JCC Commencement Speech

Mr. President, trustees, administrative staff, honored guests, faculty, relatives, friends of the graduates and graduates of ‘82… congratulations! At the outset, I should mention that last month when a student advisory board representative asked me if I would agree to being this year’s commencement speaker, I was excited about it. Even after she told me that nine other faculty members had turned it down, I was still thrilled. I’m just kidding. There were only five refusals. But, where else could a poor Lithuanian kid from Syracuse get an opportunity to address such a great group, and as I look around the crowd, I see a lot of former students. In fact, almost everyone in this building is a former student of mine. Now I know why people continually ask me how long I’ve been here.

After I agreed to show up, I began to ponder over some things I could talk about. After all, this was going to be an opportunity for me to stand up here, take on the “look of eagles,” and lay on a lot of heavy stuff that I thought would certainly be appropriate for the occasion. I also knew that after today I most certainly wouldn’t be asked again, so I was going to make the most of it and try to show you somebody else up here. It took me about a second to rule out that approach. I can’t really be anyone else and you know that. It would have been unconscionable. You don’t need a bunch of educational polygot today. I’m sure you would be thinking, “Hey Coach, will you please stop talking and say something.” O.K., I’m going to be brief, basic and Bataitis.

The first thing I want to say to you is don’t be anyone else. Be authentic. I’m not suggesting that you drop all of your old role models, but be honest with yourself first. You are unique. there’s nobody else quite like you. Obviously I’m not suggesting that you close your mind to new ways of doing things or that you put down other viewpoints because whenever we share experiences or ideas we all learn and grow.

We can get anything done if we don’t care who gets the credit. Take a little time to think over your strengths and weaknesses. It takes courage to give yourself the good news and the bad news in terms of who you are. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent. Eleanor Roosevelt said that a long time ago. Build on your strengths and deal honestly and sensibly with your shortcomings. Be authentic.

The second thing I want to talk to you about is listening. Work at being a good listener. Being a good listener not only increases your ability to make sensible decisions that involve minor considerations, but when you are faced with making major decisions in life, your listening skills really become very significant.

Over the Easter break, I reread a book by Ayn Rand, The Fountain Head. I had read it in the late forties when I was a mere child. Her book created a lot of controversy, a furor, when she proposed one of the most challenging ideas ever presented in a work of fiction – that man’s ego is the fountain head of human progress or destruction. She wrote in part that every major horror story of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive. Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetuated by disciples of altruism? Does the fault lie in man’s hypocrisy or in the nature of the principle? The most dreadful butchers were the most sincere. They believed in the perfect society reached through the guillotine, firing squad or the gas chamber. Nobody questioned their right to murder since they were murdering for an altruistic purpose. It was accepted that man must be sacrificed for other men. The actors change, but the course of the tragedy remains the same – a humanitarian who starts with declarations of love for mankind and ends with a sea of blood. It goes on and will go so long as men believe that an action is good if it is unselfish. That permits the altruist to act and force his victims to bear it. The leaders of those collectivist movements asked nothing for themselves, but look at the results. There are all kind of con artists that you will have to deal with constantly during your lifetime. All are convincing. All great con artists claim the altruistic motive. The worst criminals are those who take your mind – from Charles Manson to Jonestown. Listen carefully. Develop your listening skills and sharpen your awareness. We all have to make choices constantly. Listen very carefully.

Our awareness is obviously also tempered to a great extent by what we read in contemporary literature, what we observe on the tube and in films. Keep developing your reading skills, really hear what you are listening to. Learn to see things with more than your eyes. Feeling and instincts “see” too.

Over relatively short periods of time we have seen fiction become fact – reality. Getting people to the moon and back? Ridiculous! Some people just never give up - Chariots of Fire, Rocky. Films that depict the dispositions of people in physical, mental and moral conflict – winning and losing. Attitudes, I guess just about everything is attitude. What’s the use” Why should I? Everybody in here has used those two phrases. There probably hasn’t been anytime in history when people haven’t yelled them out. Those words mark the dividing line between success and failure for hundreds of thousands of human beings. “What’s the use” is the philosophy of the drone, the idler, who lives off the work of others. He is satisfied with “good enough.” He has no goals, no visions. He takes on no challenges. His aim is to do just enough to get by. He is a clock watcher who will render no more service than he is paid to perform. He is too lazy to think – too selfish to give an extra effort in his job, community or any common cause for others. He says “what’s the use” instead of “it can be done” and “why should I” instead of “go for it.” Corny platitudes? I don’t think so. Attitude is everything. You have to care for yourself before you can care for others.

Our self concept (or self image) is to a great extent determined by how we look, move, and act. “Building self confidence” is a phrase that we hear constantly. Self-improvement isn’t all intellectually oriented. Health and fitness is a very important part of the self concept. Now you just knew I was going to talk about fitness. We are our bodies. A lot of things happen to all of us every day that cause tension – traffic, noise, competition. Regular exercise is a good form of relaxation. That’s the key – regular exercise. I hope that you’ll remember that the quality of your life is just as important as its length. Get into fitness for the right reasons and in a sensible way. Don’t over organize it so that play becomes work. Running, racquetball, weight training, gardening or walking, physical activity does more than strengthen the body. Some of us have a tendency to take ourselves too seriously all of the time. Sure, there’s a place for seriousness – these certainly are serious times – but don’t get into that big cop out reason “I just don’t have the time.” One of the best times to exercise is when you feel you are too busy to do so. There are more people into fitness today than at any time in history. I like to think that most are into it for the right reasons. As children, we enthusiastically used our time to play. Why give up that part of you? As you get older and move through life, you will look back and realize that a lot of it was all play anyway. My wife still asks me when I will grow up. Play is an attitude just as much as work is an attitude. Believe it. Also, I hope that you will take time to take a few risks. Get off the merry-go-round once in a while. There are a lot of different rides out there. I guess what I’m really talking about is how many of us carve out little niches for ourselves and end up saying “I sure wish I had tried that” or “I could have done that.” You’ve got about a 75 year go around. Some people use up that warranty and never really take a risk or try anything new. They never really find out who they are or what they might have accomplished. Don’t get labeled as a typical anything – that’s a sure way to stunt your growth. You attitude may well determine your altitude. We lose so much when we fix our thoughts and actions unalterably. The fear of failure or the fear of how others will react if we change our lifestyle, destroys more original thought and progress than ac be imagined. Give yourself a break and knock down a few walls. I hope this place has helped you become less fearful of further inquiry – of taking a few risks.

I have been convinced, as many others in here, that we are in the midst of a knowledge breakthrough, a new renaissance that is truly challenging and will continue to challenge the traditional way of doing things. The mind – body – spirit holistic approach will be a dominant force for change in the ‘80s. Paradigm shifts, new ways of understanding ourselves and the universe will continue to gain momentum.

In 1975, Marilyn Ferguson, who is probably the foremost reporter/researcher in mind-brain research, wrote an article called “The Movement That Has No Name” and it said in part “that something remarkable is underway. It is moving with almost dizzying speed, but it has no name and eludes description.”

Groups are focusing on new approaches to health and healing, humanistic education, new politics and management. We have been struck by the indefinable quality of the zeitgeist.

The spirit of our age is fraught with paradox. It is at the same time pragmatic and transcendental. It values both enlightenment and mystery – power and humility – interdependence and individuality. It is simultaneously political and apolitical. Its movers and shakers include individuals who are impeccably establishment allied with one-time sign carrying radicals.

Within recent history it has infected medicine, education, social science, hard science and even government with its implications. It is characterized by fluid organizations reluctant to create hierarchical structures adverse to dogma. It operates on the principle that change can only be facilitated, not decreed. It is short on manifestos. It seems to speak to something very old and perhaps, by integrating magic and science, art and technology, it will succeed where all the king’s horses and all the king’s men have failed. There is a conspiracy going on that is very real, exciting and positive and you are a part of it. So while these times are fraught with uncertainty on so many fronts – at home and throughout the world – the human spirit still searches for better ways to live, to learn and to grow. You are 18, 20, 40, 60 and growing. It is truly the best of times and the worst of times, to paraphrase Dickens. I hope that all of you do pause to ponder the future and that you engage in some sensible planning for it, but don’t lose the moment – the now. Use this precious time – grow with it. A lot of things are going to happen in the ‘80s. You can take ‘em on!

In closing, to quote that great, erstwhile philosopher Dr. Fred Fogelsanger - “You can do anything, anything, as long as you do your sit-ups every day!” Good luck!

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We gratefully acknowledge these individuals and organizations for their generous support.