Parting Words for the Class of 2017

    A few months ago we gathered on our Upper Field to celebrate Thacher’s 128th commencement. Others have encouraged me to publish here the parting words I shared then with our seniors and their families. Here they are:

    We now come to the conclusion of a fine evening.

    In the joyous and celebrated rains of this winter, a few of our California oaks came crashing down out in the Diamond Hitch Campground. The arborist explained that, ironically, the roots of these behemoth trees generally lie only 18 inches under the surface. Hence, a soaking rain can loosen the soil and they can topple with much greater regularity than, for example, some of the surrounding pines whose roots extend much deeper.

    I bring this up to you tonight because as I look at the work that we all have in front of us in this world today, I think we need to grow the metaphysical roots of the pine and not the oak—despite the magnetic pull of the California oak metaphor. Our roots need to go deep into the soil so we can withstand the storms that life brews for us collectively and individually.

    Like many of you, I read the newspaper each day with trepidation. Is it not one crazy thing after another? (Dog bites Man. Not news. Man bites dog, news. I think we have more men biting dogs these days.) And without making the mistake of proffering any political positions here, let me offer the observation that we are seeing more anger, alienation, polarization, and discord in the public sphere than any time, I suspect, since the tumult of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

    So how does an aware and cognizant citizen of the Republic, especially those blessed with a Thacher education, confront and help heal a nation in the throes of political turmoil and a world that is threatened with environmental plunder, over-population, and some significant pockets of destabilizing violence?

    First, I think, by recognizing the initial irony that the world is to us as we are to ourselves.

    This means that how we see the world is largely determined not by what we think we see in the world but rather by the clarity or opaqueness of the lens through which we look at the world: our very own consciousness. The clearer and broader our consciousness, the clearer and the more accurate our view. There is nothing new in this sentiment but it underscores the significance of the truth that a peaceful world begins with peaceful and healthy individuals.

    Class of 2017: truly take care of yourselves first and you can then take care of others; it is only the cup that overflows that can fill other vessels. Sleep, exercise, diet, emotional awareness, spiritual practice—all things which help your roots go deeper—are in your hands and not someone else’s.

    Exercise those choices that help you feel better, stronger, and more positive. You have much more control over your happiness than you can imagine.

    Second: You need not be perfected beings to make a difference. Every time you pick up a piece of trash you exercise leadership. Every authentically kind word you utter to another is an act of healing. Every time you listen carefully to another person is balm for the soul—yours and theirs. Every time you gather the courage to speak in the face of wrong, you empower others to do what is right.

    As Martin Luther King famously spoke, “For evil to succeed, all it needs is for good men to do nothing.” When you see wrong, act. Others will find their courage in yours.

    Especially, now, making the effort to listen to others with whom you disagree is particularly important. Much of our failure as a nation right now is the degree to which the polarized sides listen to and affirm only their own point of view. We need to return to a citizenry and government that can disagree, still be respectful, and work to find common ground.

    Conservative President Ronald Reagan and good old Massachusetts liberal Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil, engaged in fierce battles over policy and yet celebrated their friendship. This was good and healthy for them, for our policies, and our collective consciousness as a nation.

    Finally, believe that the truth that you dwell upon, you become. In other words, what you put your attention on grows—in you, and becomes you. In so many words, Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

    Why is this important? Because thoughts determine actions, actions determine outcomes, and outcomes determine destiny.Another way of looking at this: thoughts become character and character is destiny. Focusing on growth, learning, and the positive determines, in great part, how you understand yourself and what you can ultimately accomplish.

    In taking on these practices, you will send your roots down deep into the earth. You will withstand the winds and torrents. You will bend gracefully in the storms, rise again, and shed your protective shade to those who need shelter and your oxygen to a gasping world.

    Thank you and good night.

    Michael Mulligan

    Michael Mulligan has served as Thacher's head of school since 1993.

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