These are the times that try men’s souls.Thomas Paine
It is times like these when it is all too easy to acquiesce to the sense of dark despair pervading the world. I, too, feel the almost hypnotic seduction of the darkness, a suffocating paranoia fueled by relentless media. As one by one tournaments and festivals, classes and clubs, dances and even graduation ceremonies cancel, stocks plunge into losses whose red horror rivals that upon Lady Macbeth’s hands, and the world seems to be crumbling from its very center as the ground beneath our feet—once so visceral and so solid—disintegrates into mere wisps of failed promises. And let us not forget that beyond the inevitability of the infection and death of millions of people worldwide due to the coronavirus, the conflicts in the Middle East and in Africa have not ceased; the immigration crisis involving the displacement of hundreds of millions is growing graver every minute of every day, and climate change is still marching towards its point of no return. You would not be downplaying our situation if you claimed that we perhaps face total, utter, collapse as a species. Now, more than ever, does it seem futile to fight our seemingly inescapable fate, and perhaps it is simply best to end the game now and leave others to pick up the pieces.
But it is times like these that bring out the best of human nature. Ironically, we have a historical tendency for productivity when we face existential threats, for we are motivated—beyond anything else—to live and keep living. The central and most paramount question for the survival of our planet and our species is what we will choose to do today. Will this moment be remembered as our “finest hour” in which we braved certain death and made a difference fighting for the collective humanity—or will this moment merely be viewed as an insignificant drop in the cascade of a monumental human failure? It is all up to us and what we do—or do not do—in this moment, now. The solution to surviving economic disaster, war, or disease is the same as is the solution to overcoming climate change—Faith. As I explored in my poem “Faith,” what will happen tomorrow will largely depend on whether or not people have faith in humanity and in our cause today—whether or not they believe in themselves and in our collective capacity to adapt. It is not that by having Faith we calmly wait for some omnipotent force to solve all of our problems—we will solve our problems by believing that they can be solved—solved together. As President John F. Kennedy remarked, “Our problems are man-made; therefore, they can be solved by man.” Thus you play an integral role in this regard—communicate this sense of possibility, of encouragement, and of renewed purpose to your friends and loved ones, and let hope spread across this nation and this earth like the inexorable golden sunrise. No future—none at all—in which we are successful can materialize without your help.
The garden of change will not sow itself; it already has the most fertile soil—our minds—and the most rich seeds—our hearts—but it requires cultivation. The fruit of hope will flower if watered by the nourishing and rejuvenating drops of Faith, each bursting with unimaginable potential. So I urge you to reconsider the ineluctability of fate and instead see today, rather, as a moment—perhaps in gravity unmatched—where you personally can leave the greatest mark on the history of humankind through your action, beginning, and principally concerned, with encouraging your fellow peers and, above all else, yourself. If you truly wish to make a difference, then, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
I would now like to share with you my graduation speech for Pacific Grove High School, as I think you may find it compelling in these troubling times:
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering,” as said Sir Winston Churchill, addressing Parliament and the British nation in light of the implacable advance of the Nazi war machine. “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty,” he affirmed. “Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” For as long as the everlasting flame of hope burns within our hearts, “we shall fight”—for “we shall never surrender.”
Frankly, these are dark times. Our generation must face challenges that no previous one has ever met.
But we are not alone in this struggle. I ask you—look to your left, look to your right. Are not we here today? Did not the sun bless us this morning? Are not our teachers, friends, and relatives smiling as they watch us today? Did not Churchill and his generation look death in the eye and persevere to victory—victory in spite of all dread and against all adversity?
Churchill told his nation, “Do not let us speak of darker days: let us speak rather of sterner days.” His words ring true even now—we are at a momentous turning point in the story of humankind. Never before in all the annals of history has so much depended on what we do—or do not do—today. Do we rise to the call of our duty and honor—or do we lay down our arms and surrender on our knees to our inevitable end? Do we see light pervading the world amidst the chaos of darkness—or do we, in our inaction, let darkness snuff out all hope?
I believe in us—in the unparalleled power of togetherness. Only can we achieve our aim—victory over death and destruction—by working together as one people, one gestalt, one humanity.
We are Pacific Grove. We are “America’s Last Hometown,” and we know first-hand the benefits and possibilities of connectedness. We know that, as our monarch butterfly friends exemplify every year, long journeys and difficult burdens are best born not individually, but together. We know that nothing of any great importance can be done alone—for alone and isolated, we sabotage any chance of salvation for our species. As goes the axiom “united we stand, divided we fall,” so goes our fate. We will not change the world by retreating into nationalistic caves of ignorance; when we see darkness, let us run towards light—not retreat further into darkness. Let us act. Let us act together. It all starts with you—the future of us.
“How can we act?” you may well ask. I urge you to act not on impulse, and not alone, but with an ear for the past and an eye for the future. In the fight for survival, it behooves us to listen to—and heed—the wisdom of yesterday and the lessons of today. I want you now to think of someone who has helped you in this life—someone for whom you are dearly grateful.
I humbly thank Diana Dennis and Mrs. Hunter who, by teaching me—and others today in this audience—to share, read, write, and count, “set me up for success,” in the words of Dr. Haggquist. I thank Mrs. Mahr for helping me to channel my resolve to overcome the challenges of adapting to middle school life and for giving all of us the invaluable gift of tapping. I thank Mrs. Selfridge for whipping our hands into good writing shape starting day one of high school, and I thank Dr. Haggquist for taking the time out of his busy day to read all of my short stories and poetry to help me create true art. I thank Mr. Grate for his scintillating lectures that made his class both extremely exciting and terrifying, and I thank Mr. Powers for detailing the history of our country with an unparalleled dedication. I thank Mr. D’Amico for introducing me to the analytical wonders of calculus, and I thank Mr. Afifi for all that he taught us about the universe and for his overflowing cornucopia of puns. I thank Ms. Priest for teaching me French Horn and for instilling in her students a lifelong love for music, and I thank Mr. Hoffman—God bless—for more than continuing what Priest had started—for being someone to look up to, talk to, and learn from. He was a true friend to his students, for whom his sudden retirement and rapidly-following loss was a one-two shock straight to the core. I thank Class of 2018 Drum Major Mei Bailey and current band director Mrs. Hruby for picking up the pieces of our music program and for ensuring that Hoffman’s memory will live on through the music we continue to play.
Of course, I would be remiss if I did not thank my parents as well—they are our first and forever teachers in this world, reminding us that learning does not—and should not—occur solely at school. They, along with my brother Forrest and cat Janie, have helped remind me that even the darkest of nights will end and the sun will rise upon the open horizon. I thank my closest friends—Mitali, Tyler, Delson—for being my confidants and comrades through thick and thin. I thank you fellow graduating seniors in the audience for making senior year as enjoyable and as memorable as possible through utter perseverance and grit, notwithstanding the crippling effects of the coronavirus. Finally, I thank you all—teachers, custodians, counselors, office staff, brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts, grandparents—for being here today and for supporting this beloved school and its amazing students. Our story would not be the same if it was not for your dedication.
We owe an immense debt to those who helped us to navigate the tumultuous currents of life with a balance of minding the passing waters and watching the brightening horizon—looking to the future without forgetting the past. For their priceless words and actions, it may seem as if we turn up empty-handed in their regard. But we can nevertheless demonstrate our appreciation for those without whom our lives would not be what they are today. So call them up, send them an e-mail or a letter, or give them a hug. Just one small gesture can mean a great deal to someone who has aided you—perhaps the difference between striving for light and surrendering to darkness.
We shall not remain silent. We shall not forget them, for they have not forgotten us. For they have shown us that we can do anything—that you can climb the highest mountain, or dive the greatest depths, or fly beyond the farthest star. They have merely reminded us of what we are capable of—the rest is up to us. You must only believe to think the unthinkable, solve the unsolvable, and accomplish the unaccomplishable. I urge you—despair not of the incarcerating limits of today; dream of the liberating potential of tomorrow.
Close your eyes and hold that dream of freedom in your mind—good. Now release it and watch it fly—watch it grow, watch it bloom, watch it thrive across the interminable sky. Now open your eyes. Never forget that the freedom that each of you possesses—here in this moment—is the most fundamental human right.
I would now like to conclude—yes, the word you have most anticipated—with Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If—.”
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,”
And—which is more—you’ll be you, my friend!