Kindness and Courage

May 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

This is the speech that I delivered at my commencement last year. With a new batch of graduates about to take wing, I feel the time is right to revisit these thoughts and wellwishes.


Perhaps the most enduring lesson I’ll take from my four years here came when I was a freshman, and I took a class with Rich Legault, who many of you might know from his work with CITS or from the Sustainability Film Series he runs on campus. At eighteen, I was extremely shy and lived in mortal terror of being called upon in class; but one day, without prompt or agenda, Rich stopped me to say that even though I didn’t speak up very often, he liked when I did because he felt that what I did say was thoughtful.

I don’t think he knows how much the memory of his kind words helped me as I learned, however slowly, to find the courage to use my voice.

For me, Rich’s encouragement illustrated the wisdom of a poet named John Berryman, who wrote that in the face of never knowing what life has in store for us, “the thing is… to be courageous and kind.”

Our society sets a lot of store by courage; we understand it; we admire the ability to venture, persevere, and withstand in the face of uncertainty and adversity. But I think we misunderstand kindness, and how it works together with other virtues – like courage, or confidence, ambition or persistence.

Kindness, at its heart, is not affection, it’s not sweetness — it is living with regard for the needs of other people, even if it’s as simple a thing as offering a smile or a word of encouragement to someone new or shy. Kindness takes courage, because every person we meet is an unknown in some way. Sometimes it’s easier to close ourselves off and focus only on our own needs; when we open ourselves to other people, we make ourselves vulnerable.

But the business of life is other people. It’s important that we know this, because no matter what we’re after, the fundamental value of our time on earth lies in the connections we make. None of us come into this world alone and I’m pretty sure none of us want to leave it that way. It’s in creating and caretaking these connections that kindness and courage come in.

Today, we confront a mystery. We don’t know much about what graduated life holds for us; but we do know we will encounter people along the way. Knowing only this, we can do worse than to be brave and have regard for others.

Kindness is a universal language. It unlocks hearts better than any other key. Memories of patience and consideration build trust, bind people together.

And if kindness unlocks hearts, then it takes courage to peer inside them. It takes courage to look into our own.

Sometimes it takes courage, too, to step towards the happiness that our hearts whisper to us; but I would challenge you to find the strength to, to make that leap. If we can set our minds to anything today, let’s decide to make an honest effort, and put the best of ourselves into building our best lives.

If we pair this resolve with kindness, anything IS possible to us; because ultimately our success always comes down to the people we meet, and how we treat them. If courage is standing strong in the face of what we are unsure of, kindness helps ensure that we don’t face whatever it is alone.

I would like to leave you with a quote from the story of Benjamin Button, a man who aged backwards and so built an interesting perspective on life.

“For what it’s worth,” he said, “it’s never too late or… too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, you can stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules…. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. And if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

I hope that anyone who looks back on the class of 2011 finds that we did find that strength. I hope you are kind to yourself, recognize what your dreams are, and find the courage to have faith in the validity of those dreams.

Or, failing that, I hope you can recognize the validity of others’ dreams. They will help you on your way.

Congratulations. Good luck. God bless you. Thank you.


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