Most of those in the high-school graduating class I was addressing on that night would not, I knew, be going on to college. Some might attend a business or vocational school. But the majority would begin job hunting in a week.
I felt this was not the occasion for one of those "the future of the world is in your hands" commencement speeches. Yet even if these graduates were not in a position to change the world through academies, a even greater opportunity lay before them.
Thoreau put it best. The 19th century American writer said "To change the quality of a day - that is the highest of the arts."
Maybe it is good to aim high in life and have lofty goals. Maybe we need to have our sights raised to great possibilities for the future.
But there is something we need even more: to see the possibilities in each 24-hour day in our life. It is easy to sit and dream of the future. But to change the quality of a day - that takes an extraordinary person. Yet anybody, regardless of background or IQ, can do it.
I decided to tell these graduates sitting before me what a wonderful opportunity was theirs if they would remember just three things:
There is something greater than greatness.
People who aspire to greatness can become blind to the fact that greatness isn't the greatest thing in the world. It may change the world, but it seldom changes the quality of a day.
Goodness is one of those things that is greater than greatness. When we think of the people who have meant the most to us, we are ready to admit they have not been the most successful, or the best-read, or the wittiest, or the best conversationalists.
Certainly they might not be, for the most part, people whom the world would call great. Yet we wouldn't trade them for all the great people in the world, because they are the ones who have brighten the days of our lives. They are good people who cared. We can strive to be like them.
Little things mean a lot.
Little things like kindness and patience and honesty. Little things like saying "I love you" - three little words that have changed the quality of more days than any others. One of the reasons so many marriages fail today - or fail to be what they might be - is that we have forgotten to say those three little words.
Someone is watching you every day of your life, taking notice of the way you live.
From what other people see in you (and in others), they put together a life of their own. If our outlook and behavior are attractive, others will tend to incorporate those qualities into their lives.
It also works the other way. When I was serving as a foreman on a grand jury, I heard criminal cases that involved people who saw nothing but crime and degradation all day long, every day. And from what they saw, they put together a life of their own that turned out to be, unfortunately, very much like what they saw around them.
By this time in my speech, I was hoping that my young audience was getting my drift - that, while it might be out of their power to change the world, it was very much in their power to change the quality in a day.
That, when we stop to think about it, may be the best way to change the world.
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