Kind Commencement Words Counter Political Negativity

Posted on June 1, 2016
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During this month of graduations, in a nation inundated by political name-calling, I am reminded of two commencement speeches that resonated with words of kindness and justice.Former President Jimmy Carter spoke at Trinity College in 1998 at the graduation of one of my sons. He urged graduates to be mindful of the discrimination of “rich people against poor people.” The other memorable speech was by George Saunders, who teaches at Syracuse University. His address to the 2013 graduating class there was released in a book called, “Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness.”

President Carter’s address at Trinity was fitting in that the college is involved with Habitat for Humanity. He has taken part in fundraising and homebuilding since 1984. The nonprofit group views housing and shelter as a matter of conscience, which underscores its dedication to eliminating “poverty housing” and homelessness internationally. In speaking of breaking down barriers between the rich and the poor, Carter’s 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.

When his speech on kindness and justice ended, the graduates, their families, and friends gave him a rousing, standing ovation. Initially, video sales of the commencement seemed sluggish; after his words, sales soared.

At the Syracuse commencement, Saunders spoke of regret as well as kindness. He told 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 graduation. Jeffrey J. Froh, 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.”

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.

—Rita Watson, M.P.H., also writes “With Love and Gratitude”

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