Commencement 2009–What I’ve Learned from Saying No
Congratulations to all of you. This is, as you have just heard, the last URI commencement ceremony over which I will preside. So I too am graduating with the Class of 2009. I have had the honor and the pleasure of granting over 45,000 degrees to students during my tenure at URI, nearly half of the all the degrees conferred over the 117 years of the University’s existence. Those eighteen commencements here on this Quad have been glorious and gratifying.
Now before each of those ceremonies, I have taken the commencement speaker aside and told him or her that his or her speech could not exceed eight minutes, because the students have about that much patience with speakers while they wait to got to their college site, get their diploma and begin celebrating. So today I am trapped by my own eight minute rule, and I’ve used up one of them just explaining that to you.
So here’s the deal. This speech has been billed as my last lecture, but because it’s not in my nature to deliver up the usual platitudes about your heroic accomplishments and your rosy future, I said no. Having done so—which felt pretty good–I decided that this lecture should be entitled, “what I’ve learned from saying no.”
We do not come into this world saying no, except perhaps a cry or two at birth in protest at leaving a nice, warm, and loving place. We are in fact born into a state of total dependency, and what we learn as babies is that we need to please people with power, namely our parents. And, good news, today they are very pleased with you!
Then comes what everyone who has been a parent remembers as the terrible twos, when first we really discover that we can say no, and assert ourselves in a way which begins to establish individual identity, separate from our parents. I used to ask my two year old son, “Whose boy are you?”, thinking he would say what I wanted to hear, “Your boy, Daddy. Instead he proudly proclaimed himself, “mine boy” and he’s been his own boy ever since.
You continued the process of separation and individuation in elementary school when your circle of friends grew, and by the time you were in high school your friends were extremely important to you and where your loyalty and identity lay. That dynamic probably continued for most of you into college, particularly if you were on an athletic team or a fraternity or sorority or an organization like student senate, tour guides or the student alumni association, LASA or Uruhu Sasa. You were a member of that team, and it gave you a sense of belonging in the culture of that group.
But now, looking forward, it is time once again to separate and to be your own independent person, ready for a career, graduate school, law school or medical school, all places that will test the knowledge and skills you developed at URI, but will mostly test your sense of yourself, your self confidence, your courage, and your core values.
In short, you’re all grown up. So what is it now that allows you to separate yourself from the crowd, to become your own person? For me, it has been the ability to say no:
no to the status quo,
no to the admonitions to go slow,
no to pleas to be realistic,
no to a social and political culture that wanted everyone to stay in their place,
no to bigotry,
no to injustice.
no to a culture that says a vision cannot be realized.
And so here’s my best advice to you:
First, Don’t believe what they tell you.
Learn to do your own analysis and make your own judgments, using the analytical skills you honed here at URI.
2nd, Challenge authority, whether that authority is scientific or economic or political.
3rd, Test the “common wisdom” and challenge dogma.
Accepting dogma as true or as a fact means you have decided to yield your own judgment and your own intellectual freedom to others
4th Never put your faith in hierarchy. In the end, you will be held accountable for what you do, not what they told you to do.
5th, Defend the right to be different. Robert Frost told us that “two road diverged in the snowy woods, and I, I took the path less travelled, and that has made all the difference.” Difference makes the difference, diversity of all kinds gives energy and excitement to our interactions with each other and results in more thoughtful decisions.
The process of living with the tough moral and ethical choices we have today begins with saying no to the power to coerce.
This is the lesson that the non-violent movement continues to teach us. Saying no should not be simply an act of defiance but rather an act that flows from a desire to make things better, to create a society that is more just and more fair, more compassionate and more loving, what Dr. King called the “beloved community.”
America began with men and women up in Boston who said no to King George. Rhode Island began when Roger Williams said no to the people who lived in Boston. Rosa Parks said no when they told her to move to the back of the bus. Students who came before you stood on this Quad and said, “Hell no, we won’t go” to a war in which hundreds of thousands of good and brave Americans lost their lives, and millions of the Vietnamese on both sides died with them. A few weeks ago here in Rhode Island, people who reject bad government said no too, and symbolically threw the tea again into the harbor. Gay and Lesbian people today are saying no to discriminatory practices that would keep them from the most basic of human rights, the right to join in marriage with the person they love. This is not a nation where religious fundamentalism run amok can rule our lives. We are not the Taliban but rather a people defined by our love of freedom both individual and collective.
Now I warn you that you cannot say no and expect there to be no consequences for you. Those who simply accept what was as if it will forever be are not persuaded easily, and they often are the ones with power.
Be prepared to be dissed, demeaned and ignored, be prepared to be marginalized, be prepared even to be punished. But keep on keeping on, because as we saw last November there are yet those who see a better future and say yes, yes we can.
For yourself, be creative, imaginative, inventive, and bold. Take some risks. My life has been one of “failing forward,” making mistakes but accepting each as a lesson given to me. Don’t just agree with people who tell you to be realistic, that your idea has been tried before, that it won’t work, that its too expensive, yada, yada, yada. Instead, think for yourself, believe in yourself as free men and women, consider the ethical aspects of what you do, resolve those, and push on.
Finally, make a habit of reflection. You will not always be right when you say no. Plan time to consider again your value system, not out of fear of failure but rather because each time you come back to it you will have more experience and more insight. Test your thinking by talking about it with someone you respect and who cares about you. Sometimes just sit on the beach as the sun comes up and consider your place in this magical universe. I think that then you will be able finally to say yes, Yes!
God bless you, God bless America and God bless the University of Rhode Island!