posted May 6, 2001

2001 Commencement Address -- "Survivor"

Thanks. It's a joy to be part of your special day.

Even though you grads are in the spotlight today, I'd like to begin by talking to your families. And the reason is this: I'm the parent of a graduating senior, too. Next weekend, our younger daughter will graduate from college. And like you family members, Bill and I will be sitting in some pretty uncomfortable seating, craning our necks to try to figure out just where she's sitting--and you all look pretty much the same from behind today. And we'll be tearing up as her name is called and she walks forward to graduate and shake the president's hand. But most of all, we'll be remembering--remembering the first time we held her, remembering her marching off to kindergarten, heading to college and now this. Where did the time go?

Like these folks in front of me, and Paul [Bush, who introduced her] behind me, our graduating daughter has grown in countless ways, and she has high hopes. Like these people in front of me, she's taken lots of courses from lots of professors. She's talked with and learned from lots of people. She's grappled with lots of ideas. She's asked lots of questions, including some questions that Sharon Daloz Parks calls "Big Questions." Big questions like these: "What do I want the future to look like-for me, for others, for the planet we share?" Big questions, like "Where do I want to put my stake in the ground and invest my life?" These are big questions. Questions of meaning and purpose and faith; asked at graduations, for sure, but asked throughout our lives.

I keep a collection of quotations above my desk-and one, I think, is particularly appropriate for this time in the life of our families. And it's this:

NO ONE -- NO ONE -- HAS THE RIGHT TO GIVE EASY ANSWERS TO HARD QUESTIONS.

NO ONE -- NO ONE -- HAS THE RIGHT TO GIVE EASY ANSWERS TO HARD QUESTIONS.

So, family members, our graduates are heading out once again to travel beyond the boundaries of our families. And every time they set out, they seem to understand the complexity of God's creation in deeper and deeper ways. And because they understand, the complexity, they take more and more into account as they make decisions-and that's good. But it can also be pretty overwhelming, for them and for us-no matter how much we long for an empty nest and an uncluttered bathroom. I know some family members are not here today because of death or distance or difficulty, but I'm pretty sure I can speak for most family members when I say this to these grads, "Dream worthwhile dreams, dreams that matter. And keep asking those BIG questions-ask yourself and ask the rest of us--and don't settle for easy answers. But, most of all, dear graduates, remember: remember that you are loved beyond all describing."

And now a few thoughts for the grads.

As you might imagine, I've been given lots of advice about what to say today and what not to say. In fact, the people over there in that faculty section have told me they remember countless terrific commencement speakers, but you know what? They remember very few details about the speeches they heard. And I find their lack of recollection comforting-very comforting. But I also hope to say something to you graduates this afternoon that you folks-and even the folks in the faculty section--consider worth remembering.

I recall reading that when the cemetery at Gettysburg was dedicated, the featured speaker was a very famous orator named Edward Everett. And the next day, headlines were full of Edward Everett's stunning two-hour oration, but even he recognized that Abraham Lincoln's 2-minute Gettysburg Address was a work of genius.

So, like any good liberal arts grad, I've learned from the experience of Edward Everett, and I have two brief thoughts to share with you.

One-Don't underestimate the power of small things. Dreams should be big, dreams should be worthy, but don't forget the small stuff. A story is told about a man walking along the beach. There'd been a high tide, and thousands of starfish had washed up. As he walked, he saw a young woman bending down picking up the starfish and throwing them back into the water. "Why are you doing that?" he asked her. "Well," she responded, "If I don't, the sun will dry them out and they'll die." "What possible difference could it make? There've got to be thousands of them," he said. "Well," she said as she bent down to pick up another one, "It makes a difference to this one."

Don't get me wrong; some of you good people are going to make a difference in headline-grabbing ways. You might discover a cure for AIDS, or you might sit at the bedside of a friend dying of AIDS. You might write an award-winning play, or you might read Green Eggs and Ham to a young child for the umpteenth time. You might head up an international relations group, or you might take the time and effort to create and to sustain a relationship. You might win a multi-million dollar contract award from the National Institutes of Health, or you might work to overcome your own addiction. Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children's Defense Fund, reminds us, "As we think about how we can make a BIG difference, we shouldn't ignore all the small differences we can make every day-things which can add up to big differences we can't foresee." So, don't underestimate the small stuff.

And the second thing I want to say to you grads is this: "THANKS." You folks have enriched this community. You've stretched us with your questions. You've reinvigorated us with your enthusiasm and your energy. And with your generous spirits, you've reminded us of the people we are called to be. THANK YOU.

YOU WILL BE MISSED.

Two simple thoughts-don't underestimate the small stuff and THANKS.

As I wrap up, you might kind of be wondering what happened to my title - SURVIVOR - and how does that fit? Well, I had to submit a title for this speech in early April, but the whole speech wasn't due until the end of April. And, like some of you folks, I work better under pressure. So on April 2nd, as I turned in a title for a speech I hadn't yet begun to write, I figured that no matter what I had to say, I could surely figure out a connection to Survivor-after all, I'm a liberal arts grad, just like you-even though I've never seen Survivor. So here's the connection.

I don't believe it's an accident that so many of your family and friends are sitting in the cheering sections of a stadium. We're watching you with some anxiety but mostly with great, great love as you work to bring your big and worthy dreams to life. Now, I invite your family and friends to join me in congratulating you and wishing all of you graduates Godspeed.

APPLAUSE

Class of 2001, your tribe has spoken.