The speech that US Supreme Court CJ John Roberts gave recently is a powerful message to all – young and old.
It is powerful because it does not serve up platitudes to butter up the ninth-grade graduates (of Cardigan Mountain Boarding School), but tells it as it is, that is, raw, hard-hitting and practical.
Admittedly, I myself have learnt much from it. And here are my thoughts on his speech as I ride on the coattails of CJ’s wisdom.
For easy reading, I have taken the essence of his speech and condensed it into three lessons.
First, CJ Roberts told the graduates this, "It was not just success, but not being afraid to fail that brought you to this point."
Life has a strange way of teaching us. It is not so much about jumping academic hoops or garnering one accolade after another.
But it is about braving through our trials that we learn the most. The learning comes with experiencing and it is not going to be a smooth sail or a light paddle. They don't call it trials for nothing right?
Life's trials are going to test us to the core. The wind in our sail is going to pull us in all directions. We are going to get thrown from one side to the other because every determined step forward will be met with unkindly forces within and without that aim to shake our very foundation.
And if life is a masquerade party, then behind every ugly and threatening mask we meet is a friendly face waiting to smile at us if we do not give up the good fight.
CJ Roberts urges us not to hide or run away from, or fear adversity. In fact, our greatest failure is to fear failure, and as a result, never going forward when we are knocked down (and we'll have many of those knockdown moments as we journey in life).
While we can hope for the best in every situation, and strive to control the elements to our advantage, life is not going to sit still to allow us to dress her up like a doll or a mannequin. Life will not bend to our design or agenda.
In his speech, CJ Roberts had an ingenious way of teaching this important lesson. He minces no words here and gives it to his young listeners in a way that makes them think even deeper.
This is how he served it up with an ironic yet empowering sense of oblique realism in somewhat reverse psychological fashion:-
"Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why.
From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.
Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.
And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship.
I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes."
The second lesson I learn from CJ Roberts is captured in this passage of his speech:-
"The most common grand advice they give is for you to be yourself. It is an odd piece of advice to give people dressed identically, but you should — you should be yourself.
But you should understand what that means. Unless you are perfect, it does not mean don’t make any changes.
In a certain sense, you should not be yourself. You should try to become something better. People say ‘be yourself’ because they want you to resist the impulse to conform to what others want you to be.
But you can’t be yourself if you don't learn who you are, and you can’t learn who you are unless you think about it."
Personally, this is going to take a lifetime to learn. As a kid or an adult, the progress of a life is the progress of learning/discovering who we are and how we can change from there for the better.
Needless to say, we regress in growth and maturity when we neither know who we are nor bother to find out who we are.
At this point, CJ Roberts cited Socrates when he said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
Now, what is left hanging in that Socrates' quote is what does "worth" mean to an individual? How should one define “worth” so that it makes an unexamined life dull, regrettable and meaningless?
Sadly, there are some people out there who live their life without much reflection or examination. You can actually tell from and by the way they speak and act.
They may be wealthy and famous, but that does not make them any wiser in the way they conduct and carry themselves.
To them, "worth" is about padding themselves up with money, power and fame. That is, to them, an end in itself.
Their ethical values are built around what is most expedient in the pursuit of the superficial, the immediate and the material. Delayed gratification is often an alien concept to them. Little is thus required, if at all, for self-examination if one is obsessed with such pursuit.
To me, and gathering from CJ Roberts' speech, I believe the worth he is reminding his young audience to pursue is the growth that is intangible, unshakeable and eventually incorruptible.
More importantly, he's referring to the growth from within that you carry with you like an Olympic torch throughout your life, from graduation to cremation. And such fire of wisdom and the warmth of compassion come only through diligent and relentless self-examination.
He said, "And one important clue to living a good life is to not try to live the good life." (Emphasis on "the"). He continued, "The best way to lose the values that are central to who you are is frankly not to think about them at all."
You see, the world has its own idea of "the" good life. I trust its script has remained unchanged, predictable. It is unmistakably about a bejeweled stepladder where you spent most of your life scaling up to the top with an all-consuming, almost blinding, passion.
But CJ Roberts suspended that ladder for his budding sojourners by telling them to think deeply about who they are and where they want to end up in life. Here is how he cleverly did it, and that forms my third and last lesson.
He started his speech by asking them to give a standing ovation to their devoted, loving parents for their "extraordinary sacrifice for them." Now, that's gratitude - never forgetting your benefactor, your roots.
He then reminded them not to be afraid to fail because that is the seed of success. Now, that's about courage - a steel heart to confront your fear.
At one part of the speech, he taught them to do the seemingly small things when they get to their new school. He asked them to "walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shovelling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name." He even reminded them to "smile", "look them in the eye" and "say hello".
Now, that's kindness, that's compassion, that's developing a servant heart.
Lastly, his final advice was to write a note every week to their teachers, who had dedicated nine years to teaching, guiding, molding and inspiring them.
By the end of the new school year, they would have written and sent to 40 people their note of appreciation.
Now, that's making a difference in those lives. More relevantly, it is about living a life that is always thinking about the feelings of others - an others-centered life.
In the end, the CJ's urges the ninth-graders to scale a different ladder, one that is different from what the world deems as worthy of our pursuit.
This ladder is leaning against the side that is driven to building values within us, that is, values that grow our character and mature us as we brave through our trials. They are values that would stand the test of time. They are values that come to us only when we live an examined life. And that is what makes our life worth living. Cheerz.