Lessons Lived: Go Big, Get Out, Ask Why and Say Thanks
Rachel Martin ’96, Doctor of Humane Letters
Host, Weekend Edition, National Public Radio
President Thomas… members of the Board of Trustees… administration and faculty, my fellow honorees, families, and, of course, members of the Class of 2014.
I’m so pleased and honored to be able to share this special day with you.
It’s a big deal to get asked to do a commencement speech, especially at your alma mater - it’s like a homecoming of sorts - a reunion with old professors and friends. And like all reunions, you want to look your best - in fighting form right? - vibrant, full of energy, hopefully having shed the 15 pounds you gained from eating pizza and milkshakes in the Cellar several times a week your freshmen year - not that I did that.
Or if one were to be asked to give a commencement address at one’s alma mater - you can do the opposite - and just show up 8 and a half months pregnant. Nothing like being asked by the UPS commencement officials what size I need for my gown.
Just fyi: graduation gowns do not come in maternity sizes.
In any event, here I am, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Maybe early labor but barring that, really nothing. And, given my condition it’s only appropriate that I start by acknowledging and thanking all the parents and families and friends out there … your love and support helped make this day possible. That goes for my own friends and family here today. My gratitude and love run deeper than you know.
And, of course, congratulations to the class of 2014. You have worked hard and prepared well… and you’re ready for whatever might come next.
I know this because I know what a UPS education gives you… maybe not all the answers to life’s questions, but the tools to help you pursue those answers. I loved my time here. I grew up here in a lot of important ways. And I had experiences here that indelibly shaped the path I ended up taking - and the person I would become. For that I am deeply grateful to the school, this community and the unique opportunity all of us have had to be a part of it.
Today though, I want to share with you a few lessons I learned in earnest only AFTER I graduated. The first is perspective.
Not that I didn’t take classes or learn while at UPS to value other perspectives. And I did meet people here who changed me and how I saw the world.
But as most lessons - you have to live it to truly learn it.
It was the summer of 2003. I was on an airplane from Dubai to Kabul Afghanistan. The Taliban had been overthrown, US and international forces were still involved in an active counter insurgency mission but most of the military and the world’s attention had shifted to Iraq. That meant most of the journalists had left too for the bigger story then unfolding in Baghdad. So I was going to Kabul to try my hand as a foreign correspondent.
The flight from New York to Dubai had been great - I was doing something I thought was important - I was going places not a lot of Western journalists had been at that point. I was watching free movies and drinking complimentary cabernet - it was great!
And then, on the flight from Dubai to Kabul, as the wine wore off, reality started to sink in. Who did I think I was, doing this. What experience did I have? What in the world qualified me to report on this war? I would learn later that sometimes showing up is 90 percent of overcoming a challenge.
So to state the obvious – Living in a war zone is challenging. There are random explosions in the night and the day for that matter. Suicide attacks were ramping up. There were more close calls than I care to remember. Once, rockets hit the house next door, killing my neighbor. But the Afghans I met had been facing risk like this for decades at that point. And yet, I was amazed, every day, by their extraordinary resiliency. They were generous and kind and they kept living their lives, truly always believing in a better future.
I returned to Afghanistan later that same summer. This time on a European media training program. I had been hired to go around the country and teach Afghan journalists how to cover news. I took it seriously. Wrote up an entire curriculum. My Afghan friend and translator Barry Salaam and I were supposed to travel around Afghanistan to give this presentation to journalists. But it became painfully clear on our firt trip to Jalalabad that what I was doing was at best premature and at worst, a complete joke. The worst example of foreign aid gone wrong. After the journalists listened politely to me talk about the need for things like objectivity and balance in reporting – one of them told me that the governor of the province just sends over a daily propaganda video and that’s what they are supposed to air over the tv and radio for the evening news. Objectivity? Balance? Not going to happen. Not even an option. The journalists were just trying to stay alive and feed their families.
I would return to Afghanistan several times over the next few years - and developed deep friendships with Afghans that continue to this day. A few weeks ago I wrote to one of my friends - that same man Barry Salaam. He had recently lost his friend - a journalist who was killed along with his wife and two of his three children. You may have read about it in the news - Taliban gunmen, just teenagers, attacked patrons at a local hotel restaurant. I had written my friend to find out how he was doing and this is part of his reply:
“We are still alive,” he wrote, "but it is always about being at a wrong place at a wrong time. These days we are going out to protest on the streets and giving anti-Taliban and anti-government slogans because it would be cowardly of us to see two kids executed along with their parents and say nothing….”
As an outsider in this place or an American back here at home watching events unfold in the news - the situation in Afghanistan can seem hopeless, a lost cause. Perhaps as I have heard others say, Afghans don’t value life in the same way we do - that perhaps they are accustomed to war and random violence. They’re reaping what they have sown.
But the truth is that Afghanistan is full of people just trying to carve out their place in the world - to raise their kids, give them opportunities - to be free to express themselves and to build a better life. These are not uniquely American traits - these are universals. And getting outside yourself - getting a different perspective on the world teaches you really quick that we ARE ALL more alike than we are different.
You’ve heard it before I’m sure - I certainly did while I was here. Experience another culture - go travel - broaden your horizons.
But it’s not just about getting better stories to tell your friends - better adventures - it’s about breaking down your assumptions about how the world works and how you think some people or cultures operate. The thing about our assumptions - and we all have them - is that they’re baked into us… and sometimes we don’t even know they’re there until we expose ourselves to new ideas and face our assumptions head on… provoke them, test them, maybe discard them. But the first step is to understand they exist.
Afghanistan wasn’t just a story to be covered to give me a leg up professionally, which was my going in assumption. And a new Afghan free press was not suddenly going to emerge because I taught some lessons on objectivity. The reporters I worked with in Afghanistan could only dream about holding their political leaders accountable in a real way, or just to be able to access information like we can.
Which brings me to my second point about perspective: You as a consumer of news have more choices than ever. That’s a good thing - but it also comes with a responsibility. You simply can’t listen to, watch, or read ONE source of news and call yourself an informed citizen. (Unless that is you listen to NPR). I know it takes time - and none of us has a lot to spare. But before you make up your mind about an issue and that becomes dogma to you - something you repeat and never question - make sure you’ve done your homework.
We all live in this amazing country together and perhaps it’s because I live in DC but I feel a really stark division rooted in partisanship right now. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean that person is evil or immoral or intellectually lazy or an idealogue. It means they have had a different set of experiences that have shaped them. Try to understand where they’re coming from. Perspective can be an awfully powerful ally.
So that’s the first idea I want to share with you that of perspective - the second is a little schmaltzier. And at the risk of sounding like a greeting card I’m going to share it with you anyway because it’s something I’ve learned over time and I wish I had a better grip on it when I was your age.
And that is that - Happiness is not something you awaken to, or create or even strive for - Happiness - I believe, is a Choice.
The happiest people I have known have all had a deep ability to see joy where it’s hard to find. We often think about the joys and pains of life happening in cycles - we talk about them as ups and downs right - like a rollercoaster. Highs and lows. But my mom told me once that she saw it differently. It’s like train tracks she said, each side represents either joy or pain...and we ride them simultaneously. There is no such thing as I’ll be happy when I just get over this one obstacle - when I get the right internship or job, when I get the right relationship, when I lose 10 pounds, when I have this much in the bank. Because there will always be something else.
The key is to make the decision to lean a little heavier on that joy track.
To mix metaphors which I’m sure is making my UPS English professor cringe a little but indulge me here - to me it’s like skiing… because when you lean further on one side, that becomes your compass - that becomes the direction you will go. So choose to lean in the direction of joy….
My mom was really good at this.
You could give her a stick for Christmas and she would see beauty in it, make up a story about where it came from - the birds it probably housed at one point, what famous art sculpture it reminded her of - what personality it might have - and then display it prominently in our home. I made a thing once in my UPS pottery class - I say a thing because I’m not sure what it was - a platter, a bowl, maybe a spitoon - I have no idea. but i gave it to my mom and all of a sudden - BOOM - it was art. She took my lame pottery thing and used it to collect memories. rocks, shells, small pieces of driftwood she would find at every beach she would go to. She turned my lame pottery thing into something beautiful. That was my mom - seeing beauty in the unexpected.
That got harder with cancer and then it got easier with cancer.
At first she grieved - because - that’s what you do when you get a terminal diagnosis. That is by all counts the NORMAL response.
And then something changed. She started to lean as hard as she could into the joyful parts of her life. My mom practiced appreciation like you would practice yoga or soccer or making a great loaf of bread. It was a daily exercise, that centered around giving as much as possible to others.
There are a few of these big moments in life - these crossroads, decisions points, when you have to choose where to go next. Not all of them are life and death - most aren’t frankly. But they are milestones that help shape the people we’re going to become.
You are definitely at one today. But what I learned from my mom - and what I hope you remember long after you leave UPS - is that HOW to choose to move forward is as important as WHERE you choose to go.
And the thing is, it’s ALL going to work out - it really is - you make decisions - you change your expectations, you make a plan and then you change the plan. But you get to write the script. No one else.
Which brings me back to where I started. Turns out, I wasn’t cut out to be a foreign correspondent. For several years that was my dream. The life I imagined - the life I thought I wanted. That was my plan.
But the work wasn’t a good fit for me. Too much time alone. Too far from family. Too unpredictable and yes, sometimes far too grim.
To make a change, you first have to accept the changes happening within you.
And once I did that, once I was honest with myself about what I wanted, a whole new world of opportunities opened up. Today, I get to host a national radio show and it is truly my dream job – I just didn’t know it until I opened my eyes.
As you get ready to take the next step in YOUR lives - whatever that step may be - my wish for you is that you never shy away from making bold choices. That you push away from what’s comfortable. You will meet people who will CHANGE you and how you see the world. Let them in.
Perspective matters. Look for ways to stretch yours in different directions - seek out those who are different from you – seek out the unfamiliar. It will make you stronger than you thought you were and maybe more understanding of people who have made different choices in their lives.
That socially elevated spitoon I gave my mom - it’s now in my house - still full of her rocks and shells - HER happiness choices. Today I spend a lot of time trying to keep that thing out of my 2 year old’s reach. But it’s a reminder to me that there is indeed beauty in every corner – if you take the time to look.
When it seems life is pushing you into a painful place - push back - lean into the joy - see it in others around you and it will grow in your own life - and it will take you wherever you want to go.
CHOOSE your happiness.
And to the University of Puget Sound Class of 2014 - my most heartfelt congratulations. Thank you for letting me be part of this moment. You’re on your way...
A Blank Sheet of Paper
Congratulations Puget Sound Class of 2014!! Yesterday was amazing. As crazy and rainy as it was, I am so thankful to have those memories to look back on. I wouldn’t have wanted to share that day with anyone else, anywhere else. Also, thank you to the parents, family, friends, faculty and staff who stuck it out with the gradates! Because of the monsoon like rain made it hard to hear the portion of my speech I was able to give, (and I didn’t get to finish) I wanted to record a version of it, and share it with all of you. Thank you so much for listening, and again, Congrats! Listen to Haley's speech.
Thank you President Thomas for the kind introduction. First of all, I would like to say Congratulations Class of 2014! And thank you to all of you who here celebrating with us today. It is an incredible honor and opportunity to be speaking to you today. I would be passing up an even bigger opportunity if I did not take a moment to document this with a selfie. So, would you all say cheese!
Now, as the program tells you, my speech is titled “A Blank Sheet of Paper.” And that’s just what my speech is, I’m going to wing it! … I’m just kidding; I promise you there are words on this page! Just give me a couple of minutes to set the scene, and this will all make sense.
The phenomenologist, Erwin Straus, once described walking as, “continuously arrested falling.” Now, Straus’ metaphor relies on English, which many of us know is a horribly limited language. So although Straus’ language privileges those that are physically able to walk, the ideas he is getting at are ones applicable to all types of movement through space.
“Continuously arrested falling” suggests that as we move, we are participants in an act in which we are repeatedly thrown off balance, are about to fall, but then catch ourselves, and advance. After I first read that quote last fall, I loved how it was strangely frightening, but at the same time hopeful.
For the next week, I thought about Straus’ metaphor as I walked from class to class, aware of each step that I took. Eventually, with the influx of thoughts that come with being a student here at Puget Sound: coffee, rain, readings, more coffee, sun!, papers, more rain… Straus’ quote faded away. But this year, thinking about this weekend, where the act of walking and moving on hold so much significance, Straus and his idea of movement as continuously arrested falling resurfaced to the forefront of my mind.
As a graduating class, we have all traversed our familiar Commencement walk, up to Baker Stadium. This is a path I am sure each of us has taken too many times to count. But today, in walking to graduation, preparing to depart from the comfort that rests in a place we have called home for the past four years, we are all throwing ourselves into a state of continuously arresting falling, that will last for the rest of our lives.
Like I said, strangely frightening.
But it is not all scary; remember how I said there is also hope? The falling that Straus speaks of is arrested; it stops, we are the ones who stop it. As a class we have already proved ourselves capable of continuously arresting our falls. We have defied expectations and dazzled audiences by putting on magic shows with the Wiz, supported our peers who have felt powerless with groups like Peer Allies, danced like we never had before at RDG, and fought for a cure over countless miles during Relay for Life.
So, you see, we have arrested our falls before. But today is just as much about the future as it is the past. How can I be so sure that our future will be just as bright? The work of artist Stanley Brouwn explains why I am so hopeful.
Fascinated by travel and movement through space, Brouwn’s work revolved around interacting with and observing people. In his most well known body of work, Brouwn approached random people on the street, asking them to draw a map from one location to another on a blank piece of paper. Brouwn was cataloging an extensive collection of the incredible creative differences between minds; differences in how we record our movement through space. Unbeknownst to the person, their small, scribbled map was the art.
Brouwn catalogued these maps because he believed that anyone could be an artist, despite peoples’ reservations. He saw potential, worth and value in even the simplest scribbles on a blank page. In times where we too, have failed to see our own abilities, our parents, friends, professors, and countless others have provided us with the tools to express our ideas, move through the spaces ahead of us, and succeed.
Those people, along with our education here at Puget Sound, have acted for each student as Brouwn did for those on the street: as a blank sheet of paper; as a catalyst for expression. In our time on this campus, we have been asked questions, put into situations, and presented with blank pages for us to do with what we wish.
Our lives as students, no matter what major, have revolved around blank pieces of paper - and I’m not just talking about Print Green points. As a class we have transformed blank pieces of paper into published poems, critical analyses of power sharing agreements following political crises, one of a kind ceramic mugs, research on the optimal control for fishery management, original a capella arrangements, and genetically mutated tomato plants. Some of us have transformed these pages into goals and touchdowns, adventures and laughter.
Okay, I got a little graduation-speech-cliché-carried-away in that last bit, but I couldn’t help myself; it’s pretty remarkable when you think about the transformations we have created. Brown may have asked people to draw on blank pages, but those transformations, like the ones we have made, were what Brouwn was really cataloging: Infinite maps, movements through space, arrested falls, and ways in which we see the world.
This possibility for infinite number of maps is why I am so hopeful about moving forward. But I know I must also be realistic. While today is time to celebrate our transformations and successes, I think it is important to remember that we have, and undoubtedly will fall. In these moments where we do, we must remember those maps we have already made and those who have helped us make them. We must remember that we are all artists, thinkers, and experimenters, capable of more than we are aware of. Although, on this day we have begun a lifetime of continuously arrested falling, using what we have learned here, I am confident that when we fall, we will pick ourselves up, and keep moving. That movement may be backwards, to the side, or forward; it may be fast or slow; the point is that we are moving, making new maps and actively engaging with the spaces around us.
In a few minutes, we will all be handed our diplomas. Now I don’t mean to ruin the surprise, but what we are actually getting are blank sheets of paper… See, I told you it would all make sense. These blank sheets are placeholders for the embellished cardstock to come in the mail. This may all sound disappointing, but what we are about to receive are better than diplomas. They are blank pages of our own design. Today is the last time this place and these people will hand us a blank sheet of paper and ask us to make a map. Take that in.
At this moment, we might not know how to draw a map from here to there; we might not know where “there” is. But that’s okay. We know how to move through spaces - we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. Take the blank piece of paper, color outside the lines; rip it up and start over if you want to. And remember in times where you fall, there is always potential, worth and value in the simplest scribbles.
Congratulations class of 2014! I can’t wait to see the maps we make.