not special

As commencement speeches become snoozingly predictable and rhetorical, creative overtures are especially appreciated.  One address, given last week by English teacher David McCullough at a Massachusetts high school, was not appreciated by all.  The now ‘gone-viral’ speech is colloquially known as “You’re Not Special.”  The following words are extracted verbatim from McCullough’s message:


“Commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism.  Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue.  Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field.  That matters.  That says something.  And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all.  Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same.  And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.  All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.  You are not special.  You are not exceptional.


Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.”


If you watch the video, you will find the teenage crowd attentively chuckling in response.  My sense is that McCullough intentionally worked to speak to the graduates in a language they’d understand.  Once he knew they were ‘with him’ — interested in what he was actually saying instead of lured to sleep by another predictable or rhetorical overture — that’s where McCullough left sarcasm behind and shared his central message… a message to a culture that so easily focuses on self…


… where we think we’re the most talented athlete…

… where we think we’re the brightest politician…

… where we think we’re the greatest, best, most grounded, solid, exceptional, experienced, gifted, intelligent, successful, you-name-it…


… where we’re so focused on our own ‘specialness.’


Hence, having their attention, the wise English prof adds:


“… We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point – and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s ‘So what does this get me?’


… If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning.  You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.  (Second is ice cream…  just an FYI)  I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.  It’s where you go from here that matters.


… Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction.  Be worthy of your advantages.  And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect.  Read as a nourishing staple of life.  Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.  Dream big.  Work hard.  Think for yourself.  Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.  And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer…


… None of this day-seizing, though, this YOLOing, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence.  Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct.  It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things.  Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion-and those who will follow them.  And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.  The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.  Because everyone is.”


That was his point.  Everyone’s special.  But we can’t allow that to cause us to think too highly of ourselves.  Too many people do.




scanning the headlines

Scanning the headlines from the week in review, I find the following actual leaks and laments…


Game On!  2012 Battle Lines Are Drawn


Bloomberg Versus the Big Gulp


Wisconsin Race Seen as National Barometer


Bill Clinton Said What?


What’s the Matter With Bill Maher?


Why Dems Don’t Want to Talk About Economy


Walker’s Example: Courage Rewarded


Post-Wisconsin Overreaction Commences


Presidential Race at a Tipping Point?


The Unions’ Biggest Loss Was in California


Big Government Has Paralyzed U.S. Economy


Dems and GOP Blast White House Over Leaks


Obama’s Revealing Press Conference


“Spain Seeks Bailout”


Sorry, but when I spend too much time focused on the above, it exhausts me…


Wisconsin, Washington… Washington, Wisconsin.  Obama, Romney… Romney, Obama.  Rhetoric, rhetoric, and even more rhetoric.  Impression management.  Egad.  It makes me tired just thinking about it.  How can we focus on what is good and pure and right, when so much works to distract us?


And then I’m reminded this week of my dear friend, Phillips…


Phillips was leaving an MLB game, when she noticed a man frantically running nearby… running toward her actually.  And while in this society, so many fake both need and sincerity, Phillips knew she had to stop.  Stop.  She had to help him.


Quickly she discerned the man was in dire need.


“Do you have a cell phone?!  Can you call 911?” he yelled.  “I think my friend’s having a heart attack!”


His friend was slumped over at the wheel.


I can’t imagine what those minutes were like… when life and death hang in the balance… when all other concerns melt in momentousness.  And yet here was my friend, calling 911, her fingers holding tightly to the wrist of a fading pulse, her heart grappling with the sobering reality of what was happening:  one life.  One soul.  The moment one good man died.


On the weeks where I struggle watching the headlines — distracted by what is not good, not noble, and not right — my struggle is that so much of this world focuses on the wrong things.


Thank God for people like Phillips… people who know what is good.


And noble.  And right.


Thank God.




dear graduate

I know this time of year you are perhaps bombarded by words of encouragement, affirmation, and a plethora of gifts.  Enjoy!  You have worked hard and accomplished much.  Granted, some of you have worked harder than others, but the reality today is that this is a unique accomplishment for each of you.  The future is bright.  You have decisions to make.  And those of us watching desire to spur you on.


The Intramuralist thus has a few words to share with you, but know this beforehand:  what is shared today is the same regardless of the road travelled or current societal state.  How fragile is the economy, how promising is the job market — each matters less than what I share with you here.  My words will always be the same…


First.  Foremost.  Always…


Get wisdom.  At all costs, get it.  Cherish it.  Embrace it.  Many things in this world will come and go.  Life will change.  You will experience hardships and joys that are currently inconceivable.  In order to handle each of those well, it is vital that your character is marked by wisdom — more than anything else.  It matters not how rich you are or poor you are if you have not wisdom.  The perceived success of a fool will never be sustained.


Next, guard your heart.  Guard everything that flows from it.  I am not encouraging the construction of emotional barricades — obstacles that in the long run are more compatible with foolishness.  No, I am speaking to content.  What’s in your heart.  Keep your mouth free from perversity, and corrupt talk from your lips.  Remember that garbage in your brain means garbage will come out of it.  What’s in your brain impacts your heart.  Guard it.  Keep it pure.  Purity is one of the few things you can never retrieve.


Also vital, don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young.  Be an example.  Be an example in what you say, in the way you live… in love, faith, and in that purity.  It is true that we cannot control how other people think; we don’t have to.  Learn that now.  But don’t give those around you — regardless of age — a reason to look down on you.  Your youth is not a liability.  Rather, it is a gift.  A contagious gift!  There is a freshness and a clean-slate-attractiveness that prompts the rest of the world to watch you.  Use that gift well.  Be intentional in what you say, how you live, what you do.  One of the biggest mistakes people make this day — also regardless of age — is that they fail to be intentional.  They let life “just come to them.”  And then they get to the end of a day or the end of a year or perhaps the end of a life and think, “What did I do?”  “Where did my time go?”  “What did I actually invest in?”  Have an answer to that question.  Invest in what is good and pure and noble and right.


Know, too, that there is right and wrong in this world.  That’s a hard thing to admit.  We don’t like to acknowledge the wrong, and the reality is that many persons acknowledge wrongful thinking or behavior in irreverent ways.  Yet if you fail to acknowledge the existence of wrong and/or evil on this planet, you will be more be susceptible to the accompanying foolishness.


One more thing:  act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.  It’s a 3 part process, and many become passionately unbalanced because they omit one of the imperative parts…


If you are just but not merciful, your heart has hardened; a hardened heart hurts its possessor most…

If you are merciful but not just, you have lost your ability to reason.  There are reasonable consequences for actions and choices.  Those consequences empower growth.  The challenge is that we typically don’t like to experience any negative; we prefer an easier way…

And if you fail to be humble, an arrogance will begin to permeate all you think and do.  You will think too much of yourself.  Instead of seeing all things as a gift from God, you will think of yourself as a gift to all things.  That boastful perch will impede your wisdom — regardless of your IQ score.  Intelligence matters far, far less than wisdom.


Well done, graduate.  Have fun.  Life should be fun!  Remember the future is bright.  Pursue it with joy.  As you keep your focus on what’s ahead of you, encourage one another.  Serve.  Reach out to those who have lesser.  Learn from waiting.  Learn more from suffering.  Watch your words.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Don’t wear yourself out to get rich.  Don’t trust your own cleverness.  Let love and faithfulness never leave you.  Resist bitterness.  Avoid comparison.  Don’t envy.  Value wisdom.  Value wisdom most.  Be intentional.  And always remember:  there is hope for you.


Blessings… always…



There are some days that put life in perspective.


… a day when the weight of the world seems secondary… when we forget about the future consequences of today’s actions… some that will be good… some that will not… many of which are not discernible no matter how loud the proclamation of the passion…


… we forget those days the increasingly inimical polarization… the attitudes that boldly call opposition arrogant… forgetting that when we steadfastly announce the arrogance in others, we oft foreshadow the conceit in ourselves…


Hence, we are thankful for those days that put life in perspective — as yesterday was for me.


A couple hundred athletes.

A grandstand full of fans.

Spirited competition.

Multiple events.

And vocal enthusiasm for absolutely every athlete — every adult and child — who crossed the finish line.


The first Special Olympics was held in 1968, after a Chicago P.E. teacher approached Eunice Kennedy Shriver, JFK’s sister, about funding an Olympic-style athletic competition for people with special needs.  Today the competition provides opportunity for more than 3.7 million athletes in over 170 countries, offering year-round training and competition in 32 Olympic-style summer and winter sports.  Yesterday was the track and field competition in our city.


Initially, I stood in quiet awe — witnessing the sustained, contagious cheers from the crowd regardless of placement, regardless of time necessary for individual completion.  As the runners sprinted around the track — some stopping for breaks when necessary — I was touched by their ability, perseverance, and determination.


Better yet was the look on the faces of so many.  Atypical of most competitions, a majority of participants sprinted and jumped with a countenance of great, great, obvious joy.  It was amazing, and it, too, was contagious.  (“All competitions should be that way,” I thought… for kids… adults… with or without a disability… sports, politics…)


A couple of quick personal notes…


First, I’m proud of my son.  This parent cries more these days than I ever imagined.  Thanks much in part to Josh, those cries are also full of joy.


Secondly, we owe significant thanks to the coaches and teachers who have walked alongside our Special Olympians.  From each of us who is blessed to parent a special needs child, we are overwhelmingly thankful for those who selflessly invest in our kids, encouraging both them and us along the way.


Yet perhaps the most poignant perspective of the day was offered by one teenage runner.  She had great form, solid strides, and was swift around the track.  As she ran an entire 400 meters, the crowd seemed well aware of the amazing accomplishment.  She was good!  She was fast.  The 14-15 year old girl was accompanied by another gal, to whom she was loosely tethered.  But in her we were each reminded of the beauty of these games — and the meaning of the moment…


As their mission says, the Special Olympics gives athletes “continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.”  Such was obvious in this one, young runner.


She strode around the track with speed, grace, and that unprecedented joy, anchoring her team’s relay.  Each of us watching paused — clapped — amazed.


She was blind.