Welcome to one of the scariest moments you’ll ever live through.
The day you were born was probably scary, but at least you didn’t see it coming. Your wedding day will be scary, but at least it’s voluntary — and people back out of marriages all the time, as we know.
No, graduation is pretty much unique on the scariness scale. It’s a terrifying one-way ticket into the unknown. Here you are, fully conscious of everything you’re leaving behind forever, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.
Right now everybody around you is dressed up, but do they really know what they’re celebrating? The air is full of words, but does anybody really know what comes next?
I’ve been in your shoes, and I know what I sound like. I’m one more idiot telling you how to live. But I want to tell you something that I know to be true, that will help you survive and even enjoy whatever comes next for you. Even if it doesn’t make much sense right now, it’s something you’ll want to remember for years down the road.
My advice comes down to this: Always, always be kind.
Every day the news is full of terrible stories. There are forces in the world that want to destroy, or else dominate, everything that’s good. But you can change the rules of this game and tell a completely different story.
Reach outside yourself. Get involved. Help somebody else.
Do you really want to beat destruction at its own game? Move back in and rebuild. Do you really want to undermine greed and selfishness? Give, and give, and give. Put others first. It surprises the pants off everybody.
Helping and building and giving: these are not acts of futility. Even if you build till you’re exhausted, even if you give till you have nothing left — you will affect others in ways you can not imagine.
Learn to listen. Really pay attention to somebody’s story. Spend time. Let them know you heard. It’s all anyone really wants from us. That, and to be respected.
Helping other people is not just worth doing; it’s the only thing worth doing. The good news is that every day we have an almost infinite number of opportunities to change someone else’s life for the better.
College is expensive. The economy is in terrible shape. Jobs are scarce, so let me offer some career advice: Treat others as you would be treated. You’ll be a better co-worker and a better employer. Make it your career to be kind and honest and forgiving. Make it what you’re known for as a parent and a friend and a neighbor. Bad times are a great time to create good will and inspire it all around you: it’s the last thing people expect.
Senseless acts of generosity make the world question all its assumptions. You’ll know you’re succeeding when people ask, Why are you doing this? (You don’t have to answer.)
Does helping people go wrong? All the time. Do it anyway, because no kindness you do with a clean conscience and an open heart is ever wasted. If all that comes out of it is a funny story, guess what: you’re writing your autobiography every minute of every day. So be the comic hero — but be a hero to somebody.
Help those younger than you, and you’ll never forget what it means to be young. Help those older than you, and you’ll always be wiser than your years. The family you’re born to is just a starter kit. The best families are the ones you build from scratch.
Sir Christopher Wren designed St. Paul’s cathedral in London. When he died in 1723, he was buried in the crypt there, and to this day you can see the inscription on his tomb. In Latin, it says “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.” When you change things for the better, the lives you touched become your monument, and that monument outlives you because kindness learns by example and gets repeated over and over.
By the way, the inverse of this principle is also true. To ask someone to help you is one of the most precious gifts you can offer, because it gives that person the chance to mean something, to be valuable.
The Charter School teaches this lesson particularly well. As a student here, you learned to ask for help. You reached into the community and brought back teachers and mentors and project advisors and other volunteers. You know firsthand about involvement.
I was told I’m the first “off-campus” person to be a commencement speaker. That made me laugh, because to the Charter School, the whole Island is the campus. The whole world is.
I’m grateful to the Charter School, even though of course I was never a student here. I’ve forgotten many things in my life, but I’ll never forget the names and faces of the young people I worked with here. They changed my life.
Out in the real world there will be some folks, very sure of themselves, who will tell you “Kindness is fine, but at the end of the day, you can’t take it to the bank.”
Well, banks keep very funny hours. In the middle of a long, dark night, when money doesn’t matter and you’re facing your own worst demons, nothing will carry you through till morning like the knowledge that you did the right thing by someone. That you stuck up for a person when it was the right thing to do, even when it was unpopular, even when everybody thought you were crazy.
Nobody can ever undo that, or take it away from you. That’s the only bank that counts.
So I want to leave you with these words: As you go out into the world, continue to be involved. Even if your journey takes you half way around the planet, look around and find something to make better. Even if you settle down just a few miles from here and never live off Island, help others — and ask for help.
Always be kind, and you’ll have very few regrets.
Good luck to you all.
Dan Waters of West Tisbury, a poet and printer, delivered this commencement address to the 2012 senior class of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.