2019 Commencement Speech

by Ellen Euclide

As Elms girls, we're supposed to change the world right? You are the best and the brightest and you'll be the top of your field wherever you go.  Well, it's probably my job to tell you that.

But here's the thing: there are so so many smart people in this world that I'm really not being honest if I tell you that you're destined to do something so special you make it on the cover of Time.  

But, I do know you will change the world. Because we all do. Every interaction, every relationship, changes that person's world just a little bit. And it changes your own world too. For the better or for the worst.

You can inspire people or you can give them a rock in the pit of their stomach. Make them feel big or small. And you never know who will remember it. Never know if you'll remember it. You never know you will see you and remember it. The classic graduation speech example, of course, is that how you treat the janitor is important. And, it is. (But it is also easy at the Elms.)  So is how you treat your mom, your co-worker, your teacher, your spouse, and the homeless guy at the entrance ramp to the highway.

This is how you change the world. For better or for worse. When people see you interact with your mom or your best friend, or with the guy serving your food at Chipotle,  are they inspired to be greater? More kind? To learn something? To be more creative? To call their mom?

The writer and activist Adrienne Maree Brown writes:

“One thing I have observed: When we are engaged in acts of love, we humans are at our best and most resilient. The love in romance makes us want to be better people, the love of children that makes us change our whole lives to meet their needs, the love of family that makes us drop everything to take care of them, the love of community that makes us work tirelessly even with broken hearts.”

When I first read this paragraph in her book, Emergent Strategy, it really stood out and I think it is her insight that love is natural, relationships transformational that it is what we need to practice it if we want to be at our best selves.  

But, she doesn't say “I work at love” or “you should love because it has worked for me.”  

She says that she observes love, that she has seen a natural phenomenon play out and that it guides her work. She has seen love strengthen the people involved, make people grow, made them smile, made them push through even when they are exhausted and that she has wanted more of that in her life.

Practicing love is self-care. Practicing love builds better communities. Practicing love inspires others to do the same. Observing love does this too. And, amazing Elms graduates, I hope that it is how you will change the world. Not just by the love you show to people, but by inspiring those who have the chance to observe you.

Because, let's admit it, your generation and mine have inherited a totally crap situation. The focus on profit and competition, the winner takes all politics and a “not in my backyard” attitude have us all continually hustling just to pay our medical bills while our government wages endless wars. We are living on a planet that we are rapidly killing. So, why am I here just telling you to be nice to people in your life? Because, as Brown says, “what you focus on, grows.”

I'm a ski instructor and we have another way of saying this: “look where you want to go.” If you've ever ridden a bike or a horse, canoed or skied then you may have experienced this too. Simply looking in a direction changes your muscles and your balance so minutely and immediately that even though you couldn't see it, you feel it.

If you're losing control of your skis, and starting to get scared, nine times out of ten it is because you are looking the cliff you want to avoid.  Force yourself to tear your eyes away from it and look back downhill and, nine times out of ten, your skis will follow. You'll regain control, you'll make it the lodge for hot chocolate.

When we can focus on the good in people, on the God in people or the light in people, we start to go where we want to go. We start to create a more caring and creative future where the good in people what we see, is what is honored is what grows.

Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic worker embodied this. His more famous friend, Dorthy Day, wrote:

 “Peter made you feel a sense of his mission as soon as you met him. He did not begin by tearing you down, or by painting so intense a picture of misery and injustice that you burned to change the world. Instead, he aroused in you a sense of your own capacities for work, for accomplishment. He made you feel that you and all people had great and generous hearts with which to love God. If you recognized this fact in yourself, you would expect and find it in others”

Peter was looking where he wanted to go. He could visualize a “world where it was easier to be good” and he could see the spark of the divine in each person he met. He went around describing this vision to everyone he met, making its arrival seem inevitable if only people would notice how close we were to achieving it. Some people, I am sure, found this very annoying but others found it inspiring, and it gave Peter a resilience in his tireless work. 

And I hope you are not misunderstanding, this is not all kumbaya and lovey-dovey, this is not putting on blinders with your headphones in. When you're skiing it would be a really bad idea to not know the cliff was there, but it is an equally bad idea to be so focused on the cliff that you lose control of your direction.

Peter, who lived in France during WWI and NYC during the Great Depression, was intimately aware of the harm that people and the structures they had built in society caused, but he chose to look for and expect the best of them anyway.

He chose to look at what he hoped would grow in them And, quite often, they fulfilled his expectations. Peter said that if he gave his extra coat to someone without one, then when the time came and he was in need, someone else would have an extra to give to him. Miraculously, this usually worked out for him. Dorothy called it God's grace, Peter just said: “told ya so.”

Brown says that her default position is wonder, that by believing the world is a beautiful place and people are wondrous and good, she is able to work for racial and environmental justice even in our current exhausting context.

In the world we live in, this has been hard for me. To tear my eyes away from the latest outrage and focus on the beauty surrounding me. To find ways to see a potential for good even it those who want to create laws that would hurt me or the people I care about. To not ignore the bad exactly, but neither to focus on it. To feel like the “better” is inevitable.

But then I come back to that quote I read to you at the beginning. Humans are at their best when they are loving someone.

Love is a verb. An action. A choice. I can be my best when I am loving, I can see the best in others when I notice them loving. I can look where I want to go. And end up with hot chocolate,  in a world more filled with love.

And so can you.

Thank you.