Speeches & Communications
Class of 2022 Commencement Speech - May 21, 2022
Marist College Class of ’22! You’ve endured much, and persevered well. You’ve made it! This day is yours. I am honored to celebrate it with you.
Today, I am going to talk to you about humility. Now, since you’ve just earned your Marist degree, affirming your brilliance, you are surely thinking some version of the following: “Is the person who appointed himself commencement speaker really going to talk to US about humility?” The answer is yes...yes I am. And yes, I do know what the word “irony” means. So I suggest we just move on.
Why humility? Because humility focuses you on continuous growth and improvement. This is important because we are imperfect beings, every one of us.
Graduates: You arrived here imperfect. You are leaving here imperfect. Marist helped make you a little less imperfect. You also contributed to the reduction of your imperfection. But I’ve personally reviewed each and every one of your files, and I am so sorry to have to report that you are all...still...totally imperfect.
Parents! We had high hopes of bringing your child to perfection. We really did. But deep down, we knew we were not going to succeed. I admit, we were not very clear about this in our admissions materials. If you’re upset with Marist about this, I’ll note that you handed your child to us in an imperfect state, and you had an 18-year head start on us. So, I suggest we just call it a draw.
The truth is none of us will ever be perfect. You know this. We are all works in progress. We will be works in progress until the day we die.
So, if we’re never going to be perfect, then what exactly are we trying to do here, aside from getting up each morning to forage for food, to survive another day, so we can do it all over again. Is survival success enough, or does success require more? What defines success, and who gets to define it? Is it the yahoo who once said, “whoever dies with the most stuff wins?” Is success defined by attracting a ton of followers on social media? Is success even definable at all?
Of course it’s not, at least not in any universal way. Success means different things to different people. You and I might not think accumulating the most stuff is a marker of success, but someone else might. And who are we to deny them the satisfaction of a life well lived? On your deathbed, you own your self-reflection.
That said, I think we should aspire to a higher standard. But, which one? Since I’ve already turned a little existential on you, I’ll quote one of my favorite philosophers: Ben Gibbard. The philosophy majors among you likely did not study Gibbard. That’s because he is the singer/songwriter for the band Death Cab for Cutie. [Like most, I simply prefer to call them “Death Cab,” because I have a hard time saying the word cutie in private, let alone in public].
Gibbard wrote a song called “What Sarah Said.” It’s a beautiful, yet haunting song. Maybe some of you know it. It’s set in a hospital ICU, and Sarah says, chillingly, “Love is watching someone die.” Gibbard then challenges the listener, even more chillingly, by saying, “So...who’s going to watch you die?”
Is it a worthy aim to live your life in such a manner that someone you love, and who loves you, is there with you at the end? I think we can agree on that. However, that’s a rather narrow marker of success. It’s also a rather disturbing image...probably not something you wanted to ponder at this joyous occasion today.
Fair enough, let’s shift, then, to imagine what constitutes a life well-lived. Is it having a lot of friends? Sure. But I think it’s the depth of admiration that friends hold for each other that matters more.
Think about those you admire the most. I’ll bet they care about others and put the needs of others first. They are kind…impossibly kind. They deflect praise to others. In the spirit of the founders of this College, the Marist Brothers, they “do good quietly” and emphasize authenticity and simplicity. In short, they are humble. Genuinely...profoundly...humble.
However, while we all recognize humility as an admirable trait, we often, paradoxically, associate it with weakness...with insecurity...with a lack of confidence. As such, when we think of successful people, we often overlook the overtly humble.
Instead, we think of visionaries and innovators. Those who win championships, awards and elections. Those who achieve fame, and accumulate fortune. In other words, accomplished people...the ones Walter Isaacson or Doris Kearns Goodwin write biographies about. Or those featured on the covers of magazines...even the trashy ones.
Now, it’s possible that at least some of these same people are also humble. Surely there’s overlap on that Venn diagram. But let’s face it...that’s not the reason they came to mind. When we measure greatness, we tend to consider what people do more than who they are. Wikipedia is full of people that did noteworthy things. However, while some of those things are undeniably great, some are rather reprehensible. About that, Wikipedia does not care one bit...they all get their Wikipedia pages. One sad reality: no one gets a Wikipedia page simply for being a good person.
Worse, when we think of famous people who are also famously humble...the late Colin Powell comes to mind...we can barely believe it. “And yet, they’re so humble!” we might say. Let’s deconstruct that sentence a bit (and yes, deconstructing a sentence here is absolutely my shoutout to the English majors among you). What does this say? Humility is for losers? People achieve greatness in spite of their humility, not because of it? Really? If that’s true, then how profoundly sad is that?
It's also a way of thinking with potentially tragic consequences. Because, the world today has problems that are not going to solve themselves. The global community is in dire need of humility, desperate for people who care for others more than themselves.
Think of it from your own perspective. The world has thrown so much at you already in your relatively few years. You don’t remember a time before 9-11. Or, before Columbine. You live in a world where the possibility of senseless violence is visceral and ever-present, often because of the color of your skin or the religion you practice. A climate catastrophe is unfolding right before our eyes...one that will impact your generation the most of all, while those in power do little to address it.
Daunting, right? But wait, there’s more! The world is closer to widespread armed conflict than it has been for generations. Economic uncertainty abounds. A pandemic has taken millions of lives, with no signs of ending. It forced you to sacrifice some part of your college years. When you and your high school friends fanned out to colleges across the nation, did you all ever think that you’d attend classes for a time staring into a screen while eating food out of a cardboard box?
Alongside all this, everyday risks continue. For example, the Marist Italy students experienced an earthquake mere hours before their graduation last week. And today, here in Poughkeepsie, it’s 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. So, I ask, what calamity is coming for us next? At this point, I’m just hoping we get through this ceremony before the locusts arrive.
These threats should breed humility, because we are all in this together. Yet, incomprehensibly, they have driven us apart. I believe this is the tragedy of our age.
It’s time to find our collective humility once again. Because, humility does not belie success in life. Success in life requires humility. The success of life on Earth requires humility.
So, what can you do if you are not already humble? I’m really sorry to break this news to you…you cannot fake humility. I know you are good at many things...I’ve been to your games at Tenney and at McCann Arena, and to your performances at Fusco and Nelly Goletti. I’ve seen your remarkable honors thesis presentations. Some of you have...shall we say...other talents. For example, I have seen the staggering piles of empty beer cans in the dumpsters outside Gartland Commons. And, recently I learned that at least one of you can juggle flame-spewing torches while riding a unicycle. Despite these many talents, I can still tell you that you are not good enough to fake humility.
To illustrate…think of an arrogant person in your life. I sincerely hope you can think of at least one. Because, as Ricky Gervais once said about the character Dwight on the TV show The Office...there’s always a Dwight...if you don’t know a Dwight, then you are probably Dwight.
So, hopefully now you have an arrogant person in mind. Preferably, not someone from Marist, and definitely not the person sitting right next to you. Because that would be awkward.
Now, can you imagine this person acting in a manner that is genuinely humble? For the rest of their lives? For a decade? Are they capable of humility even for just a few hours? Of course they’re not.
So, how do you develop a genuine brand of humility? One that will help you lead a life of purpose, a life of service, and a life that can solve the world’s problems?
First, take a genuine interest in others. This should be easy! There’s nothing more fascinating...and humbling...than learning about others. It’s my favorite thing to do, and one of the reasons I hold office hours with you. You are each your own beautiful, unique, unfolding novel...a Pulitzer in the making. What you’ve overcome and are still struggling to overcome. What you love. What you’re afraid of. What inspires you. What you hope your future holds. I came away from our meetings so impressed with you. Even those meetings where you came to my office just to gripe about parking. When parking is your biggest complaint in life, I am really, truly, happy for you.
Next, be vulnerable. Accept that you are not perfect, and you never will be. Resist the impulse to always present a curated version of yourself. The college years are tough on this point. Social media…which thank God wasn’t around when I was in college…begs you to put your best self forward…your proudest achievements, funniest lines, and endless reams of photos, showing you at your best, just to make everyone jealous. You’ve even taken to whimsically curating Marist itself, by calling it the Harvard on the Hudson.
Only when you allow yourself to be truly vulnerable will you never be vulnerable again. You won’t fear failure or looking bad, which will allow you to accept risk and embrace opportunity. This is the best way to see how far you can go in this world. You’ll learn to laugh at yourself and invite others to laugh with you...and how fun, and liberating, is that? You’ll embrace yourself for who you are and stop trying to live someone else’s vision for who you should be. And, perhaps most importantly, you’ll confidently...and correctly...learn to call Harvard the Marist on the Charles.
Now, everything I just said about humility, Class of ‘22 ...set it aside for today. By the power vested in me by no one at all, I encourage you to check your humility at the door and have the time of your life today. I say, go for it! Take a million photos and post every single one of them on social media. Have some champagne outside Greystone…you’ve been doing it all week. Starting tomorrow, you can be humble again. You can begin to solve the world’s problems. But today, live it up, Class of ’22! My very best to you for an amazing future. Let’s stay in touch.