A Commencement Reflection on Gratitude: The Bargain of a Lifetime

[I gave the following talk during Commencement at St. George’s Independent School on Saturday, May 18, 2019.]

Good morning! Welcome to our celebration of the Commencement of the Class of 2019. The faculty, staff, and I are grateful to share this moment with you and with your families and friends. A special welcome to the recently installed fourth Episcopal Bishop of West Tennessee, Phoebe Roaf. It is an honor and pleasure to have you here. I like that your presence today will become part of our story as a school. Also welcome to former Head of School, Rick Ferguson and his wife, Elizabeth—by the way saying that Rick was simply Head of School is like saying that Houdini did some nice little card tricks. And also special welcome to Norris and Lauren McGeehee—I am so glad you recognize your membership in and kinship with the families of the class of 2019, we certainly do.

Seniors, you have been on a long road to get here…and today surrounded by friends and family you complete this leg of your journey and you head toward what is next—great places, new people, new challenges. Just for a moment though let’s look back before you sprint off. While you have had myriad successes as individuals and as a class, you have also faced losses and struggles and disappointments. On your best days you have faced both these successes and losses with grace. However, not all days are our best days. I often say about students (and teachers, and staff, and Heads of School) that they are each incomplete sentences—in other words we are never quite fully who we might become. We each have work to do. As you prepare to leave us I’d like to focus just for a few minutes on an ingredient I believe is necessary to do that work, to complete our sentence. Gratitude. Gratitude for all the gifts of this life is at the core of our ability to move through the mountaintops and the valleys of our lives with improving grace.

I was in a conversation with early childhood teacher, Beth Lawo, recently that at its core had to do with gratitude. I believe she and I had each independently reached a conclusion that science has increasingly backed up—that gratitude is not only spiritually beneficial, but it is also physically beneficial to our overall health. … A couple of weeks after our conversation where we each had sat in chairs designed for the little people who usually populate her PreK classroom, she gave me a copy of a gratitude Journal—a place where I might write down things that I am grateful for.  She inspired me to speak to you on this topic today.

The title of the journal is long…here it is… Okay Fine, I’m Grateful: A journal to catapult me from my default position of griping and negativity to the long-resisted stance of counting my blessings, because it turns out that focusing on the positive actually might be better for my mind, body, and spirit, in no small part because unhappiness is the gap between expectations and reality, so even though this whole gratitude thing feels like a bandwagon on the woo-woo train, the fact is that deep down I’m ready to start looking for the roses rather than the thorns, and if you absolutely force me to admit it, I will say that in all actually I do have very much to be grateful for.

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence attempts to capture the benefits of Gratitude:

“More than any other personality trait, gratitude is strongly linked to mental health and life satisfaction. Grateful people experience more joy, love, and enthusiasm, and they enjoy protection from destructive emotions like envy, greed, and bitterness. Gratitude also reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders, and it helps people entangled with those and other problems to heal and find closure. It can give you a deep and steadfast trust that goodness exists, even in the face of uncertainty or suffering. Not only is gratitude a warm and uplifting way to feel, it benefits the body as well. People who experience gratitude cope better with stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health, including lower blood pressure and better immune function. Unlike other positive emotions like hope and happiness, gratitude is inherently relational: it reaches past the person experiencing it and into the social realm. It is gratitude in large measure that inspires people to acts of kindness, since it’s natural to respond to gifts with heartfelt gifts of your own. And that strengthens your bonds with other people. Grateful people are rated by others as more helpful, outgoing, optimistic, and trustworthy. Grateful people are rated by others as more helpful, outgoing, optimistic, and trustworthy.”

St. George’s Independent School community this should be us—it should be all of us, and it certainly should be you, members of the Class of 2019.

As students at St. George’s you have learned to be analytical—you have analyzed math problems, literary texts, historical events, scientific challenges, and even game film after tough losses or great victories. As I see you here ready to graduate and ready to get on to what is next, ready to “commence,” I am not worried about whether or not you have learned to analyze things—you have, I know you have. I am, however, particularly interested in whether you have learned to be grateful. Gratitude is at the entryway of life paths that allow us to help make a better world—it allows us to recognize and appreciate what is good and want to play a part in creating more of it. Thus, gratitude is vital to understand and participate in things greater than ourselves alone.

As the Head of this school on this beautiful day, under this lovely tent with this large, happy group gathered here, I am grateful for many things, most obviously for the lives our Seniors have shared with us, but most importantly, for the lives of leadership and service they will lead in the years and decades to come. This class has already been hard at work in ways that indicate a willingness to put gratitude into action.

We can see expressions of gratitude through the service of Kaitlyn Bowman, who as 2019 Miss Memphis Iris Teen, visited schools across the Midsouth reading to children. Or through Tyler Wilson who has been an active volunteer with Best Buddies and the Special Olympics swim meet. Or though Laura Beard serving on the Memphis Youth Council and seeking to find ways to address the opioid crisis. Or though Alexis Bourdeau tutoring 2nd and 3rd graders weekly at Streets Ministries. Or though Attison Womack working with Room In The Inn and hosting a Room In The Inn night at the St. George’s Bunkhouse for homeless women. Or through Andrew Joyner volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse. Or though Mimi Young, Jensen Lewis, Katie Mullinix and Angie Heger committing themselves to imagine and lead toward a better world through their work as Bridge Builders. The class of 2019 is loaded with so many people making similar contributions that the students I mentioned are not at all unique within this class but instead they are representative of this class.

In my life at our school, I get to see the whole sweep of the St. George’s community—from Memphis and Germantown through Collierville, and as a result I am reminded every day of the stunning commitment our community of families make to St. George’s students and to our school. I witness the overwhelming nature of this truth most poignantly at the end of the year when we gather for so many performances and celebrations and ceremonies. This has led me to this conclusion: I believe our families do this in largest part out of gratitude for each of your lives and out of hope for what you will become. The fact that you are here, that you have been at St. George’s is evidence of gratitude and hope.

Members of the Class of 2019, what you have accomplished is impressive, but you didn’t do all this on your own—you have been carpooled, shepherded, corrected, celebrated, and challenged; you have been humbled, and you have been raised up. Your families have sacrificed for and loved you at every turn. Our school’s gratitude for your families runs deep and, in many cases, goes back many years. For a number of families, our specific gratitude goes back to when you were still small children wobbling uncertainly and sleepily down the hallways at Memphis and Germantown. Your families not only supported you but they have supported the school in remarkable ways—they have volunteered at book fairs, they have supported auctions and supported capital projects. They have served on the PA; they have provided us with guidance, and they have asked for our help. In short, they have made us a better school, and I am grateful because a school is an incomplete sentence too, one made up of a cohort of people seeking earnestly to do the best it can for the students it serves.

Expressing gratitude and taking action based on it may be the secret to completing our individual sentences, the secret to reaching our potential as children of God because it leads us to reach beyond ourselves and move toward lives of meaning and of contribution.

Class of 2019, my prayer for you is inspired by a couple of key lines from our school prayer. I pray that you will strive “to see [God’s] presence in those who are around [you] and that you will serve God and express gratitude through service to others as well as to things greater than yourself alone. Think of it this way: you can live longer, healthier, and happier if you count your blessings and seek to improve the lives of others—this sounds like the bargain of a lifetime to me.

All best, Class of 2019. And Godspeed. Thank you.

The author with Fourth Episcopal Bishop of West Tennessee, Phoebe Roaf; Rector of Holy Apostles Episcopal Church, John Leach; and St. George’s Independent School Chaplain, Jessica Abell

 

6 thoughts on “A Commencement Reflection on Gratitude: The Bargain of a Lifetime

  1. Barbara Fricke May 20, 2019 / 12:28 pm

    Congratulations Ross…well said!

  2. admiral17(RB) May 20, 2019 / 2:25 pm

    Ross, very nice. I suppose it resonates more powerfully with me at this point in my life than at earlier periods. It is gratitude for all the blessings of people, events, and things that keeps me fighting everyday and helps me stay positive.

    • J Ross Peters May 20, 2019 / 3:06 pm

      Thanks, Rick. I am looking forward to getting back on the phone when the smoke clears from the end of the school year. All best—

  3. ellieshumaker May 28, 2019 / 2:52 pm

    This is surely one of the finest graduation addresses I have ever heard. Mr. Peters communicates with such clarity, sincerity and depth of thought. How blessed are the children of St. George’s to be influenced by him!

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