Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the address Michael Durham, substance abuse educator and counselor, gave at the Baccalaureate ceremony May 20, 2016, celebrating the Class of 2016. Video of his speech is available here.
Class of 2016, I thank you for this honor to be your Baccalaureate speaker. I honor you. Esteemed faculty, staff and administrators, I thank you for all you do to support our students and for your role in helping this class to succeed in reaching this milestone of graduation from this great institution of learning.
We gather today on this Hill to celebrate and honor this Class of 2016 and join together as members of this community of diverse beliefs and faiths. I respectfully ask that we recognize our commonalities and celebrate our differences, as diversity is an asset.
We come here from all over the world to learn and grow as individuals within a community. Graduates, do you remember when you first came here to visit or as a prospie, an interested athlete or young scholar, maybe to a summer program? Remember the excitement of your first class or when you began moving your belongings into a dorm? Some of those fears diminished as you were greeted by a smiling member of this community. As the days became weeks and the weeks became months, you discovered that there were resources to help you, whether it was counseling, medical, academic or relational. We have been there for you. Student groups such as Beer and Sex, Community Advisors, Sexual Misconduct Advisors, Discrimination Advisors, Upper Class Counselors and Peer Counselors have supported you. Faculty have made themselves available to meet individually. All this for you. You have in turn “paid it forward” both by joining these groups officially or simply by being a friend or confidante to other students. That is how a community like this thrives, by each of us doing our part to help others.
I have met many of you who were struggling with profound problems, issues or at some training or panel I have been on. It has been my honor and privilege to get to know you and offer my support. My message has been and remains consistent: Take good care of yourself, take good care of each other. Be kind! But it requires commitment, strength and skills. One student I worked with through their entire Kenyon career. This student had many judicial infractions related to alcohol and even left school for a while to complete some treatment. The alcohol problems continued after he returned to school. One day, I asked this student, “What would need to happen for you to say to yourself that alcohol has become a problem?” After a while, he said, “If I find myself driving drunk.” I didn’t argue. I simply accepted that was where this student drew the line. Over a year later, I received a phone call from that student reporting, “Mike, I crossed the line!” He said, “I woke up this morning and don’t remember driving home or much at all about last night.” My point in sharing this story is that well after Kenyon, the experiences here can impact important decisions. You all have experienced many changes at Kenyon. You’ve seen the closing of the Cove and the battle over Summer Sendoff. We have engaged in difficult conversations about challenging issues, especially fairness and justice. Sometimes it seems the only thing constant is change. As we move forward in discussion and actions, with kindness and respect, we grow. I’ve seen students leave here before graduating and so have you. Some of them go on and complete their degree somewhere else. Some will resolve whatever issue led them to leave. And some will not. What we don’t resolve, we repeat.
You have practiced critical thinking, thought deep thoughts and engaged in intellectual discourse. You have learned inside and outside the classroom. These skills are transferable in life. Let me give you an example. Consider this: Most of you eat at Peirce Dining Hall. If you simply go in and sit down, you will notice everyone else is eating. Yet you can sit there and be hungry. It’s up to you to go up, get in line and get your food. Then you can sit down and eat. Life is a lot like that — you can sit back and watch others get and enjoy the things they want in life, or you can get up and take the necessary steps to attain those things for yourself.
Sometimes our perceptions of things are not accurate, and we react to mistaken beliefs. Things are not always what they seem to be. There’s a fun, fictional story of three important men — let’s say President Obama, Pope Francis and Mark Zuckerberg — that I heard in the past that I think could illustrate this point. They were all three invited to an important meeting regarding global issues. So there they were flying in the cabin of a small jet while in the cargo compartment were four parachutes and a stowaway college student. Suddenly the jet lost power and began to descend. Immediately, the pilot grabbed a parachute and announced,“We’re going to crash! Grab your chute and jump!” He quickly leapt from the falling jet. This left the three men and the college student staring at the three remaining parachutes. President Obama proclaimed, “I am the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, the world needs me.” With that he grabbed a parachute and jumped. Quickly, Mark Zuckerberg took one of the remaining two parachutes and said, “I am the most intelligent man in the world, the world needs me,” and he jumped. Pope Francis looked at the young college student and said, “I am old and have lived a good, full life. You are young and have a whole life ahead of you. You should take the last parachute and save yourself.” The college student smiled at him and said, “It’s all good, Pope, the most intelligent man in the world just jumped out of this jet wearing my backpack.” Things are not always what they seem.
We live in a world of Instagram, Snapchat, texting, Tinder, Grindr, apps and Twitter. You have grown up experiencing instant gratification in many areas of your life. There is value in delayed gratification. Sometimes the anticipation is as good or better than the event. Happiness, true happiness, is not found by seeking it. Happiness is a byproduct of living a life true to your values.
Many years ago a mentor of mine gave me a book by Og Mandino titled The Greatest Miracle in the World. It contains a list of blessings and what I see as guides for success and happiness. I will quote, summarize and present my interpretations from this book.
Can you see? You have a hundred million receptors in your eyes. You can see the changing of the season, the sunrise and sunset, a bird, a plant, a child, a cloud, a star, a rainbow and the look of love. Count one blessing.
Can you hear? You have 24,000 fibers in each of your ears that vibrate to the wind in the trees, the tides on the rocks, the majesty of an opera, a bird’s song, children at play and the words “I love you.” Count another blessing.
Can you speak? Your words can calm the angry, uplift the despondent, encourage the quitter, cheer the unhappy, warm the lonely, praise the worthy, educate the uneducated and say “I love you.” Count another blessing.
Can you move? You can stretch, run, dance and work. You have over 500 muscles, 200 bones and about 45 miles of nerve fiber all synchronized to do your bidding. Count another blessing.
Is your heart stricken? Does it leak and strain to maintain your life? No, your heart is strong. Touch your chest and feel its rhythmic pulsating hour after hour, day and night, 36 million beats each year, year after year, asleep or awake, pumping your blood through thousands of miles of veins, arteries and tubing, pumping more than 600,000 gallons each year. Count another blessing.
Is your blood poisoned? Is it diluted with water and pus? No, within your five quarts of blood are 22 billion blood cells, and within each cell are millions of molecules, and within each molecule is an atom oscillating at more than 10 million times per second. Each second two million of your blood cells die to be replaced by two million more in a resurrection that has continued since your birth. Count another blessing.
Can you think? Your brain is a complex structure. Within its three pounds are 13 billion nerve cells to help you file away every perception, every sound, every taste, every smell and every action you have experienced since the day of your birth. Within your cells are billions of protein molecules. Every incident in your life is there. And to assist your brain you have millions of pain sensitive structures, thousands of touch and temperature detectors. Are you poor? No, we have just counted your wealth. Tally your assets. Count your blessings.
And now, proclaim your rarity. You are not one of a herd heading for destruction in a gray mass of mediocrity. You are a great rarity. Never in the 70 billion humans who have walked the Earth since the beginning of time has there been anyone exactly like you. You are the rarest of the rare, a priceless treasure possessing qualities of mind and speech, movement, appearance and actions as no other who has ever lived, lives or ever will live. You are a miracle. You are the greatest miracle in the world. Count your blessings. Proclaim your rarity. Go the extra mile. Be patient with your progress to count your blessings with gratitude, to proclaim your rarity with pride, to go another mile and then another. These acts are not accomplished in the blink of an eye, yet what you acquire with most difficulty, you retain the longest. You have power. You are a complete living being. One who can adjust to any climate, any hardship, any challenge. One who can manage your own destiny. One who can translate a sensation or perception, not by instinct, but by thought and deliberation into whatever action is best for yourself and all humanity. You have the power to choose. And so another guide to happiness and success is to use wisely your power of choice:
Choose to love rather than hate.
Choose to be kind rather than cruel.
Choose to laugh rather than cry.
Choose to create rather than destroy.
Choose to persevere rather than quit.
Choose to praise rather than gossip.
Choose to heal rather than wound.
Choose to act rather than procrastinate.
Choose to grow rather than rot.
Choose to pray rather than curse.
Choose to live rather than die.
You are capable of great wonders. Your potential is unlimited. You are more than a human being, you are a human becoming. Remember when you were in high school and thought, “When I get into college.” Now you might be thinking, “When I get that job or when I graduate grad school.” Your happiness is not contingent on any of that. Enjoy today, today, and tomorrow, tomorrow.
Count your blessings.
Proclaim your rarity.
Go the extra mile.
Use wisely your power of choice.
And one more to fulfill the other four. Do all things with love and kindness, for yourself, for all others, and for the God of your understanding.
Graduates, you, the students of Kenyon, are inspirational. Your quest for knowledge and understanding, your dedication to justice and your resilience in the face of adversity are your legacy. You inspire me to be a better counselor, a better educator, a better son, a better husband, a better father, a better man.
I will close with the same words that I heard at the end of the last night of the Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well show in Chicago last summer: “What you found here, take it with you. Do some good in the world. Be kind.” Thank you.