Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Shift Towards Service in Obama's Commencement Address

It's graduation season, when seniors everywhere come to the end of their schooldays and encounter the reality of a world not necessarily waiting with open arms to receive them. Commencement speeches are filled with the advice that seems little changed from year to year. John Glenn, the Senator from Ohio and former astronaut, was the speaker at my commencement, Yale 1982. Wouldn't you know it, his message to us was to follow our passions. Not the most impassioned speaker himself, he put many people in the crowd of thousands on the Old Campus that May morning to fidgeting and fighting to keep hung over eyes open. I much prefer President Obama's advice at Morehouse College's commencement service today to focus on improving the conditions of the society by example, which seems to mark a generational change from the narcissistic, Joseph Campbell inspired New Age of the "follow your bliss" years, to a new emphasis on service and community. Young people need a challenge to wake them up, not the kind of pap that promises eternal happiness through some kind of mystical inner turning. Yes, we all have talents that are unique, and we surely do merit a special kind of individualized recognition, but the reality is that the world is not set up to accommodate 7 billion different self-sufficient streams of income based on video gaming obsessions or Tumblr pages. Much better to turn outward and think about how one's actions, and indeed even thoughts have the power to change the world for the better. St. Francis's very practical admonition in this regard is the best way to think about a vocation:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
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