Try to be a Little Kinder: A Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction Speech

[What follows is my talk from last night at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA.]

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GOOD EVENING! And welcome to our families and our friends present this evening for the Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction Ceremony.  And most importantly, welcome to our honorees—congratulations to each of you! The praise we offer you this evening is well-deserved. The challenges you have faced that led you here are real. And yet, this evening is more to help mark a beginning than an end.

I have been reflecting recently on two quotations from Aldous Huxley, 20th century thinker and novelist:

First, Huxley asserted, “It’s rather embarrassing to have given one’s entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than, ‘Try to be a little kinder.’”

And second: Huxley implored, “Never give children a chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the very beginning that all living is relationship. Show them relationships in the woods, in the fields, in the ponds and streams, in the village and in the country around it. Rub it in.”

For many years I taught a novel by Aldous Huxley entitled, Brave New World. In this dystopian classic, Huxley creates a society that has had relationships and kindness intentionally pulled from its fabric. To make way for a top priority of stability, the world we encounter in the novel is devoid of altruism and philanthropy. The notion of family is as alien to the characters in the novel as the absence of the notion of family would be to us.

In the world that we live in we can feel the forces pulling us away from kindness and away from communion with each other. These forces form a sort of gravity that comes from both inside of us and outside of us.  For you Westminster seniors, I am not referring to the tug of independence that challenges the ties that bind us as you redefine relationships with your family in advance of your leaving home.  This graduating Senior tug is healthy even though it doesn’t always feel healthy; it is transition to a new kind of relationship with your family rather than an abandonment of it.

There are other forces, however, that are unhealthy and represent a kind of cultural permission to fall from our better selves and into a reductive facsimile of ourselves. We see this in the prepubescent level of debate in government, and we see it in the cruelty we at times allow ourselves in facebook, or twitter, or tumblr posts. We see it in mean-spirited reality television where we feel that we are only spectators when in truth our watching, our reveling in the misfortune of others or in our perceived superiority to those on the screen is its own kind of participation. Our comfort with this is based on an illusion of distance and separation from each other.  It is a kind of forgetting of that which Huxley reminds us—that is, that “all living is relationship.”

So, why is tonight an appropriate time to speak on this topic of kindness and relationship? In short, because all the work you have done, all of the sweat and frustration you have endured, as well as all of the adulation and success we recognize this evening only has value in as much as it allows you to live a life of connection and contribution to your family, your neighborhood, your community and city, your nation and your world. Recognizing the primacy of relationship allows us to see the primacy of kindness. I focus on it here because I know…

Kindness is not easy; it is certainly not quaint or trite; kindness is requires courage, it makes us vulnerable, and it requires selfless contribution. It requires thinking of others before we think of ourselves.

Kindness sets a high bar; it is rigorous. It is not simply a hobby. It is not OK to be kind only when it is convenient and to shut kindness out when it is not practical.

Kindness is not seductive but its alternatives are, and they are ubiquitous.

Each profession has benefitted infinitely through the kindness of its practitioners, and each profession has suffered in its absence.

To do unto others as you would have them do unto you requires selflessness, self-awareness, and yes…kindness.

I say all this about kindness knowing how often I have fallen short of its mark, and knowing as well that I will fall short again. And again.

So much that you have learned here and we celebrate tonight has been at its core about discovering the relationships between ideas, content, and notably, people. You have learned things like how history and literature are linked, or how art and science can play well together. Tonight I ask that we remember how we are connected, how we are in a relationship.  Like Huxley implores in the second quotation I read, I want to “rub in” this idea. And in this remembering of connection, I hope that we are able to hold kindness a bit more tightly to our thoughts, and our words, and our actions.

We are living in a moment in our history when we have more dynamic and significantly more powerful means of connection than at any other time. If we think it, we can communicate it—globally. If we want to know more, we can find it—immediately. And yet within these truths there is this paradox: at the very moment when we have more means of communication and more efficient means of acquiring knowledge, we somehow face unprecedented risks of feeling disconnected, alienated, and alone.  Dangerously, we also risk being people who disconnect, who alienate, or who dismiss others. Our education, certainly the education and achievement we honor this evening, should lead us to be among the people in the world who overcome these challenges, who find ways to create relationships that transcend the smallness of internet chatter and of easy meanness. Our most earnest hope is that the students of Westminster graduate with a desire to serve the greater good and to lead others in making a better world. I believe this work begins with recognition of the centrality of relationships and of the vital role of kindness in achieving these ends of serving and leading. The content and bulk of the education you have acquired here is the most apt partner I can imagine for such a necessary ask and demanding task.  And thus in the end I can think of no group of young people whom I would rather send into the world to do this work.

So to the new members of the National Honor Society and of the Cum Laude Society, congratulations on work well-done.  We look forward to the rest of the year with you, and even more we look forward to all that you will do in this world.

Thank you.

12 thoughts on “Try to be a Little Kinder: A Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction Speech

  1. hollychesser October 10, 2013 / 8:18 am

    Thank you for sharing your speech, Ross. I recently taught Brave New World, which I read again beforehand with a friend, an Episcopal priest. We both remarked how the novel produced anxiety in us and how prescient Huxley’s vision seems to be in light of today’s celebration of the self. I felt a little helpless at the novel’s end. What to do?

    Huxley seems to have been in that same position: “I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.” So, what should I change? The imperative “Try to be a little kinder” gives me a good place to start.

    • J Ross Peters October 10, 2013 / 8:27 am

      Thanks, Holly. I really like and have always liked the Huxley quotation about changing oneself, but it creates its own sort of anxiety–an existential anxiety–about the challenge of truly changing oneself.

      • hollychesser October 10, 2013 / 8:56 am

        Yes, and that’s why I think it’s so critical that students read literature. In order to change oneself, one needs to know oneself. I’m teaching Shakespeare now, and I’m reminded yet again of his gift to help us discover what it means to be human. And now there’s even a recent study to show that readers of literary fiction often possess stronger social skills and are more apt to react to others with empathy. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/10/04/229135856/book-news-study-says-reading-literary-fiction-can-boost-social-skills Yet, the academic world is shifting its weight toward science and math. Hmm.

      • J Ross Peters October 10, 2013 / 8:59 am

        Thank you for this great reminder of the value of how literature can affect the lives of our students.

  2. georgelamplugh October 10, 2013 / 11:33 am

    An important message, well-delivered. Nice job, Ross!

    • J Ross Peters October 10, 2013 / 12:10 pm

      Thanks, George. I’ll look forward to the next time our paths cross.

  3. Eddie DuPriest October 10, 2013 / 9:56 pm

    I like your phrase “easy meanness” . . . Frightening but appropriate for our students. Reminds me of Nick Carroway’s reference to the Buchanons as “careless people.” Careless and mean. Excellent address, Ross.

    • J Ross Peters October 11, 2013 / 7:43 am

      Thanks, Eddie. The ease with which we pretend distance from others in our culture certainly can be informed by the folks that come to Gatsby’s

  4. Kaysaree Moodley October 30, 2013 / 12:08 pm

    I have finally made the opportunity to read your message and how very apt it is. Thank you for your leadership and thoughtfulness. As a parent-teacher, I must add my voice to this discussion by noting that this challenge of ‘relationship’ as an imperative for sense of community and can be supported in the home too, consciously. In society, many of us have been raised to believe that all education MUST be taught at school. I am constantly challenged in my home too; but I have learnt many years later, through many ‘teachers’ the very basis of ‘relationship’ is in itself an inter-disciplinary lesson. An intangible that children learn best from example, when we as parents and educators can decide between ‘to be, or not to be” kind, in full audience of our children. Dr David R. Hawkins shows us in his book ‘Power vs Force” that true power, once truly understood, can shame ‘force’ and assumed kindness. Assumed kindness is confusing for children as they watch us in the adult world, pretending so often to be kind, but deep down I know we all have the correct intention, right? I am really looking forward to the 11 graders reading Pride and Prejudice this year, a favourite in our home…our favourite line by Darcy, “…and my good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.” Ruwenne and I will definitely argue over this, using empathy and compassion to see the folly of this statement, which will hopefully result in us examining the virtues of forgiveness. As a parent, we are humbled by your great examples to our children through literature and examination of the Self.

    • J Ross Peters October 31, 2013 / 1:26 pm

      Kaysaree,

      Thanks you so much for the thoughtfulness and generosity of your comment. There is much in your words to process. I believe that real kindness, the kind that is hard and challenging is borne of conversation and discussion in which we learn to value the voices of others. For those of us who have fortunate, we first learn this truth at home.

  5. georgelamplugh November 20, 2014 / 11:51 am

    You’ve got that right, Ross–this one’s timely, indeed, even a year later! It’s the definition of a “classic” post, I think.

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