Yale graduation, Commons.wikimedia.org
Source: Yale graduation, Commons.wikimedia.org

As graduation teas and festivities highlight this month, I began thinking about two commencement addresses that are still meaningful to me.  One was about justice; the other was about kindness. Then as I listened to a talk last evening, I was reminded of another important message for graduates—their story.

Mark Kurlansky 's most recent book is Paper: Paging Through History. As he spoke at the Boston Athenaeum, (www.bostonathenaeum.org) recently, he said that he "likes a good story." In writing he looks at questions such as "who we are and how we got there."

Commencement is the culmination of the college years story for graduates. It is somewhat sad that during this month of graduations, we are inundated by childish political name-calling rather than words that inspire.

I thought about the graduation of one of my sons from Trinity College in 1998. Former President Jimmy Carter spoke of kindness and justice in urging graduates to be mindful of the discrimination of "rich people against poor people." More recently the 2013 words on kindness by George Saunders, who teaches at Syracuse University, was released as a book: Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness.

President Carter’s address at Trinity College was memorable not just because of his words, but because he practices what he preaches. The college is involved in Habitat for Humanity and, since 1984, he has taken part in fundraising and in the actual hammer and nails home-building process. His words struck a chord when he encouraged graduates to look beyond the world of their own social milieu. “There's a vast world out there, not just in our country, but in other nations as well,'' he said.

At the Syracuse commencement, Saunders spoke of regret as well as kindness. He told the story of a seventh-grader at school often ignored or teased by others. And while he says he was moderately kind and might have been kinder in the future, he lost his chance. One day the young girl’s family moved away.  Saunders message was a simple one. “As a goal in life. . . Try to be kinder . . . What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”

For some students, kindness and gratitude are taught long before college graduation. Jeffrey J. Froh, Psy.D., associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University, said to me during an earlier interview: “Data indicate grateful teens have more self-control and, during a time when their identity is forming, gratitude correlates with fewer reports of antisocial and delinquent behaviors.” He also noted that “grateful children may be more community minded.”

Dr. Froh is co-author with Giacomo Bono, Ph.D., of Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character. He added: “A lot of these findings are things we learned in kindergarten or things our grandmothers told us, but we now have scientific evidence to prove them.”
Research seems to indicate that those who nurture an attitude of gratitude may foster a reservoir of kindness that enriches their own lives as well as the lives of others. My hope for graduates today is that the words of commencement speakers will be words that inspire, words they remember, words that will become a part of their story.

NB: An academic member of the Boston Athenaeum as Adjunct Professor, English Department, Suffolk University, Boston, MA.

Copyright 2016 Rita Watson

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