Reversing the Corrosive Message of Commencements
Twenty three years ago a young Mormon Doctoral student came to our Friday night Sabbath dinner at Oxford with a Jewish friend. Though I had met Mormons before I had never gotten to know any intimately, let alone the grandson of the Mormon prophet and President of the worldwide church. Little did I realize at the time that this friendship with Mike Benson would be transformative in my life, would lead to a lifelong closeness with the LDS Church, and would culminate in Mike inviting me as commencement speaker at Southern Utah University, where he serves as President, and awarding me an honorary doctorate, alongside golfing legend Billy Casper.
I thought long and hard about my message. I wanted it to be fundamentally different to the corrosive message that is inadvertently offered by so many commencement speakers where they share with graduates the secrets of success. So long as you a. work hard, b. pursue your passion, and c. remain disciplined, you will make money, build a career, and become a success, thereby suggesting that up until now the student in question is undistinguished, anonymous, and somehow unimportant. Professional achievement will put them on the map.
I believe that misguided messages like these are what have led to the profound contradiction in American life whereby we are the richest society in the entire world but also the most depressed. A culture that pushes people to distinguish themselves in order to prove themselves worthy. Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of Independence about the pursuit of happiness is interpreted by most Americans to mean the pursuit of success that will bring happiness. But taking people who essentially feel like they’re worthless and making them believe that if they found an internet startup and make billions will bring them happiness is a non-starter. Because the man who is empty on the inside, no matter how many yachts and Telluride condos you shove into him, retains a vacuous crater at his center whereby his feelings of achievement go in one end and come out the other. External accouterments of success are never going to shore him up and make him feel special.
Like so many, I am in awe of Steve Jobs and his achievements. Heck, I’m writing this column on an Apple laptop. But that doesn’t change the fact that none of his successes ever brought him happiness and he remained, until his dying day, a pretty miserable creature who treated others miserably, as his authorized biographer Walter Isaacson makes clear.
I wanted to say something profoundly different, that the reason a student comes to Southern Utah University, or any other place of higher learning, is not to acquire the skills by which to succeed but for a different reason altogether. Because you are already special and all you require are the tools by which to develop your limitless potential. There is no one in the world quite like you and you are unique. You have a gift to contribute to the world that no one else has and you squander your potential comparing your gift to everyone else. That there is a place for competitiveness but only in the things that you do – like sports, making money, or running for public office – but not in the thing that you are, namely, a person of infinite worth and essential dignity called forth by God for a unique purpose. That there is nothing outside you that can ever add to your value, which comes being a child of God, and the reason to succeed is not to prove yourself but because the world cannot live without your contribution and that without your gift society remains inherently unbalanced.
But as students leave the crib of academia and enter the workplace, entering the highly competitive environment we call capitalism, the world is going to assail that fundamental belief in their uniqueness. You’re going to compare yourself constantly to people who are richer than you and more famous than you, prettier than you and smarter than you. And society is going to try and strip away the faith you have in yourself as an individual of infinite significance. You will be told that you have to do in order to be.
A trip to 7/11 is going to remind you by simply looking at the newsstand that you’re not on the Forbes 400 list. You’re not on the cover of vogue. Life will try to chip away at most important belief you have, namely, that you matter, that you’re special.
You will do favors for people and they will forget you. Joseph encouragingly interprets the dream of Pharaoh’s chief butler, but immediately upon being restored to his position the Bible says, “And the butler did not remember Joseph, and he forgot him.” Not only did he not remember him, he made a conscious effort to forget him. Noone wants to feel indebted.
Young women will give their hearts to a man who may return it in pieces. You will contribute to companies who in an economic downturn will tell you that they no longer need your services.
Some of the setbacks in life, especially when compared to other people’s successes, will make you feel ordinary. When Moses sends spies to the promised land to discover how it can best be taken, they return with a dispiriting report, that the land is unconquerable. “We saw giants there and we appeared in our eyes as if were cockroaches, and that’s how we appeared to them as well.” They saw themselves as pigmies and others as giants. The spies failed at retaining the essential belief that they were exceptional and could succeed at their mission.
Contrast their view of the promised land with that of Martin Luther King, Jr. who, forty-five years ago on the last night of his life, famously spoke of the same promised land and said that God has taken him over the mountain to see it. “What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know … And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Why wasn’t King afraid, especially in light of the horrible fact that a white racist would murder him just twenty hours later? Because the foundation of all human fear is the fear that you don’t matter. That you’re ordinary. That you’re not worthy of love. That you’re superfluous, with no unique contribution.
But King had no such fear. In having devoted his life to making other people feel worthy, he found infinite dignity. In conferring dignity on others he achieved immortality.
The ancient Jewish sages said it best: who is exalted? He who makes others feel glorious.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America”, served as Rabbi at the University of Oxford for 11 years and has just published “The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” The full video of his commencement speech can be found at http://www.suu.edu/ss/registrar/graduation/. Follow him on Twitter @Rabbishmuley