March 22, 2006
A Sturdy Footbridge
On Tuesday I gave a speech at my old high school to welcome a new crop of inductees into the National Honor Society. (I was president of the school’s chapter back in ‘97-98.) The text is in the extended. I love giving lofty, abstract commencement-ish speeches more than just about anything in the whole wide world.
Congratulations to the incoming members of the Troy Athens High School chapter of the National Honor Society.
I don’t really remember this ceremony. Mine was back in 1997 — not that long ago. Nine years. But I don’t remember it. And honestly there’s a lot I don’t remember from high school.
I remember some faces; I remember some moments.
But you’d be surprised at all the classes I’ve completely forgotten, the friends and teachers.
I don’t remember where my locker was. And that seems weird to me. I mean, talk about a core element of your high school DNA, right? I couldn’t even tell you what floor it was on.
And I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about forgetfulness lately. Everything seems very immediate in high school — and in college — and at your job at a TV network in San Francisco. But man, you forget it all. I think it must be one of the fundamental facts of human life: forgetting.
In the wake of catastrophe, holocausts old and new, we often speak this refrain: “Never forget.” But we might as well say “flow uphill” or “un-break” — it just doesn’t happen. It’s not natural.
You all know the names of your grandfathers. Probably your great-grandfathers too — but you have to kinda think about it. What about your great-great-grandfathers? All eight of them? I certainly don’t know those names. And even if I did it wouldn’t be much more than that: names.
Like in those trophy cases out there — I was always fascinated by those — rosters going back decades, not of random Redhawks but of champions. Some of this school’s very strongest and smartest. But who were they?
Even the famous and powerful will be forgotten, and sooner than we think. George Bush. My boss, Al Gore. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. There was a star couple with a famous baby a hundred years ago. Do you know who they were?
We, all of us, are like lockers in the hallways of this world. One day soon, nobody will remember where we were.
So what do we do?
When I went to college, Michigan State, for some reason a lot of my friends turned out to be Eagle Scouts. I didn’t really know any Eagle Scouts here in Troy — I think that’s kinda more of a western Michigan thing — and so I didn’t know that a central component of the whole Eagle Scout experience is a service project. It’s a big deal, a big project, pretty significant. On the Boy Scout website they list this as an example, and it’s my favorite:
“Build a sturdy footbridge across a brook to make a safe shortcut for children between their homes and school.”
A sturdy footbridge. Maybe a park bench. I love that.
The National Honor Society dedicates us to four principles: scholarship, leadership, service, and character. Of these the greatest is service.
Now of course it’s far too narrow a definition to say service must be a sturdy footbridge or even something physical at all. Service can be setting up a new system that will outlast you; it can be shepherding an organization, like this one, into a new year — carrying the baton for a lap through history. My god, it can be art — a novel, a song. Many parents are in the room now, and I thank them for their service: for raising you, supporting you, nurturing you so that you will aid the future, even after they’re gone.
Here’s something I do remember: I had a teacher at Michigan State. His name was Martin Benjamin, a professor of pragmatic philosophy (and if you go there you should seek him out). Older guy now — bald, white beard. Exactly what you want your philosophy professor to look like. This is a guy who’s job it is to sorta to think about the purpose of life, and this is his formulation:
“Our lives acquire meaning and value,” he writes, “when we become part of worthwhile plans and projects that began before we were born and won’t be finished, if ever, until long after we are dead.”
A folksier version goes like this: You should plant trees beneath whose shade you do not expect to sit.
This keeps coming back to park-y stuff, right? The thing is, I like the park analogy for service. I like it a lot better than all the Mother Theresa stuff we usually imagine.
Service isn’t about changing the world by sheer sacrifice and force of will. That’s an illusion — and be careful when you go to college because it’s a seductive one. It’s easy to get all strung out about global poverty and injustice and become a vegetarian and wear funky sandals.
But that’s not life. Life is finding your path, taking it, and enjoying everything that everybody else builds up around you.
Along the way, opportunities will come — some event will galvanize you, some strange connection will electrify you, or some stars will align above you — and you will have the opportunity to show you give a damn, and to serve.
It’s possible the year ahead will present opportunities like that. Maybe, maybe not. You never know. But watch for them. Starting now: keep watch and never stop. And when you see one — a family in need, an institution adrift, a hole in some fabric that needs patching — raise the alarm and don’t stop shouting until you’ve got some people on your side, and then all together, strike. Strike and serve.
Then it won’t matter who remembers and who forgets, because you’ll have built a sturdy footbridge across the the brook of the world, and people won’t have to know your name to take comfort in its crossing.