President DiSalvo, Abbot Mark Cooper, trustees, faculty, honored guests, and weary parents. To the class of 2015: Well done, and congratulations.
To you parents, the years of investment and prayers have added up to this joyful achievement. Hopefully, you are about to experience the new American Dream, which is no longer owning your own home, it is getting your kids out of the home you own.
You have just heard that I have been awarded an honorary degree. When I think of all the times I have been here at Saint Anselm, for debates, forums, town meetings, and rallies, I might argue that it is an earned degree. But to get one of those, I guess I’d have had to win!
16 years of education has made your world a great deal bigger than the world of your childhood. It’s a funny thing about little kids: they don’t see much beyond what’s right around them. They see their family, their school, maybe their city or town, but they just can’t imagine distant places. Their vision, their world is like a small circle, bounded by their very limited experience.
Your world is now breathtakingly large, almost without boundaries. With such vastness and with so many possible directions to take, some of you may understandably feel somewhat anxious and uncertain. You may even be tempted to look for a smaller, more comfortable world, one that’s less complex, and less demanding. That’s not who you are and that’s not what Saint Anselm has prepared you to do. To experience a fulfilling, purposeful life, one thing you’re going to have to do it this: live a large life.
Living large means embracing every fruitful dimension of life.
It means continuing to expand your world and engaging in it as fully as you are able.
Let me offer a few suggestions about how to do that. The first involves your friends.
I remember sitting in a business class, looking around the room and thinking to myself that I’d probably never see any of these guys again after I graduated. All my attention was focused on what was being taught. But you know what, I’ve forgotten almost everything that was taught; it’s the classmates I remember, and it’s those friends that I value most today.
40 years since my graduation, the guys in my six person study group continue to get together. We’ve congratulated one another on our highs and consoled one another on our lows.
Believe it or not, your parents can become even closer friends than they are today. My friend Stuart Stevens decided to take his father to every single Ole Miss football game, home or away. What’s unusual about that is that his father is 95 years old. And Stuart had moved away from home for college over forty years ago. He lives in Vermont and his Dad lives in North Carolina. So these father-son excursions would involve a great deal of time and travel – and long talks. He would dig deep into understanding his dad: his personality, his dreams and his fears. Delving so far into his father’s personhood, their friendship deepened, and their relationship expanded in such interesting ways that a noted New York publisher, Knopf, will publish a book about their experience this fall.
Your life will be larger if you value and nourish friendships, friends from here at Saint Anselm, from your home, and from the growing circle of your life.
For most of you, living life to the fullest will also mean marriage and children. I don’t expect that everyone here believes as I do that the Bible is the word of God or even that it is inspired by God. If not, then at least you will have to acknowledge that it represents the wisdom of the ages, written by extraordinary thinkers and philosophers. Either way, its counsel warrants serious attention.
In its opening pages, Adam gives this direction: “therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” The “one flesh” part we get, but the part about leaving mom and dad and getting married trips some people up.
I’m surely not going to tell you when to tie the knot. You’ve got parents who will do that. But I will tell you that marriage has been the single-most rewarding part of my life, by far. Marriage involves passion, conflict, emotion, fear, hope, compromise, and understanding – in short; it is living to the max.
And then children. In the Old Testament, Psalm 127 says: “children are a heritage of the Lord… As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.”
I’m not sure whether having five sons qualifies as a full quiver, but I can affirm that they brought immeasurable happiness. And to my point, they engaged Ann and me in life, in ways we would not have expected.
On one occasion, Ann and I were invited to speak to students at the Harvard Business School about our choice of careers, I as a management consultant and she as a full-time mom. Ann was reluctant, in part because two other couples would also be speaking on the same topic, and both of the other women had chosen to be Wall Street bankers.
In the class, the other couples went first, I followed, and Ann spoke last. She explained that while she expected to have a career outside the home in the future, she had chosen to be a full-time mom until her five kids were raised. She went on to explain that her job had required more of her than she had imagined: she was psychologist, tutor, counselor, scoutmaster, coach, nurse practitioner, nutritionist, budget director, and more. When she sat down, the class was silent for several seconds and then it rose in a standing ovation.
Golda Meir, the former Prime Minister of Israel, was asked what her greatest accomplishment was. “Raising my daughter,” she answered.
Marriage and children expand your world and engage you more fully in it.
There’s a family burger joint I like whose founder put out a little book of his homespun wisdom. He says that to be happy requires three things: someone to love, something to look forward to, and something to do, in other words, work. You might be inclined to think that a Garden of Eden life would be preferable to working at a job, but you’d be wrong. I’m convinced that Adam and Eve would have been bored to tears if they’d stayed in the garden: no kids, no challenges, no job. I think that Adam being made to grow food “by the sweat of his brow” was a blessing, not a curse.
Of course, there’s a lot not to like about a job: the early alarm clock, the rush hour traffic, the stress. But work engages you in life. You come to know more people, to understand their motivations and values, and to learn the intricacies of the enterprise that employs you.
Don’t waste time bemoaning your job. Don’t skim by with the minimum of effort. Dive in. Get more from your job than the paycheck. Hard work is living large.
There’s a part of life that you won’t welcome: bad things. Bad things that happen to you. If you’re like I was, you imagine that bad things happen infrequently and that when they do, they mostly happen to other people.
I used to sit in church and look around the congregation. Everyone was smiling and happy. Life seemed to be nothing but puppies and pansies for everybody. And then my church asked me to serve as the pastor of that congregation. As pastor, I got to really know the people behind those smiling faces. And to my surprise, many of them held what Ann and I call a “bag of rocks” behind their back. That bag of rocks could be a chronic illness, a battle with some kind of addiction, a child that couldn’t keep up in school, unemployment, a financial crisis, withering loneliness, or a marriage on the rocks. To my surprise, almost every single family faced one kind of challenge or another. They all had a bag of rocks behind their backs. We all will hurt.
Engaging in your world means accepting that hurt, confronting it, and endeavoring to ascend above it so that you can keep pursuing a fulfilling and abundant life.
During my campaign, I met Sam Schmidt in Las Vegas. In January of 2000, Sam’s Indianapolis racing car hit the wall. This father of two young children spent five months on a respirator and was rendered quadriplegic–he can move nothing below his neck. He and I spoke about his life today: his morning begins with a two to three hour routine for bowel, bladder, teeth, shower and dressing. That would be enough for a lot of people to just give up. But instead, Sam owns and manages an Indy car racing team which regularly dominates the Indy Lights, having won 60 races. And he himself has actually begun to drive again. He has a Corvette that has been fitted out with special controls. To accelerate, he blows in an air tube. To brake, he sucks the air out of it. To turn left or right, he looks carefully left or right respectively. Accordingly, he warned his racing buddies: “You gotta keep the bikinis out of the grandstands because you don’t want any sudden movements.”
Sam’s disability is still there. He endures it every day, every hour. But that has not kept him from fully engaging in life.
Your career may be very different than you expect.
The biggest departure from my predicted career path came with my decision to run for political office. When I stepped into the auditorium to debate Ted Kennedy in Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall, I turned to Ann and asked: “In your wildest dreams, did you see me running for US Senate?” “Mitt,” she replied, “you weren’t in my wildest dreams.” Actually, she didn’t say that. That was a joke I bought for my campaign from a joke writer.
Through all these occupations, I have experienced successes and failures. I am asked what it felt like to lose to President Obama. Well, not as good as winning. Failures aren’t fun, but they are inevitable.
More importantly, failures don’t have to define who you are. Some people measure their life by their secular successes –how high on the corporate ladder did they get? How much money did they make? Did they do better than their high school classmate?
If that’s the kind of success you’re looking for, you’re bound to be disappointed. Life has way too much chance and serendipity to be assured fame or fortune.
More importantly, if your life is lived for those things, yours will be a shallow and unfulfilling journey.
The real wealth in life is in your friendships, your marriage, your children, what you have learned in your work, what you have overcome, your relationship with God, and in what you have contributed to others.
This last dimension, contribution to others, is often the most overlooked and most undervalued.
Tom Monaghan’s father died when Tom was just four years old. His mother entrusted him to a Catholic orphanage because she was unable to care for him and for his brother. He graduated from high school and enrolled in the University of Michigan. The tuition proved to be beyond his reach, so to help meet costs, he bought and ran a pizza shop.
He called his shops Domino’s and Tom became wealthy. He bought a Bugatti for $8.4 million. He bought the Detroit Tigers and won the World Series the next year.
When I met him in 1998, I was surprised to find him seated in a closet-sized ante-chamber to what had once been his lavish and spacious executive suite. He had sold the Tigers and the car. Tom had signed what was called the Millionaire’s Vow of Poverty. Accordingly, he would not drive a luxury car, fly in a private plane, or assume any of the trappings of wealth. That had included trading his impressive office for the small cubicle where I had found him.
Tom explained that reading the Bible and the essays of C.S. Lewis had reminded him of his upbringing in the Catholic orphanage. He wanted to change his life, and devote his remaining years to service.
On behalf of Bain Capital, I ultimately wrote Tom a check to buy Domino’s for over $1 billion. All but a small living stipend he then turned around and donated to Catholic charities. He founded a college and named it, not after himself, but after Mary: Ave Maria University.
I asked him a few weeks ago what the most rewarding part of his life was–winning the World Series, building Domino’s, or driving his Bugatti. You can guess his answer. “It wasn’t the toys – I’ve had enough toys to know how important they aren’t. It was giving back, through the university.”
Living life in fullness includes serving others, and doing so without pride or personal gain. It will fill your heart and expand your mind. I’ve seen that kind of service in large and small ways in my own family.
My sister has devoted the last 45 years of her life to the care and development of her Down syndrome son. My wife volunteered as a teacher for a class of at-risk girls. My mother was a frequent visitor to the homes of shut-ins and widows. My brother-in-law served in the Navy. My cousin Joan was foster mother to 57 children. My father and I both ran for political office.
Wait a second: that last item, running for office, may not seem like real service to you. I know that for some, politics is an occupation, and a fine one at that. But for Dad and me, it came after our careers were over. I believed, and my father believed, that we could really help people if we were elected.
Most of you probably won’t run for office, but the country needs all of you to serve. America faces daunting challenges: generational poverty, looming debt, a warming climate, and a world that is increasingly dangerous and tumultuous. Washington appears inept, powerless and without an effective strategy to overcome any of these. America needs your passion, your impatience with inaction, your participation in the political discourse. You have the opportunity to take part in one of America’s greatest endeavors – New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Get involved with the candidate of your choice. Work a phone bank, march in a parade like my favorite: the 4th of July Wolfeboro parade. Go door to door. Attend a town hall meeting and ask tough questions. New Hampshire is the greatest presidential proving ground we have; its enduring impact is only as certain as the next generation of citizens who choose to get involved. Engaging in your world includes engaging in citizenship.
The cozy little world of your childhood is long gone. You may be tempted to try to create for yourself that same kind of small and safe circle, concentrating on entertainments for yourself, doing the minimum at work, reading nothing because nothing has been assigned, avoiding meaningful commitments, complaining about the inevitable unfairnesses of life. Alternatively, you can live large by expanding your world and engaging in your world, constantly learning, nourishing friendships, overcoming reversals, engaging in citizenship, and serving others. That is the road less travelled, and it will make all the difference.
God bless you in your life’s journey.
Read more 2015 commencement speeches:
Alan Alda to Grads: Everything in Life Takes Time
Bernard Harris to Grads: You Are an Infinite Being With Infinite Possibilities
Bill Nye to Grads: Change the World
Chris Matthews to Grads: ‘Make Them Say No. Never Say No to Yourself’
Colin Powell to Grads: Learn to Lead
Ed Helms to Grads: Define Yourselves
Eric Schmidt to Grads: You Can Write the Code for All of Us
Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel to Grads: ‘This Is the World We Were Born Into, and We Are Responsible for It’
Gwen Ifill to Grads: If You See Something, Do Something
GE CEO Jeff Immelt to Grads: Become a Force for Change
Ian McEwan to Grads: Defend Free Speech
Joe Plumeri to Grads: Go Out and Play in Traffic
Jon Bon Jovi to Grads: Lead By Example
Jorge Ramos’ Message for Journalists: Take a Stand
Joyce Carol Oates to Grads: Be Stubborn and Optimistic
Katie Couric to Grads: Get Yourself Noticed
Ken Burns to Grads: Set Things Right Again
Kenneth Cole to Grads: Find Your Voice
Madeleine Albright to Grads: The World Needs You
Mark Ruffalo to Grads: Buck the System
Matthew McConaughey to Grads: Always Play Like an Underdog
Maya Rudolph to Grads: Create Your Own Destiny
Mellody Hobson to Grads: Set Your Sights High
Meredith Vieira to Grads: Be the Left Shark
Michelle Obama to Grads: Shape the Revolution
Mitt Romney to Grads: America Needs You to Serve
Natalie Portman to Grads: Carve Your Own Path
President Obama to Grads: We Should Invest in People Like You
President Obama to Cadets: Lead the Way on Fighting Climate Change
Salman Rushdie to Grads: Try to Be Larger Than Life
Samantha Power to Grads: Start Changing the World By ‘Acting As If’
Stephen Colbert to Grads: You Are Your Own Professor Now
Tim Cook to Grads: Tune Out the Cynics
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