Commencement Address to the Class of 2016
By Nathan O. Hatch
May 16, 2016
There is something refreshing, and deeply satisfying, about being in the presence of a grateful person. That happened to me recently when I visited with Zach Gordon, a senior graduating today. Zach came to Wake Forest on a football scholarship, will pursue a graduate degree next year, and intends to teach and coach in high school. Zach is infectious in the appreciation he manifests for his parents, Taylor and Caroline, for his high school teachers, and for his mentors and coaches at Wake Forest.
Zach’s time at Wake Forest certainly did not turn out as he had expected. In the fall of 2014, a spinal injury destroyed his dream of playing football, led to several days of paralysis and to months of physical therapy. What I find most impressive is Zach’s response to this disappointment. Rather than complain or feel sorry for himself, Zach found that his own physical limitation opened his eyes to the needs of others with physical challenges. And in his desire to give back, he is choosing to pursue a graduate degree in special education. His gratitude for everything – through good times and bad – is heartwarming.
This morning, on this special day of days, I want to offer a few reflections on being grateful – what Cicero called “the greatest of the virtues and the parent of all others.” Graduates, amidst all of these joyous festivities, stop and reflect on all those who made this day possible. Stop and thank your parents and grandparents, your brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. Take note of the faculty, staff, advisors and coaches who shepherded you during your time here. Many of you also owe a great deal to cherished friends who walked together with you through thick and thin.
I offer this advice to all of us today because we live in an age when gratitude is in short order. We live in the age of the “Big Me,” as David Brooks has argued. You are told to promote yourself, to define what is special about you. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. You are told you need to be authentic and self-sufficient – not to follow someone else’s plan for your life.
This quest for individual autonomy – that you are the author of your own life – downplays the significant role others play. According to Google Ngrams, which measure word usage across media going back decades, there is a sharp rise in the usage of individualist phrases, like “I come first,” and “I can do it myself.” Usage of the word “gratitude” is down 49 percent.
In a similar vein, we live in a culture that assumes that any significant achievement, like graduating from a university like Wake Forest, is the product of your own hard work and intelligence. So the argument goes: You burned the midnight oil, you nailed those final exams, you struggled until you mastered those laboratories. You worked hard. You deserve the credit.
On the surface of things, this logic may seem right. But what about the big break of being in the United States, which has such wealth and lavish educational opportunity? What about the good fortune that many of us were born into families who loved us, read to us, and nurtured us in little league sports and trips to the library? What about those special individuals who took note of your potential and took time to invest in your success? Most of us, in fact, have been carried along by powerful currents of opportunity – so much so that success is readily within our grasp.
And there is another reality. The best things in life often come as a complete surprise. Michael Lewis, the author of bestselling books about Wall Street like Liars Poker and The Big Short, tells the story of a chance encounter that changed his life forever. He had majored in art history at Princeton and had been told by his undergraduate advisor that he should not think of writing as a career. He had no clear plan after college until one night he was invited to a dinner party and happened to sit by the wife of a principal in the investment firm, Solomon Brothers. Out of the blue, she convinced her husband to offer Michael a job. And from the perch, unexpected and unsought, Michael Lewis says he stumbled upon a topic that he could write about. “I was plain lucky,” Lewis concludes, “to go to Princeton, to go to Wall Street, to have parents who supported me as a fledgling writer.” This is not false humility he claims, but an honest assessment of all the extra benefits that had been showered upon him – some by his family and social status, some by just plain good fortune or luck.
One stumbling block to gratitude, then, is to attribute too much of our success to ourselves. Another is taking for granted our current situation – and then always dreaming of more. It is harder to be content, and thus grateful, when our digital devices remind us, every waking minute, of how good others have it: the positions they have achieved, the networks they have cultivated, the charmed existence they seem to lead. And television is always reminding us of the life we “deserve:” a world of refined luxury, gourmet food and wine, beautiful homes and furniture, chic clothes, luxury automobiles, fine hotels and resorts. Against these alluring images, our own existence can seem plain and ordinary. Few Americans today feel well off financially because, wherever they stand on the economic ladder, they are prone to compare themselves against those on a higher rung.
The same can be true even if your dream is to do good rather than live the good life. How can one be content and thankful when we focus so much attention on the spectacular accomplishments of a few – those who have started major movements like Teach for America, the Interfaith Youth Core, or the Malala Fund? Or those social entrepreneurs in their 20s who do tremendous good by disrupting whole sectors with digital platforms like donorschoose.org or Tilt.com or feed.org. Daydreaming about famous achievers and the end of the rainbow can be a great motivator. But it can also lead to ingratitude, taking for granted what we have and yearning for more. Shakespeare deemed ingratitude the worst vice of all – “a marble-hearted fiend.”
Why should one be grateful? What difference does it make? I could suggest you cultivate gratitude because such people do live happier and more fulfilling lives. In fact, high levels of gratitude explain more about psychological wellbeing than 30 of the most commonly studied personality traits. But that is not the primary reason for my challenge.
The primary reason is that without gratitude, we have a misplaced view of the world and our place in it. It is only when we quiet the self, muting the sound of our own ego, that we can begin to see the world clearly. The novelist Frederick Buechner once noted that the main point of all his writings was this: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
Likewise, the novelist Marilynne Robinson expresses an equally keen sense of life as a grand and mysterious gift. One of her characters, John Ames, muses about an ordinary day: “It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is to take care not to trample on it.”
So, on this special day, brimming with joy and accomplishment, in the presence of so many who lavished support upon you graduates, I say, “Listen to your life” and be grateful. Acknowledge all the marvelous blessings of life, known and unknown, remembered and forgotten: the blessing of a university degree, of the ability to learn and keep learning, of friends and family, of health and safety, of jobs and financial security.
The best thing about real gratitude is that it ends in generosity. Those who feel they have received much will open hearts and hands. And that certainly is the signature of Wake Forest – to live in the spirit of Pro Humanitate, to live lives oriented to the common good.
In that sense, I know of no better example than Wake Forest graduate, Porter Byrum, from the Class of 1942. Today, we celebrate the graduation of John Thomas Byrum, Porter’s grandnephew and namesake of Porter’s father John Thomas Byrum, Class of 1908. Porter grew up during the Depression when his parents had few resources to send him to college. But an unexpected gift came in the form of a Wake Forest scholarship. He applied himself and went on to have a successful career in law and real estate investing. He never forgot the gift that he was offered, and so, in his gratitude, he made it possible for others to experience what he did.
Five years ago, Mr. Byrum established a major scholarship endowment for students to attend Wake Forest. “Education gave me an opportunity in life,” he has repeatedly said. “It is my privilege to be able to give that same opportunity to others.” Today, 57 Byrum Scholars are graduating; 57 students understand opportunity; 57 students lives were changed for the better. Out of a life of gratitude overflows generosity. Porter, thank you for your example.
Graduates, I have a simple charge to you as you walk across the stage today and go forth into your next adventure: take nothing for granted. Receive everything with gratitude. And give back in ample measure the gifts of knowledge and skill, passion and insight that you have received.