Note: this is the transcript of a commencement speech I gave to a Marin County high school a while back.
Mahatma Gandhi was approached one day by a woman and her young son.
She asked, “Mahatma, can you please tell my son to stop eating sugar. It’s not good for him, and he won’t listen to me. He respects you, and I know he will listen to you.”
The Mahatma said, “Fine. Come back in a week.”
A week later, the woman and her son came back. The Mahatma said, “I’m not quite ready. Please come back in another week.”
Another week went by, and the woman came back with her son. The Mahatma was ready, and he said, “Son, you should stop eating sugar. It is not good for you.”
The woman was pleased, but also a bit confused. She said, “Why did it take you so long to say such a simple thing.”
The Mahatma replied, “When you first came to me, I had not stopped eating sugar myself.”
The moral of the story is clear: Don’t tell people to do things you haven’t done yourself. So, I don’t want to speak about things I haven’t tried and tested myself, and I don’t want to tell you a bunch of nonsense I don’t believe in. I don’t want to tell you all kinds of fancy stuff about the future and your place in it, because I’m not psychic.
The fact is, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to you. For all I know, Sarah could become the next Emily Dickinson, and Claudio could become the next Pablo Picasso.
Or not. Who knows?
What I can do, though, is to share what I’ve learned about life, in the hope I will say something that will be useful to you.
I’m going to talk briefly about six principles that represent what I’ve learned over the past thirty years since I graduated high school, based purely on my own experiments in living. I try to practice these six principles every day, and I like to think these principles are a tree whose fruits are an honorable life, which is what I wish for you.
The first principle is: Live your own life. It would be a shame to get to the end of your life—and who knows when that time will come—only to discover in the last moment that you did not live your life, but the life that someone else wanted you to live. It takes a lot of strength and courage to live your own life, because so many people want you to live their idea of what your life should be.
But they are not you, and their values and goals and dreams are theirs, not yours. Only you are you, so find out who you are and how you want to live and what you want to do. Take as much time as you need to do this. Don’t be afraid of changing your mind or of making mistakes, because these are part of the journey of living your own life. Explore different paths, keep learning and growing, and don’t be afraid of wandering off into the unknown, because that wilderness is where great people are born.
My older brother and I took different paths after high school. He went to college, got married, had two kids, went to law school and became a lawyer. Following my heart, I traveled around the world and lived in Europe, the Middle East and India. I had a lot of adventures, most of which were X- rated, while he had a lot of adventures that were more PG-rated. To this day, I am not a lawyer and I am not married and I don’t have two kids. I don’t even have a dog. Come to think of it, I don’t even have a house plant. Never mind: different strokes for different folks.
However, my brother and I are friends, and we share what we have each learned and thus we enrich each other’s lives. My brother was not wrong, and neither was I. We each followed the true path of our own life. Though our paths and lives are different, we enjoy and share the same passion for authentic living. In a word, we are each happy, which is what I hope you will be.
And remember: houses, cars, boats, and big bank accounts are not who you are, they are just things you own. Who you are has more to do with character and integrity, and how you treat people, and whether or not you love what you do.
The second principle is: Be persistent.
Keep building your dream, whatever it is. Imagine how many difficulties Noah must have had when he started to build his ark. I’m sure he maxed out his credit cards and borrowed even more money from anyone who would lend him some. He had to work weekends, and vacations were definitely out. People laughed and thought he was crazy.
Still, he stuck with it, and history tells us that Noah had the last laugh. You might have heard of Rumi, as Sufi poet who lived in the 13th century. He said, “Start a huge, foolish project, like Noah. It makes absolutely no difference what people think of you.”
Thomas Edison racked up over 10,000 failed experiments before he invented the light bulb. Be persistent, but also be flexible. Flexibility allows us to learn from our mistakes, and to learn from others.
Persistence means to just keep at it, and flexibility means to embrace change when necessary.
The third principle is: Respect other people, especially those people you don’t like or who are so different from you that you are sure they come from another galaxy.
A Buddhist version of this principle might be: do no harm.
The Buddha used to say this all the time: do no harm. Instead of saying “Hi” or “How are you?” he would say “Do no harm.”
(You might wonder how I know this. Trust me. Just this once. I know it.)
Respecting other people invites them to respect you. If you do no harm to others, and others do no harm to you, can you imagine what a lovely planet this would be?
The fourth principle is: Express gratitude and appreciation to everyone every day. This is a hard one for me, because I tend to be self-absorbed, and I forget to acknowledge other people. But for anyone here who has experienced the sudden loss of a loved one, you know what I mean. The first thing that comes to our mind is: “I never said ‘I love you.’”
Expressing gratitude and appreciation is a form of saying “I love you,” which is a form of respect. It only takes a moment, but it makes all the difference in the world. This is how we create heaven on earth.
For example, around you are the teachers who have given their very best effort, day after day, year after year, to help you, to teach you, to care for you. You may never see them again. Wouldn’t it be fun to go to each one and say, “Thank you for all you have done and tried to do to make me a better person. I love you.” I know you would have friends for life, and you would feel great.
You could also say this to your parents as you leave home for college, or wherever else you may be heading. I know they would be deeply appreciative.
The fifth principle is: Now is the only time there is. Make now count.
It’s fine to plan ahead, to set goals, and to wonder about where you want to be in five or ten years. But life is unpredictable, and in five years you might be worm food.
I hope not, but you never know. Even as you look ahead and plan ahead, make sure your feet, head, and heart are planted firmly in now, this minute, because that is all we have. There are no guarantees about tomorrow.
This moment is where we live our unique life, where we demonstrate who we are. Be your very best in this moment. Face your fears in this moment. Speak the truth of your heart in this moment. Live from the depths of your soul in this moment. If you do, tomorrow and the day after will exceed your wildest dreams.
The sixth, and final, principle is: Don’t become cynical and selfish. I know there are a lot of things wrong in our world, and that we all face an uncertain future. It may seem that we can’t change things, or that the world is not our business. But the world is our business, and we can change things. Don’t cop out, stay involved, be heard. Stand up for righteousness and justice for all.
Take care of yourself and your families, but also make a contribution to others. Find a way to be of service to your community, and to the world in which we live. We should all pitch in and make this Earth a better place for our children, and for their children, and for theirs. Keep a positive outlook, be optimistic, and help those less fortunate than you. And, of course, always, always be kind to children.
So, that’s it. I’ve just given you my best pitch. I know you will develop your own principles of living as the years roll by, but maybe something I’ve said will help you along your way. You should be very proud of yourselves. You have worked hard and you have achieved much.
I sincerely applaud each and every one of you, and I wish that you all have magnificent and honorable lives.
Thank you, and good luck.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Wikimedia Commons