Congratulations to the class of two thousand and fourteen on your graduation. And, to your parents and family and all those who sacrificed on your behalf, congratulations. Today marks a change in your life, which will be met with even more profound changes over the next several years.
Graduating means you are not a kid any more. You’ve just completed your senior year of college and began your freshman year of life. Today, you hand in your “trainee” ID badges and become a full member of the whole of human affairs. In doing so, you are losing a certain social status, being a kid, that you’ve had since birth. It is no longer the responsibility of your parents, your family, and society to take care of you. No longer do adults’ actions set an example for you, now, your actions set an example for children.
Until now, when you watched news coverage of a war or a trial, you had the right to think, “that’s not my responsibility, that’s for adults to worry about”, but not anymore. In the past, you were an observer in the world. Going forward, you’re in it. The Ancient Greeks would say you’re now a citizen.
It’s a real downer I know. I get it.
But it’s not all bad, I promise. People are going to start listening to what you say, and take your opinions seriously. Young people will look up to you, and in many ways you will feel more welcome by the world. Again, these changes will not happen all at once, but today marks the beginning of them. Welcome to the sum of human affairs.
So now, the question everyone in your life is going to ask you is “what are you doing?” Doing? I’m breathing? Living? I’m enjoying life. It’s kind of a silly question. What they really mean is what job do you have or want to have. It’s true you will have to answer this question, but an even more important question, which no one ever asks, is what kind of person are you going to be? What qualities do you want to have? I believe this is life’s single most important question. I think the founder of the Jesuit Order, Saint Ignatius of Loyola would have agreed with me. He said “He who goes about to reform the world must begin with himself, or he loses his labor.”
The task of reforming yourself faces you now for the first time because, as I said, you’ve relinquished your previous identity, and you need to replace it. Most of us can say what we want to be: good, honorable, just, kind or whatever else. The obvious question from a Liberal Arts university is then, But how do we define goodness, honor? Well I don’t have a complete definition of these qualities, but I recognize them when I see them practiced, and I think you do also. To me, this sense for virtue that we all have is fundamental to being a person.
Most of us can imagine ourselves as the person we would want to be, older, stronger, more confident and sure of ourselves. Perhaps you can even see yourself standing there radiating those virtues which we admire the most. I know, It’s kind of an embarrassing thought, but it’s also ennobling. I am here to tell you today that this person, this imaginary, yet fully developed version of yourself, can be the blueprint to actually becoming who you want be. This is not something that happens all at once. On the contrary, I think it’s the work of a lifetime.
I don’t claim to know exactly how to do this, how to authentically attain the identity that you want, but I’ll share with you some of the 15 years of notes I’ve gathered since I graduated college. If there’s any advice I can give about how to make that potential self real, its’ that your actions are primary. To quote an old priest friend of mine “You can’t think your way into new behavior, but you can behave your way into new thinking.” If you want to be brave, don’t read a book about bravery, don’t try to reason with yourself as to why you shouldn’t be afraid. If you want courage, you have to do brave things every day. If you want to be honest, tell the truth when you’re tempted to lie. You will find that over time, honesty and courage will become easier and easier. In other words, you will become what you do every day; you will build your identity out of your actions.
It is by no means easy to develop your own identity this way, it requires a tremendous amount of courage, control, and trust in yourself. But as far as I can tell it’s the only way. Of course, you’re going to be tempted to define your selves in other ways which are easier and feel safer, but are more superficial, and ultimately inauthentic but I can assure you with that route, the easy route without the day to day actions, any identity you think you have will wash away when the first waves hit.
Let me give some examples. The most obvious of these shortcuts to identity is your career. When you ask yourself what kind of person am I, it will be very easy to answer “well, I’m a lawyer, or a, I’m an engineer, or I’m a doctor. I chose these examples because if you have a quote un quote impressive profession, it will be especially tempting to use that profession as a stand-in for being the kind of person you want to be. We all know that there are good and bad doctors, good and bad lawyers, and good and bad politicians. So even if you embark successfully on one of these coveted careers, you’re not off the hook, yet, you still need to make yourself into the kind of person you want to be.
As I said, you are going to be questioned with “what are you doing” often in the next couple of decades, and as a result you’ll feel pressure to try to attain a professional identity. I have been there and I know the insecurities of trying to define oneself based on a career or title. It is shallow and you won’t grow if this is how you define yourself.
The greatest life lesson for me was quitting my Wall Street job and joining the U.S. Marine Corps. My parents, my brothers, my coworkers and friends almost to a person thought it was nuts. Yet, in my core, I knew I had to. Not to be a hero or even to take revenge, but joining the Corps enabled me to experience the grit and grime of Parris Island, the ridiculous demands of Boot Camp, and the privilege of serving with men and women who had come from all walks of American life.
When I made my decision to join the Marine Corp, I knew what kind of person I am couldn’t be answered with a job, or a title, or a career. In fact, some of the most amazing people I know work in jobs that don’t sound very impressive. My parents, who are some of the most courageous, smartest, hardworking people I have ever met, owned a deli in Newark. What kind of person you are goes far deeper than your job.
Forging an identity that is authentically yours, being the kind of person you want to be must come utterly from you, guided by your sense of the person who you want to be, and built by repeated action. Until now, your identity has come from being a member of a certain group: your family, your school, your community, and most of all, your age. This is easy because it allows you to act according to a set of rules given to you by the group which you do not have to critically evaluate and take responsibility for. You, as a member of the group, can always say to yourself “this is what college students do” or “this is what people form Jersey City do”.
Let me be clear, it’s very important to belong to communities like schools, workplaces, religious organizations, and learn from their culture and values. But the way you learn from them cannot be reflexive or automatic. You have to be selective about what to take up into yourself. Don’t just be a sponge of values because an organization indicates such and you think it may be right for finding yourself.
That’s a term that actually bothers me. Our culture instructs young people to find themselves. It’s an unfortunate quality of our society that we think we can “find” important things. We’re told to find love, told to find God, told to find our calling, to find ourselves. One thing I’m sure about is that you find change in the couch, you find your keys, you don’t find yourself. You craft yourself, hone yourself, and refine yourself. This is not to say you make yourself out of whole cloth, obviously there are factors that you are born with that affect who you are and associations that help. It’s important to learn about these things, but I don’t want to let you believe that you’re going to one day stumble upon some kind of glowing revelation of “who you are”, and as a result suddenly assume the identity you were meant to have. This won’t happen. It’s true that over time you will learn more about yourself and who you want to be, but that won’t get you closer to actually being it. If there are things in the world which you admire, people or qualities, then you know enough to begin trying to get there through your actions one day at a time.
And on this journey, if there is one thing I can bestow, it is to trust yourself. It’s easier to trust the title you receive at work, the moral authority of the group you belong to, or to just assume that you don’t know enough about yourself as opposed to working towards being who you want to be.
On the deepest level, that is what I am challenging you to do here today, to trust yourself. It’s something that St Ignatius asked of his Jesuits as well: “act as if everything depended on you”, he said. I want you one more time to imagine the person you want to be, the completely actualized version of yourself. You’re all imagining different people, but there is one quality that each of your potential selves shares in common with each other, namely, self confidence and trust. Each and every one of you hopes one day to be a person who has complete trust in themselves. So you better start now.
It will probably feel somewhat unnatural, because until today, you have been told not to trust yourselves, and to instead trust authority figures, to trust the values of your culture, and of society at large. But now, you must begin to critically examine them, and if you find that they come up short, that’s OK.
Luckily, you are well equipped, better equipped than many, to do this because of the education you just received. You learned critical thinking, reasoning and the ability to distill information and a liberal arts education is frankly, liberating. It empowers you to make choices, to serve as your own guide in the world. Another way of looking at the change that is taking place today is this: a transition from being student to teacher, your own teacher.
There is a Native American anecdote which best describes the impact of our actions. Sitting Bull was talking to his young grandson. He told the child that he has two wolves inside of him struggling with each other. The first is the wolf of peace, love and kindness. The other wolf is fear, greed and hatred. The young boy asked, “Which wolf will win, grandfather?”Sitting Bull replied, “Whichever one I feed.”
The repeated course of actions that make you honorable, kind, honest, or however you want to be are not simple. You have to be your own teacher in that you have to develop the techniques that allow you to be what you want to be via the small actions in life.
People say “don’t sweat the small stuff” but life is mostly small stuff. Your identity is forged out of thousands of little acts of courage or cowardice every day. You don’t act morally because you are moral; you are moral because you act morally. Our actions are primary. They become our habits which become our characters which become our destinies. This much is certain. What is not certain is who will control that destiny.
The challenge I am offering you today is to take the reins of your own destiny, to trust yourself, to be accountable to yourself, and to never give up on becoming the person you want to be, to be the leader you want to be, and to be the Americans that this nation, this state, and this community needs you to be.
Congratulations and God bless