December 15, 2012
President Turner, members of the faculty, students, alumni, parents, and friends, I bring special greetings from the Board of Trustees on the occasion of this 2012 December Commencement. We join you in celebration and commend you for your successful completion of your studies here at SMU.
Today you join the 112,000 SMU alumni across this nation and the world, who have left a strong legacy on which you now stand. You are now a part of the narrative and the history of this special place.
Today is an occasion for great pride in your accomplishment, and you are surrounded by deeply proud family members. As we collectively share the sorrow felt by those who have had their families taken from them, it reminds us to be thankful, not for what we have, but for whom we have.
One hundred years ago, the founders of SMU placed a cornerstone at Dallas Hall. On November 28, the centennial anniversary of this historic event, another cornerstone was placed, marking the beginning of a second century before us.
As graduates, you are launching yourselves into an ever-changing world, a world of "new normals," "fiscal cliffs," and looming Mayan calendar deadlines. So you'd better find ways to live with uncertainty.
Your diploma isn't just physical proof of a prestigious academic exit strategy; it's also an act of faith. A reciprocal document between you and SMU. And "faith is a house with many rooms." Each of you has made a room in this great house.
But these are trying times for faith. Not just religious faith, but faith in our institutions, faith in our government, faith in our fellow Americans. Cynicism comes easy in a digital age. There is more communication and somehow less consensus. We don't often persevere in common cause, and we become strangers in our own house.
True discourse requires civility, and civility requires patience. And we are an increasingly impatient nation. As a culture, we insist on going directly from point "a" to point "z"; we’ve no patience for the tedious methodology involved in point "b." Technologies keep increasing our desire for convenience. So why begrudge ourselves a few impulse-control issues?
This goes to the very heart of your education here at SMU. All of you have an undeclared major: you have become versed in the art of listening. And for those of you still listening to me now, I say: please don't let go of this increasingly rare virtue. And hold on to your inquisitive nature, as it impels your ability to listen. Keep faith in curiosity. I would argue that the antithesis of faith is not skepticism, but cynicism; for the skeptic has faith in the integrity of the truth, while the cynic merely presumes corruption in all things. The skeptic is an open traveler, exploring any given road to discover its true course, while the cynic is a weary porch sitter, insisting, sight unseen, that all roads lead to the ash heap. In speaking without seeking, the cynic will always remain a stranger.
I'm sure that many of you are worn out, suffering from intellectual exhaustion and footnote fatigue. It's understandable; you've had to persevere through point "b," and all points in between, many, many times on your way to this current point "z." But if you've done this right, then SMU has strengthened more than just your résumé. Have faith in the totality and the utility of what you've learned here. Don't discard the pieces of your education that you think you’ll never use.
Take all of it with you; you may well need one of those spare parts in some unforeseen circumstance. In his essay on self-reliance, Emerson wrote that "nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."
I have an odd, personal example of the virtues of independence and perseverance. And goats. When I was 11, my father, a dyed-in-the-wool Texan, pursued his dream of raising a small herd of Hereford cattle. He knew he couldn't compete with the large-scale ranches, and the parcel he purchased was hard scrabble, rocky, snake-infested land, covered in underbrush and mesquite, with nary a blade of grass in sight. But he had an intrepid plan for this unlovable land: goats. He would acquire a tribe of goats, and they would, in turn, lay waste to the scrub. For West Texas in the 1950s, this was considered an innovation by some, and ridiculous by most. But it worked. In Biblical fashion, his congregation gnawed through the thick and thorny growth like an ancient plague of four legged locusts. Over time, the acres were cleared, the drought-breaking rains came, and the unburdened pastures were soon rechristened in tides of knee-high blue-stem grass. The cattle were fruitful and multiplied. And my father was happy.
But my mother was not. As my father soon learned, "it's hard to thoroughly domesticate a plague." All of my mother's gardens, her tree-lined little Edens, painstakingly planted and fenced, all overrun and wiped out by the four-legged beasts. My father wisely chose his marriage over his goats, and the congregation was retired. My mother grew another garden, and she was happy.
As for my father, he was due for one more run-in with the law of unintended consequences. In 1959 he was unexpectedly honored with an outstanding conservation rancher award for his pioneering work in land stewardship. Now, understand that my father was no environmentalist. He wouldn't hug a tree if his life depended on it. He was old-school. But he was also very proud of that award.
And so a traditional man pursued an unconventional idea, persevered through criticisms both foreign and domestic, and eventually found himself an unintentional citizen of a new movement.
At this point, you might well ask, what does this story of goats, grass, and gumption have to do with me? Well, one answer is: very little, I suspect, unless today marks your graduation from Texas A&M University, and you are in the wrong auditorium.
Another answer is that all of us lead, in varied scale. Each of us provides an example, intentionally or not. Some of you might very well go on to change the world; but all of you will change the world around you. In fact, look around you right now; you probably won't have to look very far to see an example of a life well-lived. Look at your parents, your teachers, even your friends (if you’ve chosen them well). And if you're fortunate to have your grandparents here today, look at them — they're proud of you! Remember their expressions, and appreciate them, and their faith in you.
And looking forward, there's good news and bad news. The bad news? Well, we have a deficit of the strong and silent, and a surplus of the loud and anonymous; civility is in recession, and nuance is a niche market. The good news? Beautiful and unexpected rewards await the thoroughly curious. This might be a terrible time for consensus building, which means that it’s the perfect time for consensus building. Remember, "You never know when you’re living in a golden age."
So start making your way toward the public arena. You'll be vulnerable, but there is no risk without vulnerability. Teddy Roosevelt insisted that "the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause, who knows that if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly." Remember, you’re a Mustang, not a mule! Own your own potential; don't become estranged from your audacity. And don't let the cynics get your goat. Because, as I have attempted to prove today, goats can be useful. And eventually, delicious.
You've reached an end, but you are also the beginning, the start of SMU's second century. Which makes each of you a founder. And therefore a builder. Don't forget the room that you've made here in this great house. Go forth and raise high the roof beams, large-hearted, open-minded, and with the faith to roam into your great unknown. And occasionally, write home. Keep in touch. Don't be a stranger to this place, because we've got a lot riding on you, our proud founders of the second century Mustang nation.
God bless each of you in your journey.
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