The following is an excerpt from a speech I gave at the ROHS National Honor Society induction ceremony.
A hunter has been wandering through the woods, lost, thirsty, and desperate. Finally, we wanders into a small camp. “Thank goodness!” he cries, “I’ve been lost for three days!” The guy in the camp says, “Don’t get too excited. I’ve been lost for three weeks.”
I think we’re all living under a few delusions. And because I was recently called to speak to you all, I thought it would be a good idea to shake us out of them a bit. Forgive me if I make you uncomfortable.
The first is the belief that somebody somewhere has the answers.
As lost as we sometimes believe ourselves to be—how many appeal forms and hidden deadlines and senseless class assignments are we supposed to take, anyway?—we believe that somewhere, somehow, someone can tell us what’s really going on.
It’s not true. There are plenty of people who will give advice, but they are just as lost as you or me. I’ve met the Secretary-General of the UN, numerous ambassadors and senators, counselors and social workers, even the Dalai Lama. And, I have to admit, that last guy you have to figure has some answers, but they usually involve transcending the broken world, not offering explanations for it. In the meantime, the appeals forms and class exercises are replaced with bogus credit deals, lost jobs, and—oh yeah—more forms.
Nothing makes much sense anymore. Consider two cows standing in a field. One says to the other, “Say, what do you think about this mad cow disease they keep talking about?” The other says, “What do I care? I’m a helicopter!”
Nope, I’m sorry. I think I’m supposed to be here to inspire you. But all I can think to do is offer you another delusion that most people suffer from.
It’s when I get a little older, I will figure out what makes sense for me.
Ah, but the world changes. One man’s pet rock is another woman’s Tamagotchi. Destiny Cyrus is really Miley Ray is really Hannah Montana is really a has-been by Friday. In second grade I wanted to be just like George the Janitor. By age 18 I planned to be a performance musician. For the last twenty years I’ve been looking for the Soviet Union and Velvet Peanut Butter, but they both vanished on me. I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up, but I know this: tomorrow it will be something different.
Reminds me of the snail that was mugged by two turtles. When the police asked him what happened, he said, “I dunno. It all happened so fast!”
So we’re alone, often lost or confused, and we can expect no real answers from anyone. Cool. Just please don’t tell me I’m on Big Brother 11 but without the cameras.
No, really. I’m okay with that. Nothing in the world is settled, nothing is set. And as the world changes, so does its needs.
Ms. Erwin suggested to me that I talk to you about service, one of the pillars of NHS, and I’m happy to do it because if I’ve discovered anything it’s this.
As much as I want to have someone tell me what I should be doing, others around me feel the same thing. They’re waiting for someone to find them, too.
Listen. Set all that stuff aside for a minute. I have some forms for you to fill out. I have a state diploma service requirement I need you to complete. I need Obama to promise you an education if only you first join a domestic peace corps. Look, if you give up your Saturday afternoon for a zoo project or contribute to the Penny Wars, I’ll give you extra-credit. What’s it going to get me? And if I do enough service, it’ll look good on the college resume and scholarship application. So let’s rack up some hours!
My students, what can I tell you about service that you don’t already know?
And so here’s the last of the delusions I want to talk about tonight:
Service is about exchange; we should never do anything nice if we don’t know what we’ll get in return.
Armed robbers burst into a bank, line people up, and begin to take their wallets. Two friends are lined up waiting their turn to be robbed. Suddenly one thrusts something into the hand of the other. The guys says, “What is this?” and his friend tells him, “It’s the fifty bucks I owe you.”
Somehow, somewhere, are billions of humans waiting to be found by people just as lost as we are. Finding them, helping them, giving to them, doesn’t make us wealthy, it doesn’t earn credits, and it doesn’t make us better. It just makes us human together.
This is why Mr. Greening put a motto on our school this year: “Enter here to learn, Go forth to serve.” I don’t think that learning has much to do with algebra problems and appeals forms, with hallway passes and MME tests. It’s a centuries old wisdom that finds its way all the way back to the Dalai Lama.
When I was in Dharamsala where His Holiness now lives, which is more or less a refugee city of Tibetans who will never return to their homeland, I visited a school of orphans. These kids lost their parents to arrests, disease, or just the difficult trek across the foothills of the Himalayas to reach India. They are without money and with only the scarcest of support; I was broken-hearted when I met them. And I yelled aloud as we walked across the property (scaring a few people, I’m sure) and pointed to a building, there in the backwaters of India, in the orphanage of a refugee city, was this inscription on a classroom building….
They don’t know their direction, they don’t know who to count on, but they know what it is to be human. And perhaps there is no reward better.
The Swede Axel Munthe said, “What you keep to yourself, you lose; but what you give to others you keep forever.” And, of course, Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Alone and undirected, you and I, who are a bit better off than the orphans of Tibet, can do this much—no, must do this much–not because it’s a requirement but because it is one of the only real things we have. It can be in Galveston or in random gardens, in Honduras or with the homeless; it can even be with that quiet guy across the hallway—you know the one, you see him every day, never talking to anyone. . . .
Find them. Keep walking until you do. Next month I’ll be traveling to Nepal to teach some of the poorest children on the planet. Despite everything, they’re learning English and they are desperately hungry to learn more. I will give you one offer right now, tonight. Write them a letter, tell them who you are, send a photo, tell them about the world you live in, because the more they know of it, the more they can demand it of their new democracy, the more they can speak it. Who knows? Perhaps they will write you back. Perhaps you will find a friend on the other side of the world starting tonight.
Find them. Keep walking until you do. Tomorrow you will walk once again into Royal Oak High School and see your friends, suck up to—I mean, say hello to your teachers, and mind your own business. Mind someone else’s tomorrow. Be unsure, but reach across the aisle to talk to someone else anyway. After all, there is no extra-credit for this assignment; what better reason to do it?
Find them. Keep walking until you do.
Or, as Alice asked the Cheshire Cat…
‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where—-‘ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘—-so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk enough.’