Spalding University held its annual Commencement ceremonies June 3-5, 2021, with President Tori Murden McClure delivering an address to the graduates. Her speech also included her annual list of maxims titled, “10 Things That I Think I Know.” Here are her full remarks:
What a strange time this has been. People talk about the return to normal. Normal is a fantasy. There is only change. Resistance to change, and, later, more change. There is a saying, “The only creature who welcomes change is an infant with a dirty diaper.” Nonetheless, change is constant. And at this moment in time, change is necessary.
The world we are giving to our graduates is broken. Look around at people with gray hair … we broke it. When I finished college, we talked about polarized sunglasses not polarized positions, polarized news outlets, or polarized people. Life at the polar extremes is cold, desolate, and best avoided.
Thirty years ago, I skied 750-miles across Antarctica to the geographic South Pole. The average temperature was minus-25 degrees. It was a land of ice, wind, and hardship, but I submit to you that it was warmer and more welcoming than some of the polar extremes of our modern discourse.
Demonizing those with whom we disagree demonstrates a failure of imagination and a stunting of our empathy. Abraham Joshua Heschel observed: “To be or not to be is not the question. The vital question is how to be and how not to be … .”
When I am asked to speak to groups of elementary age children, I love to say, “Raise your hand if something bad ever happened to you.” Then, to all the children who raise their hands I say, “Good for you!” Those children respond with confusion, “WHAT?!” I go on to explain that what we learn from hardship, from failure, and from tragedy informs our character. I tell children, the bad things that happen to you are not your story. What you do with the bad things that happen that is your story. When we use our experience with “bad things” to assist others when they are in distress, we are making good out of bad.
In the past eighteen months, we have endured some measure of a shared global crisis. We must ask ourselves whether we will allow the experience to alter are characters for good or for ill. The ill effects are plain. It seems as if our ears have become fragile, our tempers are on a hair trigger, and that our favorite pastime has become passing judgment on other people.
“How shall we be, and how shall we not be?”
To answer this question, I bring to mind people whom I admire. People I consider my mentors. The teachers, coaches, and friends who stood at the forks in the road of my life. Graduates, perhaps some of the people sitting nearby stood at the forks in the road of your lives.
While I was in Divinity School at Harvard, I worked with homeless people. One afternoon, in a particularly rough part of Boston, one homeless man stabbed another. I was the first to respond. I will spare you the gory details, but when I left that chaotic scene, I was not aware of the blood-soaked towel that I had thrown over my shoulder. When got on the subway to make the journey back to Harvard I was fuming with anger. No one looked in my direction.
It was as if I was invisible. Before long, I noticed the towel and I assumed that it was the bloody towel that had made me invisible. I my fury grew. I got off the train at Harvard Square. Harvard … one of the most privileged places on the planet. I remained invisible. Fury turned to rage, and I crossed Harvard Yard like a bowling ball. Students and faculty got out – of – my – way. As I approached Memorial Church on the far side of Harvard Yard, the Reverend Doctor Peter J. Gomes was coming down the stairs.
Peter knew me. This was not the first time Peter Gomes witnessed my brokenness. He placed himself directly in my path. Peter saw me. He was black. He was gay. He was an ordained minister. He was a Republican. In short, he was not like other faculty at Harvard University. Peter asked, “What’s up with the towel?”
Growling with rage, I sputtered the details of what had happened. I ended with, “The towel makes me invisible.” Peter smiled. His was a smile filled with sadness and with empathy. Then, he told me, “It is your anger that makes you invisible.” Each time I find it difficult to navigate the rage, I am reminded of Peter Gomes, “It is your anger that makes you invisible.”
It is OK, even admirable, to have a fire in your belly. I have had one there most of my life. Take care how you put that fire to use. Fire as a tool is neutral. We can use it to warm the chill of a cold world, we can use it to cauterize a wound, or we can use it to torch our world to cinders. If you use your fire in the spirit of the Spalding University Mission “to meet the needs of the time,” you will be using your fire for good.
You have graduated. A few of you might be just a little bit proud. I am okay with that. Pride is not a bad thing. I had a Buddhism Professor who taught that “If you must have an ego, have an ego as big as the Himalaya Mountains.” I thought my professor was wrong, and I thought he was wrong because he was a man. Women are not allowed to show ego. We display too much pride, people knock us down. (To be fair, it is usually other women who knock us down.) Nevertheless, I learned the truth of my professor’s words when I went to work for Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali had an ego as big as the Himalaya Mountains.
In 1954, a twelve-year-old Cassius Clay rode his red Schwinn bicycle to this building, which is now Spalding’s Columbia Gym. He was upstairs eating hotdogs and popcorn when someone stole his red bicycle. He said, “I’m gonna wump somebody up.” Bystanders sent young Cassius Clay to report the crime to a police officer in the basement. “I’m gonna wump somebody up. He stole my bicycle.” Joe Martin, the police officer, was a boxing coach. Officer Martin explained to this young man that if he wanted to beat someone up he should learn to box.
White policeman. Black boy. Happy ending. Too many encounters between white police officers and black boys are more ending than happy, but these are not stories for today.
“How to be, and how not to be.”
Muhammad Ali had an ego as big as the Himalaya Mountains. He also had a special kind of humility. He was the greatest, and wherever he went, he lifted others up. Muhammad was not perfect. No one is perfect. Muhammad could be cruel. In his younger years, he occasionally used the fire in his belly to scorch others. But in his later years, when I knew him, he was magnificent.
I went to work for him shortly after I had failed to row a boat alone across the Atlantic Ocean. I had rowed 3,000 miles when I got hit by a hurricane. There is nothing special in this, all of us face storms. All of us tangle with waves. The point is, when I went to work for Muhammad Ali, I believed myself to be a monumental failure.
Muhammad Ali lifted up. He reminded me that a failure is not someone who falls. A failure is a person who does not get back up. When he judged I was ready, he told me, “You don’t want to go through life as the woman who almost rowed across the ocean.” He was right, I went back and I completed that journey.
Graduates, you have completed your Spalding journey. You have earned your degree. I will not begrudge you the power and privilege that come with this achievement. I challenge you to use these gifts to imagine a better world and to work toward achieving it. I challenge you to close the gap between the promise of humanity and the performance of human beings.
Extend your empathy and your grace to others. Share your passion and knowledge in ways that include rather than exclude. Exclusion breeds resentment, bitterness, and self-doubt among those we leave out. Inclusion creates hope and it opens opportunity, and it builds the bridges of friendship and love.
One of the greatest gifts an educated person brings to a community is the ability to imagine a better world, a kinder reality, a more perfect union. You cannot build what you cannot imagine. Imagination allows us to empathize with people whose experiences we do not share. Imagination helps us to learn and to understand by projecting ourselves into the place of another. It does not take an education to see the pain on our streets, but I hope that as Spalding graduates you will use your education to do something about that pain.
You have worked hard to reach this milestone. You have won this honor for yourselves. Hellaire Belloc wrote, “Nothing is worth the wear of winning but laughter and the love of friends.” I hope you will take time to enjoy laughter and the love of friends.
I am proud of you. And you look GOOD today!
TOP 1O LIST
As I wind this up, it is my job to fill your head with platitudes one or two of which you might actually remember. Socrates said, “All I know is that I know nothing.” I will freely admit don’t know anything for sure, but, I will end with ten things that I think I know:
1. Silence is golden and if silence fails you, remember that duct tape is silver. I wish real life came with a mute button.
2. If the carrot is big enough you can use it as a stick.
3. Road blocks only block the road … they do not block the grass, the path, the water, or the way less traveled … road blocks just block the road.
4. This one of for those of you who identify as male. Gentlemen, a recent study found that women who carry a little extra weight live much longer than the men who … mention … it.
5. It is never too late to have a happy childhood … I have had several … I have many more planned. Or the corollary, I may grow old, but I will never be old enough to know better.
6. Learn from the mistakes of others; you cannot live long enough to make them all yourselves.
a) Or the corollary, it is difficult to become old and wise if you are not first young and stupid.
b) There are gradations of stupid: stupid, level one gets you heart, stupid level two gets others hurt, stupid level three involves police and lawyers and you might never own your own home.
c) Avoid all levels of stupid that begin with the phrase, “Hey hold my beer ‘nd watch ‘his.”
7. Do not burn bridges. Just loosen the bolts a little each day.
8. If you have to keep something that you are doing a secret … then perhaps you should not be doing it.
9. Is an important one for and university presidents, don’t take yourself too seriously … no one else does
10. Do not believe everything you think. Or as Socrates said, all I know is that I know nothing.
I have tremendous confidence that when you leave Spalding as alumni you will go out. You will teach, heal, feed, and build. You will inform, advocate, comfort, and guide. You will criticize, organize, contribute and in a hundred other ways you will serve people and causes. When this commencement service ends let your service to the world begin anew. I know you will make Spalding proud. You will make your friends and families proud.
In the words of Seneca: “As is a tale so is life, it is not how long it is, but rather how good it is that matters.” Your lives need to matter.