The invitation was a surprise and a wonderful honor. Come back to your home state and address the December graduating classes at the University of Southern Mississippi.
A quick and enthusiastic yes was the reply. And then reality came calling. What do you say to all of these bright and eager young men and women who have reached this pivotal point in the dance of life in what is one of the most complex, most challenging, and also most exciting times in our history? There certainly can be no promise of an easy road ahead, not if you have been tuned into the world in recent years.
We live in a world today in which our everyday existence is constantly interrupted with reports of violence. The datelines change: Connecticut, Colorado, California, Texas, Tennessee, Oregon, South Carolina, Beirut, Paris and too many more. And the venues change: Schools, churches, entertainment complexes, movie theaters, holiday parties, military bases and more. But the underlying question remains: Why? How can we make sense of the unexplainable?
We live in a world in which too many of our leaders provide illusions rather than opportunities, emptiness rather than hope, rhetoric rather than results; a world in which the condemnation of entire communities of people is cheered and a candidate can spew racist comments and gain in the polls; a world in which the gap between the haves and have-nots and the rolls of the working poor continue to expand.
Throughout the decades we have witnessed the quilt of this great nation torn asunder over issues that have divided Americans against Americans. Sadly, that continues today. And the anonymity and immediacy and pervasiveness of social media have aided in widening the cultural and social divisions. Words do hurt.
But we have also witnessed this country sealed together in unity. I saw it as a child in World War II. I saw it after President Kennedy was assassinated. I saw it after 9/11. I have seen it in times of many disasters, both natural and man-made, where we open not just our pocketbooks, but also our hearts to those who are suffering.
Ten years ago I saw it in a deeply personal way when my hometown, Bay St. Louis, lost the fight with Katrina and was left bloodied on the canvas. My hometown was in ruins.
Then people of all income levels, all beliefs, all races, people from across the land not only wept with us but they came to help. They didn’t seek anything in return. And no one asked if they were Catholic or Baptist, straight or gay, pro-life or pro-choice, born in the U.S.A. or somewhere else. They were simply neighbors helping neighbors, as we were commanded to do so long ago.
Now we need this new generation to keep the liberation and the enrichment of that humane spirit alive and well, to provide the leadership needed to spark a revolution of serving, a revolution of caring, a revolution of reverence, especially as our world changes.
We need these young people to fill crucial leadership roles as we move into the future.
I have never believed that the recipe for leadership was that complicated. The basic list of ingredients is there for all to grasp:
Integrity. Vision. Passion and compassion. Honesty. Consistency. Judgment. Remembering that talent is wonderful, but the payoff comes from character. Valuing success and failure. Bearing with things we cannot change. Easing pain and healing fears. Being accountable for the use of authority. And, finally, moral and intellectual courage.
The kind of courage that will help create a society that is steeped in passion for the simple idea of reverence for others.
The kind of courage that will never allow us to abandon the intellectual tradition that has served us so well.
A tradition that calls us to question assumptions based on our study, that makes it necessary for us to read widely, to bring imagination to the examination of facts so that they become more than just facts. A tradition that adds depth and a level of reality to what we have learned and what we pass on to others. A tradition to be embraced, not scorned.
But enough of the random thoughts; it’s time to write a speech.
Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for the McClatchy Company. His most recent piece for The Bee, “Shelter’s journey filled with faith and hope, courage and resiliency,” appeared on Sept. 27.