Presented to the Graland Class of 2019 on June 5, 2019, by Josh Cobb, Head of School
The date is September 5, 1997, almost a decade before any of today’s graduates were born. Mother Teresa, known as one of the most compassionate human beings ever, has just passed away. In Hawaii, at a Honolulu Rotary Club meeting, a gentleman honors her by reading a poem, entitled, “The Paradoxical Commandments,” that he believes she wrote and tacked up to a wall in her orphanage in India. He begins:
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
Listening to this reading is a man named Kent Keith, a relatively unknown educator, who is currently a vice president at the local Y.M.C.A. He immediately recognizes the words as his own. He wrote them almost thirty years earlier at Harvard to inspire student leaders during the late 60s, when America was violently divided on many issues, including the Vietnam War. The man continues:
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Keith is surprised but not upset that his work has been attributed to someone else, Mother Teresa of all people. As the man recites the lines, Keith is overcome with emotion that someone of her saintly stature embraced his words and prominently placed them for all visitors to read:
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
In that moment, Keith devotes himself to spreading the “Paradoxical Commandments” far and wide until eventually the poem is read around the world at various ceremonies, including, yes, commencement speeches. He commits himself to keep the ripple effect going, while the man concludes:
Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.
I share this poem because Keith wrote it for students like you, current or future leaders in their school communities who he hoped would bring unity and peace in a time of divisiveness.
Today, we are confronting a similar time of discord, and it is nowhere more apparent than in a realm you all know very well—social media. Though social media is just a tool, another communication forum, it exacerbates our current tendency to tear down others. Even in the 1970s when computer scientists observed people’s initial virtual conversations, they noticed “an escalation of negative comments.” They called these exchanges, “flame wars.” Now there are many other slang words to describe malicious behavior on-line—flaming, trolling, and hit-and-run posting. Research now shows that a negative commentary is more than three times more likely to be clicked on than a positive one.
In the face of this apparent tsunami of acrimony, it is hard to have the resolve to love, to do good, to think big, and to give the world your best. That is why the story of Kent Keith and Mother Teresa is important. Never hesitate to do something small, to drop a pebble of goodness and let the ripple begin, across eras from the 60s to the 90s to now, spanning the globe from America to India and back to America. Let compassion, not condemnation, go viral.
For example, of the real not the virtual type, there is a tradition on the Graland field hockey team called the “Secret Psych.” The concept is simple: each player receives the name of another player, keeps it secret until game day, and then presents that player with something, usually candy, that psyches them up to play. As a father of a field hockey player, I made many a grocery trip in search of the perfect secret psych.
Because many in our society seem to expend more energy trying to rip people down than building them up, we need to commit to our own secret psychs, doing whatever we can to raise someone’s spirits, no matter how minor that act may be, to keep our society from devolving into further disharmony. The “Paradoxical Commandments” reveal a similar deep resolve to lead in the face of harsh criticism and to unify, rather than divide, people.
I have watched many of you grow up from kindergarteners to now young adults. I have been simply a parent of one of your classmates, I have been your division head, and now I am your Head of School. Through our experience together, I have developed trust in your ability to confront challenges with a strength of spirit. Just last week this confidence was reaffirmed as I watched some of you give your Capstone presentations. Inspired to improve our ocean and mountain ecosystems, to bring physical education to youth, to end hunger, to support refugees, and to spread clean cooking practices, you displayed the will to do good and to think big.
Those presentations, and I only saw seven of them, proved that there is much that all of you can do to reverse the tendency to tear down. Be curious before being critical. Be kind rather than cruel. Be thankful before being spiteful. Think of all the secret and not so secret psychs in your life—your parents, your teachers, your friends—think about how they have spent so much time building you up and pay it forward. Build yourself up by building others up.
Over your entire time at Graland, be it nine years or two years, we have been doing all we can to invest in you, to set you up to thrive in the world. The educators here at Graland, who believe deeply in the power of the positive ripple, have committed their full selves to you and your growth. We don’t ask for much in return, but I would ask this of you. If you find yourself lashing out at others, stop, step back, and remember to give the world your best. And if you feel like others are lashing out at you, also stop, step back, and give the world your best anyway.