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The Importance of Dignity: Commencement Address Thoughts for Anyone Who Wishes to Use Them

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At about this time of year many impressive and accomplished people have agreed to deliver commencement addresses. If you are one of these folks, staring at a blank computer screen (or even, as archaic as it may seem, a blank piece of paper, pen in hand), not knowing what to say or write -- not knowing how to offer direction at such a complicated time -- not knowing how to tell young people that though the world is a brutal and unfair place -- they can still find joy and fulfillment -- I offer the following thoughts to you on the importance of Dignity, a prerequisite for mental health. If they speak to you, take them please and make them your own, offering no footnotes.

1. You have worked hard. You know how to find intellectual answers. I ask you now to think about the emotional ones: How to you wish to live? Who do you wish to build with? How can you learn whom to trust?

2. As you think about this, here is a sad truth to ponder: Life has never been and will never be fair! Now this is a sad kettle of fish, if there ever was one. But this absolute truth said, there is a way to make it as fair as it possibly can be! You are the generation who can learn this and in learning and accepting it, you can make it fair, not only for you, but for others.

3. Here is how. I want you to know the importance of "Dignity," a true prerequisite for mental health. Dignity is a combination of pride and humility: In other words you like yourself, but you know that you are not the center of the universe. How many do you know really believe they are this center? Trust me: these are not the kinds of people to live, build with or trust. On the other hand, those without pride to balance their humility, are also in trouble. In other words: if the meek ever inherited the world, how long do you think they would keep it?

4. How does Dignity happen? It begins in childhood: For the state of Dignity begins with love. Someone has to really light up when he/she sees you. Someone really has to believe in you. Someone really has to be there when you hurt a lot. It does not have to be a parent (of course for those who are lucky, it is.) But it does have to be a Someone. So for you future humanitarians out there, think about how to break down the barriers so that every child everywhere is offered a Someone.

5. This once more takes us back to the initial questions -- the "how do you know who" ones. Those without a burgeoning assessment of who they are, their strengths as well as their limitations (to hopefully better), and those who let all walk over them are surely not good to build with or trust. In other words, avoid those who seem to only give but cannot take, as well as those who can only take. The former will smother you; the latter devour you.

6. Those who get the above and do their best to live it, will have Courage. Those with Courage know that life is not a popularity contest -- that it is essential to stand up for what you believe. Now there are ways to do this. For instance, if you have a job you need, and your boss is a "you know what," find another job before you tell him/her so --- unless someone's life is at stake.

7. Just a few words about Love, so essential to Dignity. (And I thank David Brooks for writing about this in his The Social Animal, a study that highlights that the importance of love is not "touchy feely" nonsense.) Most people love the best way they can, a repeat of how they were treated. But the only Love that is true is based on self and mutual respect --- not on rage, control, manipulation, or fear.

8. I am almost finished, so thanks for bearing with me: Do not be motivated by fame, money or power. Pick a field of work that excites you, and follow its path. If you fail in it, or find out it is not the correct one for you, this initial path with take you someplace else that will also excite you. And always, always do your best. It just may be that fame and fortune (nothing to be sneezed at) will follow, but they will feel shallow without this perspective.

9. Always strive to be real. Remember that the photos of the rich and beautiful are airbrushed -- their images carefully projected.

10. With this in mind, pick your partner and your community. Love him/her and yours.

11. Make your little corner of your world magical. For love is the only magic. Take this magic to your world.

PS: In these troubled times, do not forget the college that has taught you, believed in you, and nurtured you. Send them money, a little bit now, more later when you can.
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