We shouldn’t take luck for granted

June 18, 2012


The commencement season is over and — who would have guessed it? — the two most interesting speeches to graduates were delivered within 11 miles of each other.

Over the years there have been hundreds of thousands of such speeches, ranging from the cloying and forgettable to the historic and immortal. I don’t remember a word of the speeches at my high school graduation, and all that I remember from my college graduation is that Arthur Fiedler got an honorary degree. There was a time when everyone knew his name; today he’s remembered, if at all, as a distant relative of quarterback Jay Fiedler, who actually earned his degree from the very same college.

Significant speeches

Two honorary-degree addresses changed the world. The first was Winston Churchill’s speech at tiny Westminster College in Missouri in 1946 — not a commencement speech, but Churchill was given a Westminster degree to match his degree of indispensability in another Westminster. We remember his remarks for the grim warning that an iron curtain was descending from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.

Then, just a year later, came Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s speech at Harvard, setting forth what became known as the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, which Churchill would call the “most unselfish act by any great power in history.” It wasn’t exactly selfless — the United States had a great stake in a stable Europe — but it was America at its grandest and most generous.

Three others have claims on greatness.

There was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s speech to the graduates of the Harvard Divinity School in 1838, when he sent his transcendental notions into full battle against the strain of Unitarianism that then prevailed at Harvard.

There was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 exhortation at Dartmouth against book burning, a speech about open societies and open minds.

And there was the unforgettable speech the columnist Art Buchwald gave at Vassar in 1975, though I sigh in sad recognition that Buchwald is today also forgotten. He told the graduates, “We, the older generation, have given you kids a perfect world. Don’t louse it up!”

But what really deserves remembrance are his reminiscences of a poor boy who once thought Vassar women, in their Angora sweaters and plaid skirts, were beyond his reach, and not only because he was short and they wore shiny heels. He’d see them in the Biltmore lobby and would fantasize that one of those “Scarsdale goddesses,” as he called them, would bicker with her Ivy League boyfriend, throw her corsage in his face and “come up to me and ask her to take me to the Stork Club ... with her money.”

Sense of entitlement

In many ways the two great graduation addresses from 2012 measure up, for they speak to our time — and to the breezy sense of entitlement and achievement that so many young people, and their parents, have.

Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests ... despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you ... you’re nothing special.

These are the remarks of a remarkable English teacher at Wellesley High in Massachusetts, David McCullough Jr., who was pilloried, needlessly and thoughtlessly, for suggesting his young charges were not so extraordinary. They’re not.

McCullough then delivered some advice quite at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist, comments that bear repeating here and, indeed, deserve repetition every year to those going forth from favored circumstances:

“Be worthy of your advantages. And read ... read all the time ... read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.”

McCullough was not the only person to share that theme this spring. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust spoke of “the updraft of inexplicable luck” in her baccalaureate speech.

Recognizing good luck

No matter how hard we have worked or how many obstacles we have overcome, we are all here in some measure through no cause of our own. It started for most of us by being born into ... the small fraction of the Earth’s population that receives the benefits of fossil fuels. After we passed through that lucky portal there were others. Our parents, our schools, our friends, our health, financial aid, a Maurice Sendak book. Predecessors who fought for access to education. Someone who plucked us up out of nowhere and guided us, or a random event that turned our heads, or moved our hearts.

In their hearts and in our hearts we know that they, and many of us, were propelled to college or to lofty positions and ennobled job titles mostly by luck — perhaps the luck of birth, probably the luck of mentors, almost certainly the luck of being born into a century that needed our skills and in a country that rewarded them.

(My particular skill is the ability to write a little essay at 1,050 words, printed with a petroleum byproduct on paper and then delivered by petroleum-fueled truck to households in my home city. It is not art, and most of the time it is not even artful. Had I come of age in a decade, like the next one almost certainly will be, that does not reward that, I might be indigent. The writer and reader of this column were lucky. The beginning of knowledge is understanding that.)

But for all the luck Harvard graduates possess, consider how lucky they were to have sat in Memorial Church in Cambridge, Mass., to hear another lieutenant of the legion of luck, President Faust, deliver these sobering words:

But the problem is that over time, opportunity can come to seem like an entitlement, ours because we deserve it. We cease to recognize the role of serendipity, and we risk forgetting the sense of obligation that derives from understanding that things might have been otherwise. If, as every Harvard undergraduate knows, love is about never having to say you’re sorry, then luck is about never taking anything for granted.

Commencement is over, life is beginning, luck isn’t eternal. Nor is it sustaining. McCullough was right. We’re not special, almost none of us. And President Faust was right, too. Almost all of us have special opportunities and special responsibilities. Life consists of what we do with them.

— David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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