By Jamil Zainaldin
This commencement address was delivered by Jamil Zainaldin at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, on May 3, 2014.
This is an important day for graduating seniors. It marks the completion of the requirements for a bachelor’s degree. You are about to walk out the doors of this college and into the waiting arms of the world.
And what kind of world is that? Let’s take a quick survey. First, the difficult part: we have poverty, here and abroad. We have war. We have various kinds of inequalities and unfairness. We have nations angry at each other — certainly not a new thing. Today we have competition — plenty of competition — in the world marketplace, and that brings its own kind of pressure to bear on U.S. companies and workers. And we have the challenge of a century-long energy dependence on fossil fuels, which are not a renewable resource. At some not-too-distant point, where are we going to get all that energy to run our cars and operate our factories, light and heat and cool our homes?
There’s good news, too, about our world. We’ve experienced in recent years amazing breakthroughs in science, medicine, and public health. And we are seeing great strides in human rights and equality that have their roots right here in Georgia and the civil rights movement of the last century. And we might add, at long last.
Any survey of today needs also to account for the presence of the Internet and the whole cybersphere, where it seems anymore most of us spend a good part of our working day. The revolutionary power of this information system is not to be denied. Most people now come personally equipped with a hand-held computer that doubles as a phone, easily stored in a purse or a pocket. To some eyes, the world is just one giant Facebook page with millions upon millions of conversations and opinions and likes.
Those of us who love our new digital contraptions can get a little carried away in talking about their significance. And when we do, we miss the truth staring us in the face: we humans on planet Earth were connected long before the invention of the Internet. Since the beginnings of recorded history, we have walked the same ground, breathed the same air, and lived under the same sun and moon and stars. We have suffered many of the same tragedies just as we have also rejoiced in many of the same blessings.
A quick scan of world literature, history, and music will confirm that fact of our primal connectedness: we humans have a lot in common. There are amazing similarities across cultures and civilizations in the stories we tell, in the big questions we ask. We even share the same words, though the translations might vary: love, courage, loyalty, self-sacrifice, duty, and wisdom are concepts in all languages, ancient and modern. Likewise, the quest for what is holy, what is reverential is one that all great faith traditions share.
So this is the remarkable fact: as our personal worlds become bigger in this 21st century, as we come into contact with more and more people from other cultures, it is our similarities — both positive and negative — that we recognize. It is the recognition of our “humanness” beneath our apparent outward differences that tells us we are brothers and sisters.
Not everyone agrees. Those voices that deny our common humanity, that divide us, not only harm those against whom they speak but harm us all. This is what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meant in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” when he said that a commission of injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. When we ignore or deny the impact of destructive views, we are denying our own humanity. Our soul as a person is only whole insofar that it shares compassion with all other human beings.
In my opening, I asked what kind of world awaits you. Perhaps the more immediate question is “What difference will you make?”
At Piedmont College you have received advanced learning. Through your coursework, reading, study, and dialogue, your undergraduate education has endeavored to vest in each of you a faith in humankind, a confidence in the existence of a higher power and a higher good, however you might describe that, and a conviction that life is to be lived with eyes, mind, and heart wide open.
These values shine wonderfully in the work of the great Lillian Smith, whose life was enriched by her attendance here, and whose work has helped change our world. And they shine in the educational mission of Foxfire, whose association with Piedmont College is well known. An internationally renowned educational approach, the Foxfire movement was born right here in north Georgia and is known for making learning synonymous with service, community, empowerment, and respect. These are powerful symbols of Piedmont College, and they belong to you, too.
You may have heard in the news some opinion to the effect that the liberal arts will not prepare you for a job. You’ve just got to put that aside. What everybody knows, or ought to know, is that the education you’ve received here is not about winning the race tomorrow morning — one that’s all over by noon. No. Education in the liberal arts is to prepare you for the journey. Be proud of what you have received here. You are part of the precious few. Rightfully treasure your experience here, what you have learned. Keep an exploring, open mind. Listen and learn from others. Give back. Practice compassion. Protect the integrity you were born with, and defend the integrity of others.
And be aware of the darkness. It comes with the world, and most of us will have a brush with it, or worse. Nobody is exempt from hard times, or life’s icy patches, or encounters with earth-shattering burdens or even encounters with evil. Barbara Brown Taylor, a renowned faculty member of Piedmont College, tells us that light and dark are not as separate as we might think. We can find grace in unlikely places, too.
In conclusion, I know some of you, perhaps many, are thinking about what happens after today. Perhaps you are worrying about that job. I have two sons who are having exactly the same thoughts as they face their own graduation from college. But if the national average is relevant here, you will have at least seven jobs in your working life, and possibly as many professions. So let me ask the question this way: What will sustain you?
Nobody at this college has told you exactly what to think and exactly what to do for the rest of your lives. That’s because you are not machines. In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails.”
Let those words be our guide, and our journeys will be filled with surprise, discovery, growth, and eventually, wisdom. The world awaits you — it always does. And what you have to bring, the world desperately needs.
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides Jamil Zainaldin with editorial assistance for his SaportaReport columns.