This is the Commencement Address given by Tom Fox at Saint Peter's College on May 20, 2007 the day he received an honorary doctorate from the College.
In this talk he presents his MAGIC, "crash course" on wisdom.
President Cornacchia, Board of Trustees and Regent members, faculty, distinguished guests, loving family members and Saint Peter’s College 2007 class graduates; it is an honor to be with you on this memorable day. I thank you for letting me share this occasion with you. And thank you, Father Scroth for your kind introduction.
I noticed some heads turn when Father Scroth mentioned I have a daughter who is a two time Olympic Gold Medalist. That’s another story – a great story -- and it has made me a kind of celebrity: “father of Olympian.” My wife and I, of course, are very proud of our daughter. The ’96 Atlanta Olympics were very special to us as a family.
Truth is its okay to be known for the accomplishments of one of your children. Nothing makes a parent prouder than to see a child excel. We are very proud of all three of our children. They are each college graduates.
And in our pride there is a lesson for you graduates today. You need to imagine how proud you are making your parents today -- and, of course, grandparents and other family members who cherish you so much. But for most of you it has been your parents who have been cutting those checks to Saint Peter’s College. So they’re not only proud of you. They are also pleased you are finally graduating out of the financial swamp you have had had them in these past four years.
Be sure to give your parents big hugs today when you have the chance. Be sure to thank them for all the support they have been providing you. Take a moment now to find them in the audience and wave to them.
You have heard it said that we live in a global world. Our economies are global. Our environmental crisis crosses oceans and national boundaries. It cannot be solved unless we act together as sons and daughters of planet Earth. I’d like to add today to this sense of globalism. But first a little background.
Years ago – 41, to be exact – I graduated from college and flew on a Pan Am jet that landed in the Philippines. I had a two week orientation there before continuing to Vietnam where I worked as a kind of Peace Corp volunteer. The year was 1966 and the Vietnam War was still gaining momentum.
For two years, I worked with peasant farmers whose villages had been destroyed in the fighting. I was not a soldier. I didn’t carry a gun. But I experience war and the effects of war. My experiences during those years molded me, helped form values, and shaped my career path as no other experience did. Those years in Asia led me to study more about the Far East and later to return to Vietnam as a war correspondent. They also led me to marry a Vietnamese social worker and with her to raise three children in what turned out to be a cross cultural environment. And because we had many Asian friends and shared interests we maintained a foot in the East and a foot in the West during our entire marriage.
We lived as global citizens before it became fashionable to claim a global heritage. We raised our children to feel comfortable in more than one culture. We stressed the importance of cooperation and mutual dependence. We taught our children, as best we could, to seek peaceful solutions to conflicts in every aspect of their lives.
Yes, because of the speed of communication and the speed of jet transportation and the speed at which money spins across continents we have all grown more international in scope. The global era is here – and there is no going back.
I would now like to share with you an aspect of globalization that I feel does not get as much attention as it deserves. I want to share with you certain insights that come out of wisdom traditions anchored in East and West. Some of you are already familiar with some of the Eastern spiritual traditions outside of Christian traditions. You are fortunate to have a Buddhist Master teacher, Father Robert Kennedy, on the faculty here. Eastern spirituality has much to teach us, especially in its rich mystic and meditation traditions and techniques. But the more one probes the more one finds that there are many wisdom insights common to Eastern and Western religious and spiritual traditions. For example, Christianity has a rich tradition of mysticism just as does the East.
Wisdom……..Why the focus on wisdom?
Well, the simplest answer is: We need more of it. Our knowledge of who we are and how we got here has exploded in the past century. I have heard it said that 99 percent of our scientific information has been discovered in the past two generations. The same might be said about our Social Sciences and our technological information. In each field we have made vast strides that are serving the human family quite well.
But at the same time some of this knowledge – short of the wisdom to know how to use it – is quite dangerous. Consider that the scientists first split the atom 69 years ago and today nuclear technology and the potential for nuclear war remains a serious threat peace and human survival. Genetic engineering is barely three decades old, is growing quickly, and we haven’t a clue as to how it might alter billions of years of natural evolution.
As our scientific knowledge has advanced it has gotten way out in front of our understanding of how to use it for the betterment of humankind. We need to become wiser people. We need to take more time to focus on our wisdom traditions for our own fulfillment and for the good of humanity.
Wisdom, meanwhile, can be learned and practiced. It is like a sport or art form. Practice makes perfect. If you take the time to practice wisdom, you can incorporate it into your lives and you can live more meaningful, fulfilling, successful and joyful lives. Furthermore, you will have a stronger ground on which to stand when you are called to make difficult decisions in the years ahead.
So here is my crash course on wisdom – and I will try to conclude it in, say, ten minutes. Call it MAGIC. I am offering you my MAGIC wisdom guidelines.
M…A….G…I…C. Magic! Let’s start with “M.”
M is for living mindfully. Living mindfully means living with full awareness of the present moment. It means getting beyond busyness, whether that “busyness” is a matter of making money or trying to change the world. Busyness is one of the supreme distractions of the modern age. It takes away from time dedicated to self-awareness and awareness of the world around us. It also too often puts our minds in the future or mires them in the past.
My father used to advise me to live my life in day tight compartments. He used to say that the worries of the future combined with the regrets of the past can overwhelm us. Remember this moment is the only one we live in. Think of it. Tomorrow never comes. Today is the only day we live. So be aware of what opportunities this day brings and embrace them with vigor.
Developing self awareness requires a certain amount of quiet time. It requires a certain amount of solitude, even brief solitude. It certainly helps to practice some form of meditation. Meditation? Am I asking you to become monks? No, I am suggesting the practice of self awareness requires stepping back from daily pressures and habits in order to carve out time for quite reflection.
Becoming mindful takes a certain amount of practice but the rewards can be astonishing. You can become wiser decision makers, more sensitive and attractive people. Let me suggest a simple practice. Take one minute each day to sit quietly and pay attention only to your breathing. Start by closing your eyes and then, breathing slowly, count ten breaths. Just once a day! Later you might want to expand the time you do this. You might be surprised at the results.
A is for living acceptingly. First of all, living acceptingly means accepting yourself as a wonderful, unique and special person with special gifts to offer the world. It means being comfortable being you. Living acceptingly means embracing your strengths and your weaknesses, making friends with both.
Living acceptingly also means living with the recognition you simply cannot right every wrong or overcome every hardship. It means accepting that sometimes we simply do not have all the answers. Living acceptingly also means having a certain amount of trust in the wider creation plan – even if we cannot fully understand our full role in that plan.
One prayer sums this up better than most books. Perhaps you are familiar with the Serenity Prayer. It reads:
God grant me the
Living one day at
It was written by the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, in 1943.
G is for living gratefully. Living gratefully means recognizing that what we think we achieve really has come to us through the work and successes of many other people. Living gratefully is to be aware that everything you receive in life comes as a gift. Even the opportunities you have had in these college years have come to you because of the sacrifices of your parents and their parents before them.
At another level, living gratefully means recognizing that life itself is a gift. Living gratefully means awakening to the realization that every breath you take is a gift. Every day you wake up is yet another gift…all from the Divine giver, the source of life and creation. Living gratefully works wonderfully as a defense mechanism. It stops us from letting our egos get too big. An unhealthy ego is totally incapable for gratitude.
To be a saint, the spiritual writer, Ronald Rolheiser, has written, “is to be fueled by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less.”
A grateful heart will thank God for everything that is good – in your life and the lives of others. It may be difficult, at first, to thank God for the good fortune of others who have gifts, achievements, and friends that you do not have. But that is the test of genuine gratefulness. Practice living gratefully. It helps keep one humble.
Genuine humility is probably the core ingredient to a life of happiness. Why is this? Humble people are not filled with themselves. People who are not filled with themselves are ever more enjoyable to be around. Humble people become attractive people for they have allowed room for others in spirits and their lives.
I is for living inclusively. It means extending your circle of your identity and community.
Today each of you is a proud graduate of Saint Peter’s College. And this is as it should be. But each of you is also a member of some family; and each of you is also a member of a community; and each of you is also a citizen of a nation; and each of you is also a citizen of Planet Earth.
Don’t stop there. Each of you is also a living being sharing life with other living beings on this planet. And each of you is a Son or Daughter of your Creator … Creatures of this Universe.
I challenge you to widen your circle of identity. Each time you widen it, fewer people, fewer beings, are on the outside. By widening your identity you can change the way you think and see the world.
Buddhism goes so far as to say that our self identity is a false identity. It teaches that self identity is an illusion and the source of suffering. Each of us has encountered arrogance, in ourselves and in others. We know how damaging big egos can be. As we expand our circle of identity, as we “communalize” it, we reduce our ego, our false identity, and we become more inclusive and more harmonious people.
Christianity teaches us that the first shall be last. It teaches us to lose ourselves in order to find our true selves. It teaches us to empty our souls in order to allow them to be filled by the Spirit. Living with the fullness of Spirit is what it means to live inclusively.
C is for living compassionately. Living compassionately comes from living inclusively. It follows in the wake. When we feel one with another we act compassionately. Compassion is something we can work at to develop. It has been written – and I believe this to be true – that when we feel genuine compassion for another human being we are getting in touch with our real self. Compassion, then, is a celebration of unity, two hearts becoming one. Living compassionately means allowing yourself to be open to others, to be vulnerable to the needs of others. Living compassionately means allowing yourself to be touched and moved by others.
Living compassionately, at times, requires forgiveness. We live in an imperfect world and we are imperfect ourselves. Without forgiveness we can get stuck on our journeys.
Compassion is a form of love. Remember the words of Paul, the Evangelist.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
You have heard it said: “Follow your bliss; Always do that. Always follow your heart. But being compassionate also means following your heartache. Being compassion means being there for others to help them carry their loads of pain and suffering. Being compassion means dividing up the pain to make it easier for all of us to bear. You can practice compassion by protecting the weak and vulnerable, by combating injustices, opposing violence, sharing your blessings, maybe volunteering in a soup kitchen or on a hospital ward. There are many ways to practice opening your hearts.
This, then, completes my lesson on MAGIC. My MAGIC guidelines: living mindfully; living acceptingly; living gratefully; living inclusively; and living compassionately. Follow these and whatever else happens in your career, you will succeed in life; no doubt about it.
Now, graduates, tuck this MAGIC into your back pockets to be remembered another day. This is a time for celebration; it is a time for special joy. It is a time to say “good bye” to the old and “hello” to the new.
This commencement, after all, is about going forward into a wonderful, dramatic, hurting, life giving, and chaotic world. It means going forward full of life and energy. It means leaving here knowing you can – and WILL – make differences with your lives. It means being determined to leave this world a more caring, more just and more peaceful place than when you first entered it.
There is a Native American saying which goes like this: “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced; live you life in such a way that when you die the world cries and you rejoice.”
You can do it. Remember MAGIC and remember “to be the change you wish to see in the world."
Thank you once again for allowing me to be here with you today.