Earlier this year, I received a letter from Siena Heights University. When I opened it up you could have pushed me over with a feather. I had been nominated to receive a Doctorate of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
In one of the ensuing emails I was told that, due to an unusually high number of graduates, I needed to accept the award in a speech lasting two minutes.
It never occurred to me to publish those words here, but recent events have changed my mind.
Our public discourse is on a dangerous track. Rather than seeing our common humanity, we emphasize our cultural differences. Fear replaces curiosity, and there is a danger that we have begun to descend toward a darkness from which it may be impossible to return.
It is said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. We mustn’t rhyme at this moment. We must be courageous enough to find a different way forward, and it involves reminding ourselves of the very meaning of community.
So, recently the thoughts of my speech returned to me, and I have decided to post them here. This is what I said:
To everyone here, I want to join in offering my congratulations. You did it. It is finished….
For the students, today ends the most recent part of your life-story with the word graduation. We do so at a ceremony called commencement. The two words imply that you are moving on to another level, and that your real life-story is yet untold.
My parents told me that I sang songs long before I learned to speak. If that is true, then I’ve been making music for almost six decades. During more than half of that time, I’ve been an orchestra conductor.
But what brought me to the field is not what has kept me in it. The first decisions of my career were all about me. And those first questions should have been about me, since we express our lives individually.
So, my first big issue was: “What do I want to do with my life?” But that question, it turned out, was only half of the story.
Time would teach me a different question.
The first illusion is that we are self-contained. We have skin around us, and have our own thoughts and feelings. So, we must be separate.
Then one day the illusion falls away, and we see everyone as belonging to everyone else. We see humanity as being one thing; the world as a single unit.
And at that moment, we wake up from our dream about ourselves, and we see the lie for what it is: We no longer hold to the view that we are alone and that our individual interests are paramount.
And, as our perspectives change, we commence a new work, even if it is in the same old job. We become part of the whole. Our work, the expression of our lives, reflects that understanding.
So, in my case, I experience music personally, but I make music for others.
If I could wish for you students just one thing today, it would be for a sense of transcendence.
It would be that you would, over time, become aware of, and try to serve, something larger than yourselves. My wish would not be that you starve or that you suffer in seeing to the needs of others. Instead, it would be that you prosper, and experience joy.
And the way to joy is to live beyond the confines of your own skin.
By looking outward, you look within. By serving others, you end up serving yourself.
That is the great truth. A life well-lived is one in which we give ourselves away. Rather than protecting ourselves, we embrace the world around us.
All beginnings start with an ending, and your work here has ended. It is finished. And now, at commencement, you can, at last, begin.
Congratulations! And to the University, thank you for this honor.
The two minutes had passed, a hood had been placed around my neck, a degree had been given, and I had re-examined the precepts of my own life.
We live in community and we live for it as well.