Baccalaureate Address, 1994
A couple of weeks ago, in a solemn and sad ceremony, we bid a last farewell to Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis. I am sure that most of you were not half as moved by her death as were your parents. Let me tell you why: Jackie was the last link that your parents, and I, and our whole generation, has had with our youth.
You see... Back in 1960 there was a musical play on Broadway called Camelot. It was a fairy-tale -- about a kingdom founded on righteousness and honor; about a monarch who was so good that he died of a broken heart, a queen so lovely that she could not stay married to a man she did not love, a knight so bold, so true, that he could revive the dead. It was 1961, and on a cold January day we watched our televisions and saw on the small black and white screen a handsome young man, virile and heroic, coatless in the freezing weather, assume the mantle of leadership, and call us all to take pride in our nation and in our very being. "Ask not what your country can do for you," he said, "ask what you can do for your country. . ." And even those of us who did not vote for him, and even those of us who hated the very thought of a Democrat (and a Catholic) in the White house - felt a little taller, a little more proud to be Americans, to live in this moment of history that challenged you with such magnetism. Standing by his side, wearing a simple yet oh so elegant a coat and a pillbox hat, was Jackie -- a combination of the girl next door and a princess. In the Broadway play, Camelot, the age of chivalry ended when the king and the knight went to war over the love of the lady. In the last scene, one sees the king speaking to a child, asking him to bear witness: "Each evening from September to September, before you go to sleep upon your cot, think well of all the things that you remember, of Camelot..."
As we all know, Camelot is a fairy tale. The handsome, heroic President, however, lived in the real world, where he was felled by an assassin's bullet that horrid November day in Dallas. Big Daddy, the hero of "A Cat of a Hot Tin Roof," another Broadway play, gives a whole different message from that of Camelot. There is no chivalry. The world is driven by Avarice and Mendacity. Allow me to paraphrase the words of J.F.K. as they would have been pronounce by Big Daddy: "Ask not what you can do for your country -- but what has my country done for ne lately. Ask not what together we can do for mankind but what has mankind to offer me that I should even consider it." Avarice in athletics was manifest by the concept of 'nice guys finish last' -- so don't be a sucker, grab what you can and 'split.' Mendacity in politics was manifest by bought candidates, dirty tricks, dishonest leaders and perversion of justice. Above all, our albatross, after we lost our heroic President, was Vietnam.
But that was so long ago. Or was it?
Whom do you trust? Who are your heroes? What do you believe in? What do you consider important? What is your goal?
We are all products of our past, and we, the generation of your parents, built our lives on the quicksand of our turbulent times. We have sawn chaff, and we have raised you on wild oats. . . So how can we suggest, and how can we expect that you will be a generation that will dig new foundations and build a strong and steadfast future for those who come after you?
Maybe it is because we remember Camelot. Maybe it is because we have not really gone wrong -- but have been diverted off the right road, and we know where we have gone off the beaten path, and we have come back to tell you about it. We don't mean to preach. We know that you don't want a sermon. We don't mean to admonish. We know that you are much too old for us to point a finger at and say 'mind me!'
We come to you bruised and beaten, voyagers returned from a journey that has lasted for a quarter of a century -- and we come to tell you, the voyage was down the wrong path, we have strayed. We have not come even a step closer to the goal towards which we set out when we were standing where you are standing now. We have done what we have done. Some of us have fallen short of the mark, many of us never did better than average, or we have done the best we could. But the best was not good enough. We are not giving you a world that is better than the world we have inherited from those who came before us. There is more war, more crime, more hatred and less understanding today than ever before.
Maybe we can offer one thing: we can tell you that the news is not all bad. We can tell you that we have looked at the enemy -- and we have found that in the final analysis, the enemy is within us. Therefore, the way to defeat the enemy is to change ourselves. Avarice must be replaced with appreciation. Mendacity must be mended by the modern medicine of method. It is easy to lie, and it is hard to tell the truth. . . Right? Of course not. . . The truth stands on its own two feet, while lies have to be shored up with more lies. Remember the saying, "Oh what tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to deceive. . ." So, you must adopt the method of telling the truth, first to yourselves and then to others.
The Hebrew Scriptures, in the book of Genesis, tells us that God created the world in a systematic and methodical manner. Now, I am not going to enter the argument of creationism versus scientific method, I am using my source strictly for philosophical argument. I want to point out to you that one aspect of the story of creation deals with how God maintained "quality control" in his work of creation. We are told that at the end of every step of the Scriptural evolution of creation, as told in Hebrew Scriptures, God looked at what He had done, and "saw that it was good." In other words, God did not create a helter skelter world. He did not make a series of accidents, a "big bang" followed by little after-shock bangs. He made a world that was not perfect -- for it was physical and susceptible to breakdown and decay -- but a world that existed in perfect balance. Yet look around you now!
The world around us is in need of repair. What is not going wrong with it? Look around you, in Lakeland, in Florida, in America, and in the world. What is it that concerns YOU? Do you believe that we need better schools? Work for it. Does the future of the Green Swamp, or maybe the Everglades, concern you? Make it your career. Become an environmentalist, run for public office to protect our waters, our air. Do you think that politicians are selling you out to special interest groups? Prepare yourself to run for office against them.
Take control of your life and your environment for yourself, and do a better job than what has been done so far. Be more astute, more sensitive, more honest, more creative. Learn to care. Share your concerns with others, and draw strength from their empathy. Try to conquer the curse of separatism that is the cause of war among people. Silly arguments between neighbors that end in battles. Bosnia, Botswana, Iraq or Iran -- they are all part of a shrinking world, and if you don't go out of your way to make them better places, they will come here to devour you in their fury. If you have the talent, enlist in the war to defeat cancer, or aids, or illiteracy -- one of the most dangerous diseases in the world. In short, don't curse the darkness, light a match, ignite a torch to see your path clearly. Conjure a dream -- and then follow your dream - and reach for the unreachable star.
One of the most beautiful benedictions in the repertory of inspiring words comes from my heritage, from the book of Numbers, chapter 6, verses 24 to 26. It is called "the Priestly Benediction," and it reads, "May the Lord bless you, and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace." It sounds splendid and wise, but most of us don't stop to think WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN? Many say it is just wishful thinking, "May the Lord bless you, and keep you;" What if He does not? "The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;" What is "the shining face of God," and how is His grace manifest. "The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace." This passage seems to be lost on us totally -- what does it mean, and why is it significant. Well, lets look at it again, and this time open ourselves to its message.
"May the Lord bless you" -- this is not a command, it is a petition. Allow the Lord to bless you. Each and every one of us is granted free will. Remember the words you learned in American history: "We hold these truths to be self evident... All men (and women, too) are created equal... endowed with certain inalienable rights... life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness..." Also the right to worship (or not worship) as we please. Therefore, "May the Lord bless you" is a knock on the door of your selfhood. He is saying, "will you please let Me in?" And should you ask, "what for?" He answers immediately, "and keep you." He says, "if you let Me in, I shall watch over you." He will not take away your free will -- He will merely reinforce your power of positive creativity. How will He do that? "The Lord make his face to shine upon you," God has the quality of light; He will shine upon your doubts and your fears, driving away darkness and bringing enlightenment. Thus, "and be gracious to you;" His light will make you less heavy. His loftiness will elevate you. "The Lord lift up his countenance upon you," His perfection will enter a common denominator with your shortcomings, and because his perfection is so overpowering, so infinite in its grandeur, your own imperfections will be diminished to the point where they will lose their effectiveness totally, and thus you shall be aware that God has become the source of your strength and the driving force in YOUR personality, making you complete which is the true meaning of "and give you peace."
Class of 1994, may your future be as bright as the sparkle in your eyes. May the Lord grant you your most profound ideals, and may each of you be a harbinger of the age when humanity unites in brotherhood that is derived from a recognition that we have all one father and we are, indeed, one family doing His will.