Message to the Class of 2020

I was asked to record a message for the seniors graduating from Maggie Walker Governor’s School, but I think it is applicable to students everywhere — and, indeed, all of us. Hope you find it meaningful. Feel free to share with the graduates in your life!

Here’s the transcript:

I want to begin by expressing my gratitude for having been invited to share some thoughts with you as you and your families celebrate this extraordinary milestone. 

I know this is not the senior year or the graduation experience you envisioned. But difficult circumstances and trying times are so often also opportunities for the deepest learning and most profound growth, if we are willing to let them be. 

In that spirit, I want to share a story with you. It’s one of my favorite Jewish stories, written by my rabbinic forebears nearly two thousand years ago: 

It once happened that a group of travelers set out on a boat. As they drifted out into the middle of the sea, one of the passengers took out a drill, and started to drill beneath his seat. 

The other passengers begin to notice and ask, “What are you doing?” 

“I’m drilling a hole!” the man replies.

“Why are you drilling a hole?” the other passengers ask, incredulously.

“Why? Because it’s a nice day for drilling holes!”

As the passengers see the hole grow bigger and bigger, they began to cry and beg, “Please! Please, stop! You must stop! Don’t you see that you’re going to sink the boat?!”

The man was perplexed by their concerns. “Why are you so upset? After all, I’m only drilling under my own seat!”

Of course, we know that the driller’s attitude is absurd. If a hole is drilled in a boat, water will rush in, the boat will sink, and all the passengers will drown. Everyone is impacted, not just those near the hole. When we’re all in the same boat, it doesn’t matter if a hole is made only under one person’s seat, only in one part of the boat. One person’s problem is in reality everyone’s problem. 

Why does this story matter? Why am I sharing it with you as you stand at the cusp of your high school graduation? Because the truth at the core of this story applies not only to boats, but also to our world. Though it sometimes might seem that we occupy a relatively small and insignificant place in a large world, that our lives do not touch people on the other side of Richmond, much less on the other side of the planet, the truth is that, in actuality, we are all in the same boat. 

It has always been true that everyone and everything on our planet is deeply intertwined. But in our time, the fact of our interconnectedness has become even more inescapable. A little more than a decade ago, Barack Obama, who at that point was a presidential candidate, reminded a crowd in Germany that “the 21st [century] has revealed a world more intertwined than at any time in human history.” To support that claim, Obama offered some powerful and compelling evidence:

The terrorists of September 11th plotted in Hamburg and trained in Kandahar and Karachi before killing thousands from all over the globe on American soil.

As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.

Poorly secured nuclear material in the former Soviet Union, or secrets from a scientist in Pakistan could help build a bomb that detonates in Paris. The poppies in Afghanistan become the heroin in Berlin. The poverty and violence in Somalia breeds the terror of tomorrow. The genocide in Darfur shames the conscience of us all.

Obama’s words have stayed with me over the years as I have seen their truth continue to play out in the unfolding drama of our time. Each passing day seems to reveal more and more how our world is totally intertwined, how we are all connected in infinite and immeasurable ways. We see how poverty doesn’t only impact the poor, how racism doesn’t only impact people of color, how Islamophobia doesn’t only impact Muslims, how antisemitism doesn’t only impact Jews, how homophobia and transphobia don’t only impact LGBT individuals. We see how war and suffering halfway across the world cannot be contained by borders or walls or oceans, how conflict in Syria and Iraq can erupt in Paris and Brussels, in San Bernardino and Orlando, how industrial production in the American midwest can strengthen storms and decimate communities in the global south, how the murder in broad daylight of an unarmed black man by a police officer in Minneapolis can topple Confederate monuments in Richmond.

We see too how a previously unknown virus can infect one person in China, and, within just a few months, can leave hundreds of thousands of people dead the world over; how ignorance, negligence, and incompetence in a capital city can endanger, impoverish, and kill people in the countryside; how those of us privileged enough to shelter in place depend on low-wage farmhands, warehouse workers, truckers, shelf-stockers and Instacart shoppers everywhere to literally put their lives at risk so that we can have stocked pantries and refrigerators; how the world effectively stops spinning the moment schools and childcare centers close. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1963, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” And because of this truth, King reminded us that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When anyone anywhere is oppressed, we all suffer, everywhere; and conversely, our welfare depends on everyone’s liberation.

Graduates, this is the world you are inheriting. This is the world you enter into as young adults, a world that this disruptive and destructive pandemic revealed for what it truly is: An interconnected and interdependent world. A world in which our words and our deeds can have broad and unpredictable impact, for good or ill. A world in which our failing to step up, speak out, or take action can have dire consequences in places you’ve never been to or even heard of. 

In fact, what we don’t do can matter as much as what we do. Apathy can do as much harm as caring about the wrong things, and having concern for others beside and different from ourselves can do extraordinary good. As the modern sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we do — everyone — our share to redeem the world, in spite of all absurdities, and all the frustrations, and all the disappointment.”

Living in this connected world calls for lives of responsibility: responsibility for each other, responsibility for the other, responsibility for our entire planet. It’s not enough to look out for ourselves and to take care only of those closest to us. We must expand our spheres of concern and compassion.

This is especially important because even though we may all be in the same boat, every passenger will not experience stormy seas equally. Those who have historically been forced to ride in steerage — poor people and people of color, especially — are far more likely to drown when the ship starts sinking than those of us who are privileged to hold a first-class ticket. But, for good and for ill, the actions of those who live in the upper levels inevitably impact those who live below deck; and conversely when a person in steerage drowns, even those in first-class are, at least morally speaking, diminished. 

Therefore, we all must pay attention, especially those of us who occupy space on this shared ship less vulnerable to punishing gales and invisable icebergs. We must care about what’s going on and get involved, even if the issues don’t directly impact us. As the Book of Deuteronomy teaches, “You must not look away.” We cannot avert our eyes from injustice and act as though it isn’t our problem. In an interconnected world, someone else’s problem is your problem, too. 

Ultimately, we are all of us, the entire human family, in the same boat. I cannot promise you that it will always be smooth sailing. But I do know that you, class of 2020, you have the power to keep it afloat, you have the power to keep our course true. And if you do, you will play your part in helping us all make it to the Promised Land, a world of compassion, justice, and peace. Congratulations, and may God bless you all on the journey.

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