numbers of women religious in the United States, my friend propelled me to a new level of consciousness. “Just so you know,” she told me as I sat by her bedside, “I would live my life all over again exactly the same way.” In that moment, I was awakened to the existential reality of “not knowing the day or the hour” when the gift of one’s mortal life will be “begged back” by God (Matt 24:41-42; 25:13). I realized it was not her life hanging in the balance, but mine.
As I walked through Central Park to the Upper West Side that sunlit April afternoon, my eye caught sight of a quotation from the prophet Micah, chiseled above the entrance to a synagogue: “Act justly. Love tenderly. Walk humbly.” I decided to decide.
Within a few months of my trip, I entered the Joliet Franciscans, the community that had been the occasion of my falling in love with the Gospel way of life, first as a seventh-grader and later as a lay missioner in Brazil. And so my journey continues to unfold, thanks to a mentor, friend and sister who challenged me to wake up, to live as fully as possible in the present moment and to trust that God knows what God is about.