My commencement speech to the graduating class of Basis Chandler

On May 23, 2017 I delivered this commencement speech to the graduating class of  Basis Chandler, a charter school populated by impressively high achieving students. It is a speech specifically geared to that graduating class, but I hope there may be a few provocative thoughts for all.

Graduates, parents, relatives, faculty, friends of the school and friends of the graduates.

Bless me Class of 2017, I am angry. I am angry at what we have become in this country.

I am angry that unfeeling airlines are tossing families off airplanes because they can’t figure out how to move their own staff around the country.

I am angry that loud, irrational pundits, on the right and the left are spouting outrageous vitriol with no regard for facts or sensitivity.

And, I am angry when callous congressmen say things like, ”Nobody dies because they don’t have health care.”

I am angry because it seems compassion is dying. Heather Figallo, the Customer Experience and Innovation chief of Southwest Airlines recently said in a private conference, “the clinical definition of compassion is I feel another’s suffering and I have the ability to alleviate it.”

This country used to care about the least of our brethren, now, not so much. So many people seem to care about nothing beyond themselves. Everything is focused on me, me, me. Self-interest dominates our thinking.

And even worse, so many people seem to be drawing into themselves. Several times in the last several weeks I have heard people say, “The world’s problems are too big, I can’t affect them so I don’t care.”

That is absolute rubbish. It may well be true that you can’t figure out what to do about North Korea, or health care or race relations, but each one of us can make a difference in this world if we look out and not in.

We can commit random acts of kindness. We can put together bags of food for the homeless. We can clean up the park. We can do countless things to make our world better and each kind act we do changes attitudes about those big issues.

As I prepared for tonight’s speech my anger started to subside and my normal positive peachy-keen attitude started to reappear because of this very graduating class.

You see, about three months ago I sat down with six of the graduates who are in the hall tonight. It was a delightful and educational conversation. It became apparent that this class is incredibly bright, completely driven and precociously attuned to critical thinking. But you all knew that.

Something bigger caught me by surprise. I asked the students what they would talk about if they were giving the graduation speech. To a person, those graduating seniors said they would discuss the remarkable four years they have spent with their classmates. They talked of their camaraderie, their empathy for each other and the genuine bonding they have experienced despite the built-in diversity of this school.

I admit my first reaction to that universally held belief of the students was a bit of disdain. I am not a nostalgic fellow. I think wishing for yesterday is a futile and even phony search akin to dreaming of rainbow stew.

However, as I reflected, I started to think about the students’ desire to celebrate their close-knit class in the context of history. I love history that teaches. My favorite author is a man named Steven Johnson who studies history to understand what is worth replicating in innovation and creativity. His brilliance illuminates new paths forward.

When these students told me of their bond with other students, their cherished memories of coming together to learn and achieve and their recognition that each person has value, they were telling me that the most important thing they have learned at Chandler Basis was the power of community.

That lesson can save our fragmented society and guarantee individual and professional success.

Community is what we are lacking in America today and yet Community is what those students were valuing so deeply.

The students who talked to me spoke of how the gauntlet of high school at an academically challenging place was so much easier because students were close. Students worried about one another. Students easily moved from one group to another because the differences were small.

It was obvious to me the students felt incredibly supported by faculty and parents. It was just as obvious these particular students trusted other students because everybody is smart and everybody has basic confidence in their own abilities.

I believe, based on the students I talked to, that the Basis Chandler class of 2017 has learned the fundamentals of real community.

In real community, the group interest triumphs over individual interest.

In real community, the shared struggle creates an unbreakable bond outsiders cannot break.

In real community members find joy and victory only when everyone succeeds.

In real community the individual does well, but not at the expense of others, all boats can rise when my boat rises.

It is truly remarkable that a graduating class has discovered such a strong sense of community. It is a treasure beyond words.

Abraham Lincoln closed his inaugural address with these words which should speak volumes to us today: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

My charge to you is simple and clear. Leave tonight and pursue that same sense of community in the world you are going to encounter.

Don’t make it all about you. Make it about us.

Use the community building skills you have learned in the class of 2017 to build small, powerful communities wherever you go. Communities that will show compassion for those who struggle. Communities that truly make a difference because of the common bonds the community embraces.

Treasure your four years here at Basis Chandler Basis but never, never forget the power of community you learned here.

Let the better angels of your nature flourish.

 

Some random observations

Some things that have intrigued, angered or pleased me.

  • I hate cancer and its ravages so much, I feel sometimes as if I could punch it in the face.
  • A lot of ink has been spilled complaining  about United Airlines and its fiasco with Dr. David Dao. Focus on the fact that this reprehensible incident would not occur if United had put their customer’s interests before their internal needs. Too few American businesses today focus on maximizing their customer’s experiences because it is easier for them to make their own internal systems or processes serve the bottom line. When you read today that another government regulation has bit the dust, ask yourself if that move will improve your life as a consumer. Unlikely.
  • I know people who refuse to give a few bucks to a homeless person because they say they fear funding an alcohol or drug problem. How about this? You could buy a bunch of $5 McDonald gift certificates and hand those out. Or if you want to take an extra step, hand out “kindness bags” to the homeless folks asking for money. Simply buy some bags and put in a juice box or two, beef jerky, instant soup, a can of tuna and some protein bars. Needy people get real food and you have shared your gifts.
  • I get frustrated by a lot of things, but I still find myself happiest when I find the good in things and concentrate on gratitude.
  • It amuses me when I hear someone say, “That is hysterical” and they barely crack a smile. If it’s really hysterical, shouldn’t they be rolling on the floor?
  • I have seriously wondered if coffee shops would make more money if they gave away the coffee and took a percentage of all the deals conducted in their space.
  • I hate the fact that I need to approach Google with such a cautious “buyer-beware” attitude.  I like a business called Phoenix Flower Shops because  of its customer service, high quality and it is local. But when I Google Phoenix flowers  I get four listings and Phoenix Flower Shops is not the first. Other companies try to slide in on Phoenix Flower Shops brands. I know it’s my fault if I mess up and do business with one of the pretenders. It still ticks me off.
  • I have decided one of the keys to enjoying retirement is to avoid thinking about what you are not doing and focus on all the good you did before you retired. And, maybe some of the screw-ups too.
  • A few weeks ago I found myself crying when a friend completed a major accomplishment. Tears of joy over another person’s triumph are warm and gooey and probably a sign that maturity may await just around the corner.
  • A good sandwich of one of life’s most underrated gifts.

Steve Buttry lived a wonderful life and he lived a great death

Steve Buttry lived a fascinating life. His death a few weeks ago was tragic and sad as all deaths are, especially to the family who loved him, and to the many people who called him friend. His death was also intriguing, instructive and  provocative. Provocative, because I think Steve did a great and powerful good with how he LIVED death.

Steve and I considered each other dear friends even though we were actually together less than a dozen times. Our friendship was fueled by the digital age. We grew close through blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Our bond became strong.

I deeply respected Steve’s determined efforts to move the stodgy newspaper industry into the 21st Century. He was outspoken when he needed to be. To my delight he tilted at more than a few windmills and he passionately cared for journalism. He did all that with unerring kindness, concern and attention to people’s feelings and emotions.

To be candid, I was lucky that Steve said nice things about me and my book in his compelling blog and in private forums. Steve and I had a comfortable mutual admiration society.

You don’t have to take my word about Steve’s successes and his impact. This salute from a student editor is heartwarming. Wonderful tributes are  here, here and here. And this incredible collection of salutes should tell you everything you need to know about Steve and his professional and human contributions.

Assuming I have established how well Steve lived an extraordinary life, let me travel the road less traveled (Steve would expect nothing less of me) and talk about what I find the intriguing and instructive part.

Steve was a deep believer in transparency before he got sick so it was unsurprising that when he faced his third bout with cancer he discussed it openly on Caring Bridge, Facebook and on his excellent blog. Steve especially impressed me with his constant gratitude for his life, his loves, his experiences and his friends. He eloquently wrote about all the gifts he received since he survived his first two cancers. His omnipresent optimism also fueled that particular blog.

The striking thing about Steve’s path to his death was his amazing commitment to his relationships. His devoted, funny and strong wife Mimi could never have doubted Steve’s love, and her love for him shone like a guiding star.

Last August, Steve and I shared breakfast at a suburban hotel outside Minneapolis. We both knew his path was growing short and I brought the relatively fresh scars of my late wife’s death to the table. We both shot straight and hid nothing. Before Mimi joined us, Steve told me he was spending a great deal of time writing letters to his three sons and Mimi. These were not dashed-off letters. They were comprehensive stories about the family, his interaction with each of them and reflections on his deep love for each of them.

Steve did the same for his friends with far greater brevity. A few weeks ago I received a delightful two paragraph letter from Steve thanking me for being his friend. Apparently several other friends received similar notes. My note thanked me for what I had done for him, wished we had known each other better and concluded with some nice compliments.

Now to the provocative part. Here is how Steve began that note. “I’d rather die suddenly, but a slow death does let you leave with less unsaid, so I am writing letters to some friends.” I responded with this:

Thank you for your brilliant and kind letter. Writing these took guts.

I was a little surprised that you said you would prefer to die suddenly. From afar it seems to me you are LIVING a perfect death.

Colleagues and friends have been able to honor you in several different ways. You had a wonderful opportunity to share with and embrace your family and your devoted wife.

I think I have told you that the greatest thing my Dad ever taught me was how to die. Well, friend you are my new model. Your transparency, your courage and your integrity are fantastic examples for all of us.

Now that gentle Steve has passed there is a small tinge of regret for telling him how he ought to feel, but it is a small tinge.

As I said in the first paragraph, I think Steve did a great and powerful good with how he LIVED death. I wanted him to realize that, in my view, he accomplished so much with that death.

Steve has left us with three instructive lessons.

He fashioned a model of strength that any and all of us should strive to follow. His courage, his candor, his attention to to others and his selflessness set a standard that I pray I can match when the time comes.

He allowed people to honor him. LSU’s Manship school honored him with a scholarship in his name, and he was awarded a Chairman’s Citation from the National Press Foundation in 2017. Certainly those honors should have pleased Steve, but they also allowed so many givers to formally thank him for his great contributions.

Steve taught us to attend to relationships in an intimate and professional way. His wife, his sons and his friends are not going to forget his final communications.

I remain surprised by Steve’s wish for a more sudden death. I have a dear friend who lost his wife about five years ago. Dan Untiedt;s  wife Ginny’s car  inexplicably hit a tree and she died suddenly. Dan was incredibly distraught and dearly wished he would have had some time with Ginny before she died as I had with my wife before she passed three years later.

I told Dan shortly after my wife died, that a sudden death is horrible, awful and terrible. I also told him a lingering death is horrible, awful and terrible. They are simply different.

Steve Buttry’s slow death must have been painful, horrible, awful, terrible and a loathsome burden. But for my money one of his many legacies will be the great lessons he taught us with the way he died.

God bless Steve Buttry’s soul and his outstanding family.

 

Kindness in Zurich is just like kindness can be at home

I don’t even know the name of the kindest woman I have met in a long time.

Zurich is a tale of two cities. It is the modern banking center portrayed in books and articles. It is also a baffling medieval town that feels more like a rabbit warren than a modern, hip city.

Fondue makes Zurich proud and we were told of an excellent, traditional restaurant the Old Town area. Our taxi driver was not so nice and kind. He dropped us off on a main street and pointed into the confusing tangle of streets and said, “It’s in there.”

We assumed that cryptic instruction meant we could follow the street straight ahead of us and find our dinner. Not so much. We went straight, then we turned and we turned again. My wife and I are not afraid of asking directions. Asking does not guarantee anybody will care, or know what we were asking. The language barrier made it difficult, but most people gave us the “I can’t be bothered” shrug. The English speakers who bothered to listen to our plea seemed to know less about Old Town than we did.

Then we stopped a woman who was walking fast and with purpose. She struck us as a knowledgeable resident. We were wrong. She did not know the restaurant we were seeking.Yet, she didn’t blow us off. She concentrated, furrowed her brow and finally said, in halting English,”No, I just don’t know.” She then continued on her way. After about 15 steps, she stopped and turned back toward us. By then she had pulled out her phone and she had apparently made a mental commitment to help us.

I’d like to think the kindness fairy or our guardian angel tapped her on the shoulder. More likely, her innate goodness took over and she decided she was not in as much of a hurry as she thought she was. Her phone, however, did not equal our immediate rescue. The directions she found were confusing. She decided they were far too difficult to explain. Thankfully, she did not try.

With her phone in hand and incredible kindness to strangers in her heart, the woman, who probably had a score of things to do that early evening, guided us gently through the nooks and crannies of Zurich’s old town. The walk was probably only five minutes. If we had been left on our own it might have taken five hours.

We reached the front door of the restaurant and the woman flashed a smile of triumph as if she had just climbed Mt. Pilatus. We thanked her profusely and her smile confirmed she was incredibly pleased she could help. She walked away with a bounce in her step and a smile on her face. Kindness made her feel good and rescued our evening.

We will never see her again, but I won’t forget her.

Tim J. McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home.”

Only we are going to fix our problems, one volunteer at a time

We all know bad stuff and good stuff happens to people. But our reactions to those things often differ.

Many people live their lives in gratitude for all the good things they have.  Other people tend to downplay the good things in their life and constantly lust for more. And there are people who have a great deal, clamor for more and are convinced they are smarter, better looking and more talented than the people who have less. Barry Switzer and Jim Hightower are credited with saying “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” I always credit that quote to my youngest brother, David, but the point is many view good things as something they earned.

People who deal with bad things often accept that bad stuff happens and they just need to roll with the punches. Others need to blame someone such as God, their rotten parents and/or the government. Those carping complainers shake their fists at this cruel world and fault everyone except themselves. Just this past weekend I said some reckless, insensitive things to a couple of close friends. There were no excuses to be had. I was a jerk plain and simple. I apologized in a text and will rely on forgiveness and our longtime friendship to heal the problem. People who can’t own their screw ups  fail to accept the truth. As my insightful wife, Candace, declares so eloquently, “our troubles are usually an inside job.”

I recently read an article that contended that a tremendous number of Americans believe authoritarian behavior is the answer to our challenges. The author wrote, “Authoritarianism, by which I mean Americans’ inclination to authoritarian behavior. When political scientists use the term authoritarianism, we are not talking about dictatorships but about a worldview. People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies.”

That frightens me. I like some order as much as the next guy, but I do not believe our problems are caused by a vengeful God, parents or the government. I believe some people live dangerous lifestyles, don’t pursue enough education, refuse to embrace technology, but mostly I believe good things happen in this world and bad things happen, just because. To quote Forrest Gump “It happens.”

I especially refuse to believe that there is some giant hand in the sky or a  commanding government that can erode civic liberties and fix everything. I am reminded of a great ongoing Saturday Night Live bit performed by Kenan Thompson during the Great Recession several years ago. Thompson would rant and rave at some invisible force he called “they”  and scream “Fix It, Fix it, Fix it.” Nobody ever appeared from the ether to “fix it.”

I reject fear, authoritarianism and hate as viable “fixes” to our country’s problems. I subscribe to Gandhi’s famous admonition,If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” That has been popularized as “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and it is the only way we can improve things.

My wife Candace was so distraught over the refugee ban this weekend she went to church and sponsored a Mexican child for more more money than was asked. She took action to change the world for the better. Two of my dear friends volunteer for that program, Casa Franciscana Outreach at our church. They give countless hours to a program the improves the lot of people in Guaymas Mexico. Another friend of mine has spent years finding guardians for struggling children in his small Michigan town. Another friend spends hours sitting with and talking with hospice patients to relieve the burdens of their loving caregivers.

I, and you, know thousands of people like these who don’t rail at the condition of the world, or blame God or the government. They do something themselves to fix our society.

All of us pulling together to extinguish fear and hate strikes me as a better solution to whatever ails us.