On Saturday, May 18, Tim Shriver delivered the following remarks to the Fordham class of 2019.
Tim Shriver: Class of 2019, congratulations. Father, I know you’re fond of saying … Uh oh. Already I’m cut off? I know it’s supposed to be short, but that. There we go.
I know you’re fond of saying … What’s the expression? I should know it now. Fordham is your university and New York is your campus? Fordham is my school. I screwed it up already. Okay. How about we add ‘And we forgive all your loans?’ I mean, this is a religion all about forgiveness, Father. You’re trying to get people to confession. Here you have the chance.
Joseph M. McShane: Senator Casey, what do you say? Can we take care of that? I mean, it would be great. I’m the wrong guy to talk to.
Tim Shriver: Congratulations in advance, especially to all the parents who are here. Let’s hear it for our moms, dads, uncles, aunts, people who mothered us and fathered us. Are you proud back there?
I know the next expression you’re going to say to all of them after you say how proud you are is get a job, right? Lincoln Center grads, the rest of you, these are your classmates. These are your classmates from Lincoln Center. I know it’s late in the process to be meeting them, but they’re wonderful people. I think this is Rose Hill over here. You guys should get to know each other.
I want to do a special shout out to the dancers. Hello, dancers. Yes. When I was in college I got in trouble for dancing too much, they got degrees for dancing too much. I want to congratulate my daughter, Caroline. I just couldn’t let you go. I had to get a degree with you. Linda and I, and your brothers and sisters, are extraordinarily proud of you, and of all of the graduates here.
Graduates, I hope you’re realizing that if you’ve spent the last four years making fun of the nerds those days are over. You now start working for them, and you will be for the rest of your life.
And to the faculty who’s here, I want to congratulate you for allowing these young men and women to enter the halls of academia, the search for truth. They’re entering a world that because of a whole host of sources doesn’t think there is truth anymore, so, graduates, I think your first job is to return to the country the truth. It’s up to you to figure out what it is. Don’t expect me to tell you.
I am not here to preach. I think there are enough preachers in this place already. I think probably the best ones are the women religious. Are there any women religious here on the stage? Maybe I can ask them to stand because pretty soon I hope they’ll be preaching from the altars. No? Come on. How about all the women faculty, then? Let’s have them all up. Come on. That’s you guys, come on. Stand up. We want you to preach.
That’s not a liberal thing, so just relax. That’s not a liberal thing. Jesus told…let’s do a little theology. Jesus told Mary Magdalene to teach the boys. We could use a little of that. Okay. That may be a little political.
Speaking of teaching, I had a powerful encounter with a lesson not too long ago. I was on an elevator in a hotel down in Texas. I got on the elevator. There was a guy on the elevator with a 10-gallon cowboy hat and big cowboy boots, and blue jeans and a big silver belt buckle. I pushed the second floor where I was headed. He looked over at me and he said, “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like a Kennedy?”
I was on a short ride on the elevator and not up for a chat. I just said, “Yeah. I’ve heard that before.” As the elevator door opened he said, “Well, that must really piss you off, eh?” I want to go back to him and say, “President Trump loves us. Loves me. We’re all together in all this.” I’m not sure he’d hear me.
Actually, if I can take just a few moments, and trust me it’ll just be a few, I do think this issue of what we call one another, how we label each other is in fact a big issue for your time. We live in a time of labels. We have labels for everything, for political affiliation, for the college we go to, for genders, for races, for income brackets, for sexual orientations, for affiliation, for address, for income bracket. We label like crazy these days.
And we don’t agree on much across those labels, but we do agree on one thing. This country seems to have one consensus point of view, and that is that we’re divided. We’re so deeply divided we’ve lost a sense even in our own families often of being able to have conversation, of being able to listen and hear. Even in our own schools, even in our own communities.
The sense of division maybe driven by labels has led to anxiety, it’s led to distrust, it’s led to pain. And we agree on one other dimension of it. Almost everybody thinks it’s not their fault. It’s their fault. It’s someone else’s fault. We’re divided not because of me, but because of you. Because at some level you’re just too different, you’re just too wrong to be included, so we blame each other, we judge each other, we humiliate each other, and we try to make others pay by judging them.
It’s an old story, you might say, scapegoating. It’s in our biblical texts. The ancient Israelis took the sins of the people, the weaknesses, the fears, the anger, the mistakes, put them on a goat, chase it out. Remove it from the group. Exclude it from belonging. That will solve the problem.
It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now, because it relies on one big problem. It assumes you, me, we can be happy as long as we exclude someone else. It assumes that if we defeat or humiliate or dominate the other, we’ll find a way to be happy.
The problems aren’t mine. They’re just a function of getting rid of someone else. We don’t want to look inside, as Bishop Jakes has written in his recent book. We would rather hurt others, even those who are already hurting, than feel the hurt ourselves. This, my friends, my fellow graduates, is a guarantee, that we will never be happy, because being happy is something that we can only do together.
So I want to give you a challenge. It’s a pretty big one, I’ll admit. How do you take all the technology, all the anger of cable news, not network news, just cable news, all of our losses, our loss of feeling that we belong, our loss of feeling, the sense of justice in our country, our loss of a national narrative, how do we take all the hostility and anger of this moment and transform it into something new, something different?
How do we be brave enough to turn toward each other instead of away from each other when we’re in pain? How do we stay open to each other even when we’ve hurt each other?
It’s a personal challenge. It’s a political challenge. I dare say it’s not going to be solved as Einstein said with the old remedies. Separation of powers, due process, protection of rights, those are the foundations of our democracy. They’re necessary, but we’ve lived with divisiveness now long enough. Narrow self-interest. We’ve lived with this fundamental sin of othering for long enough to see where it leads us. We need a new operating system of the heart.
Now, to some of you that will sound like a naïve dreamer, but I don’t think so, because ultimately, we are much more naturally we than we are me. We start out as we. My beautiful grandson doesn’t know me. He only knows we. That’s the story of each of your lives, a long, arduous period of extended helplessness that was met and healed and transformed only by love.
You were a we long before you were a me. If I try to defeat you, you try to defeat me. That’s the recipe for disaster.
On the other hand, if I want to change me I believe I need to love you, so I believe in this power to change our own hearts. I believe in the power to transform the hearts of others, because I’ve seen it up close. I’ve had a front row seat to the best of humanity, the transformers of the world. I’ve got to see them, watch, take the most painful, most difficult, sometimes the most heart-wrenching situations, and somehow turn them into healing.
Think of the … A Canadian. Some of you may have heard of it, but most of you haven’t, he died last week, Jean Vanier. He died at the age of 90 in France. When he was young about your age he was invited to go to an institution where those who had been excluded, totally left out, totally treated as other, he was invited to go and meet them.
He met two men, Phillipe Seux and Raphaël Simi. They looked him in the eye with the eyes of anguish and pain. They looked him in the eye, saying, I want to leave. I don’t want to be locked up for the rest of my life.
Now, he could’ve just seen the stress and abandonment of parents. He could’ve just seen the neglect of the system, but he saw a third force, another way to do it. He bought a little house and he invited them out. They opened a home three men living together as friends.
He called his communities L’Arche the place where creatures friend or foe, hunter or prey all were safe, all were cared for. Countless times he saw people come to him in homes, then around the world, with the face of anguish, with the experience of pain, with the struggle of a life of rejection.
He said to them over and over again, “You are more beautiful than you dare to imagine.” Those words, more beautiful than you dare to imagine. He said, “When you let people who are no good into your life, you are transformed.” Why are you transformed when you bridge the gap? Because when you let them in you’re not trying to be superior anymore. You’re not trying to be separate. You’ve stopped othering. In some ways, you can stop hiding, too. You can have a reunion with yourself.
Remember the text in scripture, do not be conformed, but be transformed. When you let the other in, that’s your chance. Vanier spoke of your primal innocence, that little part of you that’s fragile and tender and vulnerable. You can let it back in.
This is the vision I’m inviting you into, to be transformers, to transform pain into joy, hurt into love, separation into connection, instead of just fight or flight try to unlock a new form of sight. And know that separation is always a false solution.
Now, you know transformers already. Alvin Ailey was a transformer. He was a transformer. He saw racism, he saw exclusion, he saw misunderstanding. He saw the forces colliding in his world, and he chose an alternative, a form of expression. As he said, “I want to teach people to understand the inner kinds of things.” The inner kinds of things he let out, an expression that allowed people to see from the inside out.
We can learn to do this. I had a student years ago, Lamont Young. He did just this. He learned in high school how to do this work with social and emotional learning. He learned how to find his deepest self. He wanted to make a change in his life, and then he got shot seven times at point blank range. By a guy high on PCP. By a miracle, he recovered physically. And then, he says, by an even greater miracle, he recovered spiritually when he forgave the man who shot him.
Lamont once told a reporter the African-American story of going through slavery and discrimination and still being able to look someone in the face and say, “I love you, brother,” that’s what makes it unique. That’s how we survived, he said, for 400 years. The perseverance, the resilience, that’s my story.
Lamont graduated from this university last year with a master’s in counseling and is using his gifts to transform the lives of others who are locked in prisons of othering and rejection and racism.
So these transformers are heroes of mine, but I really want you guys to recognize that this is your real superpower. You’ve all got it. You can go to the movies and watch someone else pretend to have it, but you’ve actually got this superpower. We don’t use it that often, but I’m going all over the country. I ask young people, “What do you wish Americans knew?”
As you sit here, answer the question, what do you wish the country knew? The answer I get over and over again is ‘I wish Americans knew that everybody counts, that everybody deserves a chance, that everybody belongs.’ That’s a creed. You may not hear it in church in those words, but wherever you worship remember that creed. It is the defining, in my view, creed of your generation.
Rather than just tell you about it, maybe it’s better to practice. So I want to ask all of you to join me in a little fun. Let’s imagine this day is actually a track meet. You’re here for the local Bronx Special Olympics local games. Right down on here is the track, and assembled here before you are six or eight athletes. They’re ready to run their 100-meter dash. Are you with me? Okay.
Now, in Special Olympics people get loud, they get noisy, so I want you to imagine catching the eye of one of the athletes. You’ve got your Starbucks, you’ve got your … You’re ready to go, but just for a moment as you’re watching your own life capture the eye of one of the athletes. Maybe a 12-year-old boy or a 12-year-old girl. Make your choice.
Maybe just for a moment let that athlete catch your heart. Maybe just know, at least unconsciously, that that young man, that young woman has been rejected over and over and over again. Maybe just remember, unconsciously maybe, that when that little child was born, maybe it was a tough day for his or her mom and dad, maybe just be aware how hard it was to get into a preschool, how hard it is to fit into school, how many kids don’t speak to him in the cafeteria, in the hall.
Maybe you could just imagine his little eyes looking up at yours and somehow know that those little eyes have seen their spirit wounded over and over and over again by a world that saw them as other.
So now, join me in pretend. I’m going to pretend I’m hitting the starting gun. I want to ask you guys to, all of you, to join me and cheer. We’re going to do a mock race right here and I want you to get loud. I want you to be as loud as a Ram’s audience has ever been. This is your final wild, crazy cheer, and it’s going to be for these athletes right here running in front of you.
When I hit the gun, when I say “Go,” I want you to cheer, and I want all the parents in the back to cheer and I want you to get loud. I want you to get up. It’s going to be a short race, so I want you to give it all you’ve got. Do I have you with me? All right.
So meet the eyes of the athlete. Watch as I sound the gun, and as I run across this stage I want you to cheer like you’re seeing that athlete, that little boy or that girl, but one more thing. I want you to cheer using your name. I want to use your own name and say, “Go, fill in the blank.” That’s parents, too. Uncles, aunts, friends, brothers, sisters, teachers, mentors, faculty, Mr., Dr. How many titles do you have? President?
Joseph M. McShane: Just Joe.
Tim Shriver: Just Joe. I want you to cheer for Joe. You got it?
I’m running. You with me? Are you ready? On your marks, get set, go. [cheering].
Thank you. Yeah. Come on … Yeah. I can hear your name. So I wonder what happened in that brief moment. Did you see yourself? Did you feel that primal innocence that Jean Vanier spoke about? Did you know that that was you on the track, that little boy or that little girl, running to be free of being judged, running to be free of being humiliated, running to be free of anguish, running to return to that primal innocence?
I think you just had a reunion, I hope, with yourself, with your best self. I hope you know that when you have a reunion with your best self you’re having a reunion with everybody else, too, because we all share that. We all share that sense of trying to carry so much woundedness, so much brokenness, and yet let it out.
It’s what our country’s struggling with right now, so if you can see that person as you, I hope you will join them, these athletes, and you yourself, and remember their oath, let me win, but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt.
I would add let me be a transformer. Let me not just be a transformer in my relationships, with my friends, in my job, in my life, but let me be part of a transformed nation. Let me be … Let us be the class, the class of 2019, that invites the country into a new dialogue with itself.
There is no problem, Americans are fond of saying, that we can’t solve together, but it is so obvious that we need to do it together. So, I ask you to choose this life. You have a choice. You have to decide which side you’re on. I hope you will choose to be a transformer and to be brave.
And if you need a reminder, why not let’s have us dance a reminder? You got up once. Dancers, I need you to help me now. The words of the Special Olympics oath include the words be brave. Let me be brave in the attempt. So right now, let’s have a little bit of music if we can. Let’s hear the words and the lyrics.
Okay. All right. Oh, yes. Dancers, up. Okay. All right. There we go. Let’s go. Come on. Come on. [music playing]. Be brave. Yeah. Just want to see you be brave.