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Service to others gives meaning to life

Published May 28, 2003

Well, that time of the year has rolled around again: the commencement season, when newly minted graduates are jettisoned into the real world of labor, when mom and dad and that reliable Rich Uncle stop sending checks.

Last year, I spoke at two universities and to the senior class of a private high school. This year, I have the honor of addressing a university class. I think I was invited to speak not because of the profundity of my message but because word is out that I never speak for more than 15 minutes and that I perform free of charge.

Similar to comments of two years ago, here is the gist of what I shall say this weekend:

In addition to striving to achieve personal success, go out and serve others. By service to others, I do not mean quid pro quo - doing a deed in return for an equal or similar deed. I am talking about unselfish kindness and generosity, acts that validate your good fortune, that give meaning to your lives and, above all, that sustain and dignify the lives of others.

In this regard, no positive acts are insignificant, and no person in need of assistance is too lowly for your time and attention.

Unselfish service is marked by humility, a hard-to-find trait in this age of egoism, so-called individualism and incivility. More often than not, too many of us are guilty of the latter.

I found some of the best advice about service in the words of George Rupp, then-president of Columbia University, when he spoke to graduates several years ago. He encouraged them to become committed community volunteers, to try to comprehend "the need to revitalize our common life as a necessary part of individualism."

In short, the life of the community and individualism need not be mutually exclusive.

Rupp's view complements the wisdom expressed by Dot Richardson, an orthopedic surgeon and the Olympic softball gold medalist who asked graduates not to squander the "moments in our lives when we will be given the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others."

After winning her medal, she brought it to the children's hospital in Los Angeles where she worked and placed it around the neck of each child there, some of whom had undergone brain surgery.

Why did Richardson perform this act of kindness? "I wanted to make sure every one of those kids got to wear that medal," she said. This simple act lies at the core of what makes humans human.

As a father and grandfather and a citizen of this great country, one of my biggest concerns is the increasing strife and indifference among young people of various races, ethnic groups and religions. Here again, service is important. As you enter the workplace as professionals, routinely reach out in kindness and understanding to people unlike yourself.

Do not simply chat with others around the water cooler or coffee urn. If you are white, find time to regularly have dinner with colleagues of other ethnicities. If you are African-American, invite colleagues of different ethnic backgrounds to explore new areas of your rich cultural, social and historical life.

These efforts, too, are part of community service, for they foster enlightenment, civility and democratic values. The workplace, then, should be treated as an extension of community life, which includes our churches, our civic organizations, our neighborhood sports teams. Be vigilant, always searching for ways to share your good fortune.

Whether you know it or not, you are privileged people. You are graduating from a fine school, with a degree that will open doors. As privileged people, you have a moral obligation to serve others. Merely accumulating wealth is not enough. You have an obligation to invent, to produce, to create, to deliver goods and services that make life better for the greatest number of people.

If you have been blessed with a brilliant mind, you should use it for good. You have an obligation to teach others. What, for example, can you do to help feed hungry people? To find cures for the world's fatal diseases? If you become a lawyer, will you regularly work pro bono for the poor? Establish a foundation that will empower children from low-income families to attend college. Tutor children in your spare time. Help illiterate adults learn to read or help them fill out legal documents necessary for daily living.

So, I say this to you: If you go into the world and serve others, you will give meaning to life itself. You will fulfill our purpose for being on planet Earth.

Remember that service to others ennobles us. It gives us moral authority. This is my simple advice to you. Good luck and use your good fortune to serve others.

[Last modified May 28, 2003, 02:30:28]

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