Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Character & 8th Grade Promotion

Yes...a promotion ceremony for 8th grade.  It's not as silly as it sounds.  My school has been doing them for about 160 years, when 8th grade would indeed be the last year of school for most kids.  Further, until about 35 years ago, my district didn't have a high school.  So after 8th grade the kids went the separate ways.

Anyway...we practice for a few hours this morning, then have the ceremony in the late afternoon.  While we practice, I give a little speech.  And here's what I say:

Promotion or graduation speeches typically pursue one of two themes—follow your dreams, or you can change the world.  Or perhaps a combination of the two—if you follow your dreams, you can change the world. 
I want to say a word—714 actually—to all of you about something much more important—your character.

Historically, when people thought about how to live a good life, philosophized about how to live rightly, they emphasized character traits—honor, humility, integrity, thoughtful regard for others, and so on.  These are things one can cultivate, by choice.  You can choose honorable or dishonorable actions.  You can choose to express humility or arrogance…it’s up to you.  In other words, the decision to be a person of good character is yours to make, not somebody else’s.  And nobody can take those character qualities from you….You can GIVE them away, or SQUANDER them, but nobody can take them from you.

About a 100 years ago—around the beginning of the 20th Century, the focus on how to live rightly and well shifted from character to personality.  And people seeking to live a good life began trying to align the qualities of their personalities with the situation they found themselves in.  How can my expressiveness fit best in this situation?  How do I overcome my shyness so I can be a vibrant member of this group?  And this fateful question—How will every around me deal with my sense of humor—which all too often means my very self-oriented sarcasm?  The questions of living well shifted from how to live properly with and for the people around me to the issues of how to make my personality fit comfortably in my environment, or better yet, how to bend or shape that environment so as to satisfy my own personality desires. 
In the intervening 100 years, we’ve come to value personality—having a good personality, being a personality, being “yourself”—as just about the highest moral goal you can pursue.
But you’ll find the personality is always yearning, seeking after its pleasures and desires, because we’re always wanting something new and interesting, and because the circumstances around us are always changing.  The harsh reality of seeking to satisfy the personality’s whims is that you and your personality become subject to forces outside your control or authority.  When friends drift from you, or significant others disappoint you, or colleagues frustrate you, or bosses impose upon you, your personality will have to cope in order to remain happy or fulfilled or committed.  You’ll have to readjust your personality needs to the changing circumstances, and the circumstances will be in charge…of you.
But if you cultivate a strong character—and be clear, everything you do is always cultivating a character…good or bad, strong or weak, selfish or selfless—I say, if you cultivate a strong character, your circumstances will not overmaster you.  Instead, since you—and you alone—have authority over whether you will be honest or not, thoughtful or not, patient or not, you can—with good choices—maintain your integrity, your character in spite of the changing situations. 
You can, as the saying goes—keep your head while others about you are losing theirs.  While others around you might lie and deceive, your honesty can remain intact.  While others might seek credit and glory, your humility can stand uncompromised.  While others might manipulate people around them, your selflessness can remain consistent…
if you so choose.
In this way, good character—doing what is right—is actually quite liberating.  You’re not dependent on what is happening around you.  If you choose honesty, patience, humility, etc., then you know what to do in all circumstances…you don’t have to figure out how best to “play” your situation.
But if you want to live as a “personality”—to be funny, or the life of the party, or to be the force shaping everything around you, get ready to compete with other personalities who are either seeking their own attention or trying to shape your shared circumstances to best fit their particular personality needs…jostling and bouncing your personality and its needs along the way.

So, you’ve got a choice—seek to satisfy your own particular desires in an ever-shifting and often competitive social environment and be one of millions of personalities, or be what is—unfortunately—more like one in a million, and cultivate good character.
This choice has deep and serious consequences. 

Choose well.

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