In a long life I have on a number of occasions been asked to address various groups graduating from school or university or making the transition from one stage of life to another – for instance, new recruits in a company or first-time members of a national sports team.
On such occasions, especially with graduating students, I have tried to strike a note which emphasises the opportunities which lie in store and the qualities which are needed to take advantage of those opportunities – at the same time exhorting the aspiring young people to seek achievements through teamwork and, their success achieved, never to forget those who have fallen by the wayside and the less fortunate who need help.
I have often made the point also that there is bound to be an element of chance and not just choice in the future that awaits so one had better grasp good fortune when it comes along – and I liked to quote the Australian poet Les Murray:
You ride on the world-horse once
no matter how brave your seat
or polished your boots, it may gallop you
into undreamed-of fields.
I made a point, whenever I thought it appropriate, to stress the vital importance of learning to use language properly. For instance, here is what I said to the graduating students at the University of the West Indies at St Augustine in 1997:
“First let me urge upon you independence of thought. Never let that be taken from you – not by colleagues or friends, not by those in authority, not by priests, not by politicians. And I want to explain something which involves language and why it is important to learn to use and understand language very well. Independence of thought requires honesty of opinion and clarity of expression. The three go absolutely together. Dishonesty of opinion breeds servility while abused language twists thought out of the shape of truth. Our intellect deteriorates every time we surrender to foolishness because any nonsense that we do not resist does not pass by us but into us. Without an assured grasp of how language works and how to express oneself in strong, clear and convincing language the potential of even the best minds will inevitably be diluted.
“Therefore treat language as one of your most treasured possessions. Learning to use good, clear, straightforward English and taking a life-long pleasure in the best literature of our own and the best literature of others is not only greatly satisfying but also of immense practical importance. It is a key to the making of any whole and independent man or woman.”
Well, all good enough advice I hope. I tried my best. But I have just seen some remarks at a graduation which I only wish I had known early on because I would have quoted them without reservation whenever I was given the opportunity. They are by John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court delivered at his son’s graduating ceremony. Here is what John Roberts said to his son and his fellow graduating students:
“Now, commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.
“Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”
I wish I had said that; it is so true.