This is the traditional season for joyful commencement ceremonies for students across our nation—and this year’s high school and college graduates are entering a world where their voices, influence, and vision are desperately needed. As the organizers for the March for Our Lives, who are planning new marches on June 11 in Washington, DC and around the country, say: “As a youth-led movement to end the epidemic of gun violence, we believe a new reality is possible—one where we are free from gun violence in all of its forms, including state-sanctioned violence by police. Among young people, gun violence has become a top cause of death. It has many root causes, including hate, poverty, and despair . . . Our mission calls for something more bold and transformative than gun control alone. We call for a world re-imagined: a world where oppressive power structures are abandoned and community is embraced. A world where all human needs are met and the love of people is centered.”
Young people will lead the way. Despite all the change and challenges in the world today’s graduates will inherit, I do believe there is some enduring advice we can all give them. I agree with Archibald MacLeish that “there is only one thing more powerful than learning from experience and that is not learning from experience.” I feel strongly that it is the responsibility of every adult—parent, teacher, preacher and professional—to make sure that young people hear what we have learned from the lessons of life that helped us survive and succeed, for them to hear from us what we think matters, and to know that they are never alone as they go to meet the future.
Here are nine lessons from the letter I wrote my own three sons that I share again for the Class of 2022.
One: Don’t feel entitled to anything you don’t sweat and struggle for. Take the initiative in creating your own opportunity, and don’t wait around for other people to discover you or do you a favor. Don’t assume a door is closed; push on it. Don’t assume if it was closed yesterday, it’s closed today. And don’t ever stop learning and improving your mind.
Two: Set thoughtful goals and work quietly and systematically toward them. Resist quick fixes, simplistic answers and easy gains. They often disappear just as quickly as they come.
Three: Assign yourself. My daddy used to ask us whether the teacher had given us any homework. If we said no, he’d say, “Well, assign yourself.” Don’t wait around for your boss or your friends or spouse to direct you to do what you are able to figure out and do for yourself. Don’t do just as little as you can to get by. Don’t be a political bystander and grumbler. Vote. Democracy is not a spectator sport. If you see a need, don’t ask, “Why doesn’t somebody do something?” ask, “Why don’t I do something?” Hard work, initiative, and persistence are still the non-magic carpets to success for most of us.
Four: I hope you’ll never work just for money. Money alone won’t save your soul or build a decent family or help you sleep at night. Don’t confuse wealth or fame with character. Don’t tolerate or condone moral corruption, whether it’s found in high or low places, whatever its color or class. And don’t confuse morality with legality. Dr. King once noted that everything Hitler did in Nazi Germany was legal. Don’t give anyone the proxy for your conscience.
Five: Don’t be afraid of taking risks or of being criticized. If you don’t want to be criticized, don’t say anything, do anything, or be anything. Don’t be afraid of failing. It’s the way you learn to do things right. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down. All that matters is how many times you get up.
Six: Please remember and help America remember that the fellowship of human beings is more important than the fellowship of race and class and gender in a democratic society. Be decent and fair and insist that others be so in your presence. Don’t tell, laugh at or tolerate racial, ethnic, religious or gender jokes—or any practices intended to demean rather than enhance another human being. Through daily moral consciousness, counter the proliferating voices of racial and ethnic and religious division that are gaining respectability over the land.
Seven: Don’t confuse style for substance, or political charm with decency or sound policy. Words alone will not meet children’s or the nation’s needs. Political leadership and different budget priorities will. Speak truth to power. And put your own money and leadership behind rhetoric about concern for families and children in your own homes, in your own workplaces, and in whatever areas you pursue. Pay far more attention to what our leaders do than what they say.
Eight: Listen for the genuine within yourself. “Small,” Einstein said, “is the number of them that see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.” Try to be one of them. “There is,” the great Black theologian Howard Thurman told Spelman College students, “something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.” There are so many noises and competing demands in our lives that many of us never find out who we are. Learn to be quiet enough to hear the sound of the genuine within yourself so that you can hear it in other people.
Nine: Never think life is not worth living or that you cannot make a difference. Never give up—no matter how hard it gets, and it will get very hard sometimes. An old proverb says that when you get to your wit’s end, that’s where God lives. Harriet Beecher Stowe said when you get into a “tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and the time that the tide will turn.” The tide will turn—if you dream it, if you believe in it, if you have faith in it, struggle for it, and never give up.