We are all gifted. I don't necessarily mean this statement in the Garrison Keillor, Lake Woebegone tradition, in which the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children all above average, although looking out at this distinguished assembly I don't think he’s far wrong. But when I say we are all gifted, I mean it in the sense that all of us have been blessed, by birth, by innate talent, by the circumstances of our lives, and by the words and examples of great thinkers and writers, with many gifts, and that it is in our relationship to these gifts, the ways they define us and the uses we make of them, that we create meaning and purpose in our lives and begin to realize the true potential of our common humanity.
I want to distinguish between two broad categories of gifts. The first are external, those we receive from birth or circumstance, and the second are internal, those of talent, ability, and affinity. Both kinds are important, in different ways. External gifts, those we receive from parents and teachers, gifts of home, school, and the many advantages of physical and moral support, give us our start in life, the foundation we need to be self-sustaining, independent, and able to establish a place for ourselves in the world. That’s important. But the internal, in the long run, count for even more and are the gifts I want to focus on today. Why? Because recognizing our strengths and abilities and devoting our personal and working lives to developing them to the utmost, not only forms the basis of our adult identities but helps us apply ourselves to the best choices of personal relationships, professions, the very paths our lives will take. As Scott so wisely said in his senior speech, “everyone has something about them that makes them unique, and different, and better at something than almost everyone else.”
More specifically, what are these unique somethings? One is the gift of reason, since it has made possible most of what we today recognize as the essential qualities of human life, from our homes to our transportation systems to our schools to our many entertainments. Another is the ability to feel, both for ourselves and others, a gift which allows us to develop our friendships, our loves, our empathy for the experiences and sufferings of our fellow human beings. Exercising this gift both creates the most valuable, lasting human connections we will ever experience and allows us to develop the emotional resources to survive loss and overcome grief. A third is the gift of wisdom, residing in the ability of our human spirits to extract insight from our experience, to identify values which give meaning and guidance to our lives. We don’t have to look far to find this gift, for the members of the senior class have shared it with each other and with the rest of us, in their speeches. They have given us abundant evidence of the wisdom they have already gleaned, some of it metaphorical, some of it personal, all of it expressed in lively, compelling language. Here is just a sampling of the wisdom I found while re-reading their speeches. (this list is by no means exhaustive, and bears with it my apologies to the many brilliant remarks which the constraints of time force me to omit)--
Some of you told us of your belief in the possibilities of new, even infinite identities:
Ross—“take a chance, try on a new costume, make people take a second glance.” (nice metaphor and it rhymes)
Shebani—“Every day is a new opportunity to create ourselves.” (I like that phrase, we create ourselves)
Some of you talked of finding the keys to well-being in unexpected places:
Ben—“napping is good for both body and soul”
Rachel—“Kissing has many health benefits.”
Some created metaphors for your understanding of life:
Jamie—“Skiing is a metaphor for life. . . [so find] what makes you feel the most exhilarated, the most content with yourself as skiing has done for me.”
Max—(our appropriately honored speaker today, with a phrase containing both literal and symbolic meanings) “quit ya cryin and take out da gahbage.”
Alexis—“the world is an amazing place, . . . [and] there is an adventure lurking around every corner” (corner metaphor)
Rick‘s mechanical, perhaps automotive metaphor: “Find the person in your life . . who inspires you, who pushes you to that extra gear you didn’t think existed.”
Jake—“Life is a lot like a comic strip, and we can all be the star of our own comic.”
Others of you gave us the benefit of your personal values and outlook on life:
Annie, one of the bravest people I know— the ability to take life’s pains a day at a time and persevere allows us to survive our toughest tests and hardships.
Abby—“Don’t compete to knock others down; . . .compete to bring out the best in people and pave the way for new friendships.”
Amanda—“We have an obligation to be aware of ourselves and the world around us, to be involved.”
Finally, some of you found simple, eloquent words to express your most profound beliefs:
Katie—“find your bliss, quiet your mind, flirt with folly, and let go.”
Alexa—(in a nice turn of phrase) “the happiest people don’t have the best of everything; they just make the best of everything that comes their way.”
Lauren—(memorable use of anaphora) “Love people, love life, and love yourself.”
I’m blown away. There’s no way I can do better than the members of our senior class have already done in imparting pearls of wisdom. But there is yet one more gift I want to mention, one which lies latent within us all and which we can develop in many ways, one of the most profound for me being the study of literature. To me it is the most fundamental of all our intrinsic gifts, perhaps because it is the gift most closely related to what I do for a living, and therefore the gift I spend the most time trying to help my students discover and develop within themselves each year. This is the gift of moral imagination, the ability to understand the implications of actions, to grasp the power of choice, to discover what William Faulkner called “the old verities, the universal truths of the heart—love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, sacrifice.” It is moral imagination which allows us to see life through another’s eyes, to invent new visions and possibilitiesfor ourselves, to feel and develop our powers of compassion, to recognize our common humanity in those we first identify as different or wrong, that is the foundation of the study of literature, work which has defined much of my life and from which I have learned many of my most powerful lessons.
For me, moral imagination is Scott Fitzgerald making us understand why Nick Caraway insists that a corrupt bootlegger named Gatsby, who believed in the possibilities of rebirth, “is worth [as Nick says] the whole damn bunch put together.”
Moral imagination is Shakespeare showing us that even a bloody tyrant like Macbeth, deserving as he no doubt is of the death which comes to him, nonetheless merits sympathy for suffering the pangs of unending remorse for the destruction of his own potential greatness.
It is Mary Shelley, teaching us the power of loneliness, which drives a hideous but tormented creature to exact a terrible revenge on his creator.
It is Leo Tolstoy, taking us deep into the heart of a dying Russian bureaucrat, who redeems himself almost at the moment of death by honestly accepting the falseness of his entire life.
It is my much-beloved Hamlet, struggling against the ethical evils of revenge, the dangers of choosing violence over reflection, only to understand in the end that there are times we must act to stop the spread of evil, in our families, in our communities, in our worlds.
And, in what is for me one of the most luminous passages in all literature, it is Huckleberry Finn, an uneducated, highly prejudiced country boy, who overcomes his entire background and flawed culture in a moment of transcendent courage when he decides to sacrifice his own soul to give freedom to a runaway slave who is his best friend and truest father figure.
The power of language, of stories, is such that the words of these great writers allow us to see (and notice, please that this meaning is at the heart of the word imagine) see the larger, deeper possibilities which give meaning and value to human life, and thus give us one of the most precious and valuable gifts any of us can possess.
I end by reminding the members of the senior class, as they prepare to leave this school and embark on the next stages of their journeys, of the many gifts they will take with them, from their parents, their teachers, the great writers, and from each other. We are truly all gifted.