Thursday, May 30, 2019

Lewisburg Baccalaureate Remarks

I had the privilege of delivering the keynote address at Lewisburg Area High School's Baccalaureate. A few people asked me to share those remarks.

Advice from a person a little older than most of your parents sounds out of touch, but ever since I finished high school, I have spent my life surrounded by people who have recently finished high school, first as one of them, and since, as a teacher, advisor, and an administrator.

Each of us has a limited number of opportunities to reassert or reinvent ourselves, and you are approaching one of them. Whether you are going to college, pursuing technical training, or entering the workforce, you are about to make a community leap.

Most of you have been together for years, and you don’t need to close the door on your current community of friends, but each of you is about to encounter a new cohort of friends, classmates, mentors, and neighbors who don’t know you. They don’t remember the great things you have done, and, more importantly, they don’t remember the embarrassing things you have done. You have a fresh start, use it wisely.

Always be yourself, but I encourage you to spend the next few weeks thinking about any moments in your life you wish you could do over or would emphatically do again, and let them help inform how you enter the next chapter in your life.

You are entering a pivotal time in your life in which you will encounter a much greater level of independence and personal responsibility. It is a sobering realization to find yourself solely in your life’s driver’s seat, but you have many willing, sometimes too willing, co-pilots. Be comforted by their support, but remember that it is your course to steer.

We often hear the labels and descriptions of GenX, GenY, and millennials. Most of the time, those describing are critical if not downright disparaging, and often they are remarkably uninformed. Here are some ways your generation differs from those before you. As a group, you report significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety, and you are generally less independent from your families in decision making. You are also less prone to bigotry and intolerance, and you are more committed to fairness and issues of social justice.

Some of those differences are of concern, but most of them are cause for optimism for our future. Let’s consider those differences and think about how you can best navigate them to your advantage.

Depression and Anxiety

Social media and delayed independence are two causes for some of these changes. Social media create unbridled opportunities for bullying, but the fear of missing out makes it hard to avoid. I had been on Facebook from the beginning, but a few months ago, I quit, and I am glad I did. The world around you is almost always more interesting than the phone in your hand. I’m not suggesting that you shun technology, but don’t miss out on the real world around you as a slave of media.

Brian Chen, the Personal Technology columnist for the New York Times recently wrote this about cancelling his Facebook account:

Over the 14 years that I used Facebook, I accrued about 500 friends. Most were former classmates whom I had lost touch with. In my real life, I have about 20 friends I talk to on a regular basis. So, when I finally deleted Facebook, the fallout was underwhelming.[1]

In the past 40 years, the average age when parents first let their children go someplace with a friend unsupervised has gone from 5 or 6 to 11 or 12. Those unchaperoned experiences create a lot of opportunities for conflicts and necessitate the need to resolve them without help. Resolving problems teaches us to become resilient, and nationwide, your generation has had far fewer opportunities to develop that resilience than any previous time.

As you enter what will be the most independent period you have yet experienced, remember that most problems you encounter are less significant than they feel at the moment. Stop and think through a problem objectively and consider the advice you would provide a friend at a similar intersection in their life. Thinking about a personal challenge from the outside always reduces its magnitude.

Decision Making

Over that the past 20 years, there has been a remarkable shift in how young adults engage their parents in decision making. I think part of it has to do with the ubiquity of cell-phone communication, but the students I work with now consistently consult their parents when they make decisions. This is fundamentally a good thing. Be careful to remember that you are ultimately responsible for the choices you make. Getting informed opinions is a smart way to make good decisions.

The great Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, would have said I’m wrong. He wrote:

The great decisions of human life have as a rule far more to do with instincts and other mysterious unconscious factors than with conscious will and well-meaning reasonableness.[2]

You can still try to be rational. There are also plenty of moments when advice is neither timely nor available. That can be particularly challenging, because your brains are not finished developing. You have your full intellectual capacity, but your frontal cortex and the neural networks that send messages back and forth between it and the amygdala will still be under construction for another 7 or 8 years. The amygdala is where your fight and flight reactions occur. As those neural connections expand, so does our ability to temper immediate responses with rational judgement.

At 18, you are physically more likely to make bad spontaneous decisions than when you’re 25. Do you ever say to  yourself, “I should have known better?” Or ask, “Why did I do that?” Often, it’s because the less sophisticated part of your brain took off before the sophisticated part could send a message to the contrary over wiring that isn’t completely connected.

That’s why people say, stop and count to ten before you do something you might regret. Train yourselves to take a beat so the front and back of your brain have time to communicate. It is also important for you to know that those connections are especially susceptible to alcohol. Young adults are more physiologically inclined to have their judgement affected by alcohol than older adults. Older adults don’t fare a whole lot better, but being self-aware is an important part of avoiding bad decisions.

Tolerance and Inclusion/ Doing the Right Thing

In my role at Susquehanna, I regularly speak and write about citizen leadership. Every generation has bequeathed a collection of problems, often of their own making, to their children and their children’s children. My generation inherited the Cold War and legalized racism. Yours is inheriting global warming, anti-intellectualism, and the seeming death knell of civility. I’m sorry for that, but as I said earlier, your generation is the most inclusive in history and dedicated to social justice in inspiring ways. I am hopeful that you are up teaching us to be better.

The debate over global warming is an important lesson in how to be an informed citizen. First and foremost, it is no longer a topic for debate. There is a 97% consensus among peer-reviewed scientific research that human beings are causing global warming. The Academies of Science in over 80 countries agree, and yet every day, we still hear arguments instead of a unanimous call to action.

Look for the motivations of the speakers on both sides of a debate. If personal gain is aligned with one side and not the other, the side with nothing to gain usually has more merit. For example, years after medical research had identified the health threats associated with smoking, cigarette companies continued to advertise the benefits of their product citing studies they had funded for their own benefit.

There are many who suggest that climate has already become a lost cause, but I have seen students and faculty from my campus introduce precision conservation techniques to waterways throughout our region that have dramatically restored trout streams and lowered their temperatures in a short period of time. How can you advance environmental stewardship? This is your home, and you should want to protect it.

We are at an inflection point as a society in which values of pluralism and inclusion have come under attack in the media, in public discourse, and in politics. We use terms like tribalism, and you only need to turn on the news to hear messages of fear mongering and denigration. Populism is on the rise around the globe.

Your generation is by the far the most tolerant and supportive of difference in our nation’s history at a time when older generations are regressing. Please don’t let the loud voices of bigotry turn you in their direction. You have the ability to be advocates for what is right. To be successful requires an abundance of grace, which is a quality in desperately short supply these days.

It is difficult to resist an angry response when we observe ignorant and hateful behavior, but yelling at someone has rarely enlightened them. All too often it deepens their convictions.

I so often hear people use the term “politically correct” as a term of disparagement. Being sensitive to the feelings of others and moderating our behavior out of human respect is a very good and right thing. But often, we correct others in ways that hurt them. Telling people that they are ignorant, no matter how true it may be, is as hurtful as the behavior we are trying to correct.

Asking people why they feel the way they do or say the things they say is a better beginning, because it forces them to put a logical frame around an illogical picture. It also provides a chance for you to listen for any common ground. That can be a useful touch point as you share what you believe to be true and why. Small children are beautifully open to difference. We each learn our prejudices, which means we can unlearn them, but that will only be achieved by lifting up those with whom we disagree. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said,

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.[3]

As scripture says,

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.[4]

That is tough advice to take, which is why it is such a rare behavior. Imagine our world if it were common.

If you think about it, each of the issues I have addressed this evening is fundamentally about how we react to the world around us.

To provide the kind of leadership our world needs, will require courage and imagination, and it will require a generation collectively committed to making myriad incremental steps in the right direction. I have great confidence that you are up to the task. To succeed:

You will need to feed your passions and steer them with intellect. As you encounter obstacles and challenges, embrace them. As Helen Keller wrote:

… character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.[5]

Once you embrace your obstacles, work to understand them objectively and dissect them into solvable portions.

Be mindful that disappointments are just that, and never forget to learn everything you can from the moments that don’t go as you wished.

Celebrate each person for who they are, and be encouraged to live authentically.

Advocate for those who are afraid to speak for themselves.

Return hate with love, and never be afraid to do the right thing.

These thoughts have been focused on the future, but the best piece of advice I have for you is not to take the present for granted. At Susquehanna, our baccalaureate is focused on gratitude. Despite all the challenges that inhabit our world, we are surrounded by immeasurable good fortune.

There is a poem by James Agee I turn to frequently. In it, he wrote:

All my people are larger bodies than mine,
with voices gentle and meaningless
like the voices of sleeping bird.
One is an artist, he is living at home.
One is a musician, she is living at home.
One is my mother who is good to me.
One is my father who is good to me.

By some chance, here they are,
all on this earth.[6]

Every day, we are surrounded by people and events that deserve to be celebrated and treasured. As you take on the task of making our future better be sure to savor the many gifts that surround you at each moment. This is one of those moments. 

[1] NYT, 21 March 2019.
[2] Jung, Carl: Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 125.
[3] From King, Martin Luther, Strength to Love.
[4] Matthew, 5:44.
[5] Helen Keller’s Journal: 1936-1937, 60.
[6] James Agee, from A Death in the Family.


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