Massachusetts English teacher, David McCullough, Jr., created quite a stir when he delivered the faculty speech to the Wellesley High School Graduation Class of 2012. It was, by no stretch of the imagination, a “usual” high school commencement address. No glowing commendations. No string of positive superlatives. In fact, his message to this stunned group of high schoolers was quite the contrary as he drove home his recurring theme—“You are not special. You are not exceptional.”
Bummer, right? Wrong.
McCullough began by pointing out to the graduates a very physical reminder of their very commonplace position, asking them to consider even the very “ceremonial costume” they had donned for the occasion—“shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma … but for your name, exactly the same. All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. You are not special. You are not exceptional.”
His seemingly scathing commentary continued:
“Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.
“Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community … But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not. …
“You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another … we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. …"
Lest you be left to think that Mr. McCullough’s speech was utterly and completely a downer, his punch line puts all into perspective and makes a poignant conclusion:
“Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain … so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. … Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others … And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.
"Because everyone is.”
McCullough is right. Selflessness IS the best thing we can do for ourselves. In dying to self we become free to live to serve others. When we do, we will discover that “fulfilled life,” that “gratifying byproduct” that “happens when you’re thinking about more important things.”
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3).
Follow the link to source above to read the speech in its entirety.