Twenty-three years ago a young Mormon doctoral student came to our Friday night
Sabbath dinner at Oxford with a Jewish friend.
Though I had met Mormons
before I had never gotten to know any intimately, let alone the grandson of the
Mormon prophet and president of the worldwide church. Little did I realize at
the time that this friendship with Mike Benson would be transformative in my
life, would lead to a lifelong closeness with the LDS Church, and would
culminate in Mike inviting me as commencement speaker at Southern Utah
University, where he serves as president, and awarding me an honorary doctorate,
alongside golfing legend Billy Casper.
I thought long and hard about my
message. I wanted it to be fundamentally different to the corrosive message that
is inadvertently offered by so many commencement speakers where they share with
graduates the secrets of success.
So long as you a) work hard, b) pursue
your passion and c) remain disciplined, you will make money, build a career and
become a success – thereby suggesting that up until now the student in question
is undistinguished, anonymous and somehow unimportant.
achievement will put them on the map.
I believe misguided messages like
these are what have led to the profound contradiction in American life whereby
we are the richest society in the entire world but also the most depressed. A
culture that pushes people to distinguish themselves in order to prove
themselves worthy. Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of
Independence about the pursuit of happiness are interpreted by most Americans to
mean the pursuit of success that will bring happiness. But taking people who
essentially feel like they’re worthless and making them believe that if they
found an Internet startup and make billions they will be happy is a
Because the man who is empty on the inside, no matter how
many yachts and Telluride condos he has, retains a vacuous crater at his center
whereby his feelings of achievement go in one end and come out the other.
External accouterments of success are never going to shore him up and make him
Like so many, I am in awe of Steve Jobs and his
achievements. Heck, I’m writing this column on an Apple laptop.
doesn’t change the fact that none of his successes ever brought him happiness
and he remained, until his dying day, a pretty miserable creature who treated
others miserably, as his authorized biographer Walter Isaacson makes
I wanted to say something profoundly different: that the reason a
student comes to Southern Utah University, or any other place of higher
learning, is not to acquire the skills with which to succeed, but for a
different reason altogether.
Because you are already special and all you
require are the tools with which to develop your limitless
There is nobody in the world quite like you. You are unique.
You have a gift to contribute to the world that noone else has and you squander
your potential comparing your gifts to everyone else’s.
That there is a
place for competitiveness, but only in the things that you do – like sports,
making money, or running for public office – but not in what you are, namely a
person of infinite worth and essential dignity called forth by God for a unique
That there is nothing outside you that can ever add to your
value, which comes being a child of God, and that the drive to succeed is not a
need to prove yourself but because the world cannot live without your
contribution; without your gift society remains inherently
But as students leave the crib of academia and enter the
workplace, entering the highly competitive environment we call capitalism, the
world is going to assail that fundamental belief in their uniqueness. You’re
going to compare yourself constantly to people who are richer than you and more
famous than you, prettier than you and smarter than you. And society is going to
try and strip away the faith you have in yourself as an individual of infinite
significance. You will be told that you have to do in order to be.
looking at the newsstand at the local 7/11 is going to remind you you’re not on
the Forbes 400 list. You’re not on the cover of Vogue. Life will try to chip
away at most important belief you have, namely that you matter, that you’re
You will do favors for people and they will forget you. Joseph
encouragingly interprets the dream of Pharaoh’s chief butler, but immediately
upon being restored to his position the Bible says, “And the butler did not
remember Joseph, and he forgot him.” That is, not only did he not remember him,
he made a conscious effort to forget him.
Noone wants to feel
Young women will give their hearts to a man who may return it
in pieces. You will contribute to companies who in an economic downturn will
tell you that they no longer need your services.
Some of the setbacks in
life, especially when compared to other people’s successes, will make you feel
When Moses sends spies to the promised land to discover how it
can best be taken, they return with a dispiriting report, that the land is
unconquerable: “We saw giants there and we appeared in our eyes as if were
cockroaches, and that’s how we appeared to them as well.” They saw themselves as
pygmies and others as giants. The spies failed to retain the essential belief
that they were exceptional and could succeed at their mission.
their view of the promised land with that of Martin Luther King, Jr., who, 45
years ago on the last night of his life, famously spoke of the same promised
land and said that God had taken him over the mountain to see it.
would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know....
And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything.
fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the
Why wasn’t King afraid, especially in light of the horrible fact
that a white racist would murder him just 20 hours later? Because the foundation
of all human fear is the fear that you don’t matter. That you’re ordinary. That
you’re not worthy of love. That you’re superfluous, with no unique
But King had no such fear. In having devoted his life to
making other people feel worthy, he found infinite dignity.
dignity on others he achieved immortality.
The ancient Jewish sages said
it best: Who is exalted? He who makes others feel glorious.
“America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in
America”, served as rabbi at the University of Oxford for 11 years and has just
published The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and
Suffering. The full video of his commencement speech can be found at
http://www.suu.edu/ss/registrar/ graduation/. Follow him on Twitter