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Message to Graduates: "Be a Good Ancestor"

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The following is Samantha Power's address to the graduating class of Pitzer-Claremont College in California earlier this month.

It is an indescribable honor to be here with you today, class of 2008. It is an even greater honor that you extended the invitation before what I now -- with exaggerated self-importance -- call "Monster-gate." I am grateful to you for not rescinding the invitation after I opened my big mouth and became global villain for a day. If you ever needed evidence that even college graduates never grow up -- they just get more sophisticated at disguising their inner child -- I offered it. Thanks for standing by your humbled commencement speaker.

Since I graduated from college in 1992, I have been blessed to have been a part of some pretty momentous causes. Yet I count as the greatest privileges of my life the sunny days like this one, where I have the chance to deliver a commencement address. I take this responsibility very seriously, and I consider it a great act of trust toward a stranger. So thank you again, Pitzer.

Ok now that I've raised expectations, let me add a qualifier: be wary today and every other day of anybody who claims to have specialized knowledge on the way things should turn out. In your lives or in the world.

I was in Fenway Park and Yankee stadium in October 2004, at the start of your freshman year here, when the Red Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs to vanquish the New York Yankees and the curse and win their first World Series in 86 years. The experts said it couldn't be done, but the experts knew history, they knew that no baseball team had ever come back from three games down in a series. The experts knew things, but they didn't know those Boston Red Sox.

I was in Darfur, Sudan that same year, and I met refugees who begged me to bring their stories back to the United States so the U.S. government would act. The Darfurians pleaded for humanitarian aid to be delivered, for Sudan's killers to be prosecuted, and for peacekeepers to be sent to protect civilians. The experts said it couldn't be done, that governments traditionally pursue their "national interests," that the U.S. government was too busy with al Qaeda, North Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan to worry about "mere" humanitarian issues. Again, the experts knew things, but they didn't know that STAND chapters would spring up on 500 college campuses across the country, that ordinary people concerned about Darfur would create a 1-800-genocide number, that members of Congress would be given "genocide grades" for their actions and would scramble to move from a C- to a B. The experts didn't know that students on the Pitzer college campus would organize a concert for Darfur that would raise $7,000. And they certainly didn't know that this movement would generate such political pressure that the United States would spend more than $3 billion keeping those refugees alive. They didn't know that the International Criminal Court would indict the leading war criminals. And they didn't know that a peacekeeping force would be authorized. Now let me be clear: the killings have not stopped, and there is far more left to do. But if citizens had deferred to conventional wisdom about what was doable, many more people in Darfur would no longer be with us today.

And back in 2005 I was minding my own business when I received an email from the office of a certain junior Senator from Illinois inviting me to drop by to discuss his vision for fixing U.S. foreign policy. A one hour meeting with this man, Barack Obama, turned into such a staggering four hour tutorial (I was the student, he the teacher) that I decided then and there to leave my job as a professor at Harvard and move to Washington to work in his office. I have been open-mouthed -- or what the Irish call, "gob-smacked" -- ever since, as I've watched the race between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton electrify the nation. The experts said it couldn't be done -- they said men would never vote for a woman, but they did; they said that white Americans weren't ready for an African-American, but they were; they said that young people would talk a good game, but they wouldn't get their acts together to register and then to vote, but you did. The experts knew things, but they didn't know today's Americans, and they certainly didn't know your generation of young people.

Again and again, the experts have proven wrong. Yet if the Red Sox, the Darfur activists, or Obama had deferred to these experts, history would have turned out very differently. The experts deal in probabilities, but you all have the chance to decide on possibilities and make what is possible real.

So how do you begin to think about doing that? I'd like to offer five suggestions.

First, as you figure out your path in life, try to follow your nose.
I had classmates in college who had decided by the time we graduated what they wanted to be on this earth - "Tony award winning actor," "congressman by the age of thirty," "broker of an India-Pakistan peace deal." These folks were unbelievably determined and polished. They had amassed thick rolodexes and devised detailed flow charts, indicating how they would get to their self-designated promised lands. They knew their end states and would have given Machiavelli a good run for his money in reaching their goals. I have students like this too. One young man came into my office recently and said, "I want your life. I want to write books and magazine articles and get to know a Presidential candidate." My response was: "you so don't want my life!" Now don't get me wrong: I love my life. But this student knew that life only in silhouette. He knew nothing of my many missteps, of the internal struggles, of the constant tradeoffs, and he knew nothing of how I set out on a path hoping to do one thing and ended up doing something radically different. He only knew the box score. But just as one can not decide in advance to win a baseball game by a score of 6-3, one can not script a precise professional destination. The contingencies - and one's ability to pivot from them - have a greater impact upon one's destiny than one's plan.

I promise you that I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if I had set out to reach a specific end state. Every choice up to this point, I have made by following my nose. I went to Bosnia as a journalist in the early 1990s not so I could somehow, one day, end up having the honor of speaking at your commencement, but because I was one of many Americans sickened by the television images of emaciated men and women imprisoned behind barbed wire in modern-day concentration camps.

And believe me, while in college, I didn't say, "I want to become the author of long books on dark topics." I wrote a paper for a law school class on U.S. responses to the major genocides of the twentieth century. And then at the end of the semester decided I still didn't have an adequate answer to the question of why U.S. leaders had done so little to stop genocide, from the Armenians to the Holocaust to Rwanda. So I kept going. I took a year off law school to try to figure out the answer to that question, and, only when I got the impression that others were interested in the answer too did I decide to pull my findings together in a book, which became "A Problem from Hell" -- a title my mother thinks I chose to describe my personal relationship to the book writing process. When I was later told by publishers that there was no market for such a book, I was crushed of course, but it didn't stop me because I still hadn't quite figured out the answer to my question.

When I went to work for Senator Obama in 2005, I went not because I thought he would run for president, but because I thought he had a lot to teach. I also realized I'd been writing about American foreign policy for a long time but was woefully ignorant about how the Congress functioned day to day. If, going forward, you view yourselves as full-time students in a real world university, it is difficult to go that far astray.

Parents, please don't worry! I'm not using this privileged pulpit to encourage dilettantism. Instead, I'm encouraging you, class of 2008, to focus on the next thing, and take some of the pressure off finding the eventual thing. Emphasize the substance of what you will learn, not the status of what you will be called. Ask yourself, "What will I take away from this? Will I learn a new skill? A new town? A new mindset?" Put one foot in front of the other for as long as you can afford to, rather than trying to map your way to the winner's platform.

Second, be sure to create quiet time so you maximize the chances you will be able to hear your gut when it speaks to you.
The French film director Jean Renoir once said, "The foundation of all great civilizations is loitering." But class of 2008, we have all stopped loitering. I don't mean we aren't lazy at times. I mean that no moment goes unoccupied. A year or so I was driving my car to work, and I caught myself -- ladies and gentlemen don't try this at home - listening to a book on tape, talking on my cellphone, keeping an eye on the GPS, and texting a friend on my blackberry at the same time. I'm not proud of this. And it gets even worse. Now a recovering member of Pathological Multi-Taskers Anonymous, I am here to admit that I do not drive an automatic! Yes, I performed all of these tasks while driving a stick shift. Not good.

Not only "not good" because of the physical hazards associated with such reckless multi-tasking. But also not good because this moment approximates the modern American condition. Stillness is becoming as extinct as the polar bear. More people spend more time with their computers today than with their spouse or significant other. And indeed a quarter of Americans say the internet can serve as a substitute for a spouse or a significant other!

We go for a run, and we listen to music. We sit down to write, and we secretly pine for the ping of the email interruption. We wait in line at the grocery store, and we use the check out line to return phone calls. Soon when we fly on airplanes, we will be able to fill every airborne moment with calls and emails and connectedness. If I am not mistaken, the shower is now the only place we are guaranteed to have time to ourselves, and soon undoubtedly, our iPods will be waterproof and our cell phones will be devised to drown out the shower current and to amplify the human voice. All that we will have left will be that quiet, peaceful time when we wait expectantly at the other side of the airport x-ray belt for our gadgets to be returned to us after screening ... and think now, how we already break the airport rules and reach our hands back into the dark vortex of the conveyor belt just so we can be reunited with our technology seconds more quickly!

There are great benefits to connectedness, but we haven't wrapped our minds around the costs. Comedy Central would happily hire a limo to take Steven Colbert to and from work every day. But he says he wouldn't be funny if he didn't drive himself home. On his drive from New York to New Jersey, he puts the devices away and lets his mind drift ... with side-splittingly funny results. Many of the best decisions you make in life will come from listening not to your parents, not to your horoscope, and not to your MySpace visitors. Your best decisions will come after you have placed a metaphorical stethoscope up to your gut and managed to listen to yourself. These days it can be hard to hear oneself amid the din, but try!!

Third, by far the most important quality one needs in life is not in fact talent; it is resiliency.
I just spent the last four years writing a book about Sergio Vieira de Mello, a person I have begun to describe as "the most important man you've never heard of," a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy, who was a global trouble-shooter, nation builder, and peacemaker. He spoke seven languages, worked in fourteen war zones, and knew more than anyone on earth about how to deal with violent and broken places. Tragically Sergio and 21 others were blown up by a suicide bomber in the attack on UN headquarters in Iraq in 2003. Sergio was like Sysyphus. He pushed that boulder up the hill, and it rolled back down that hill, but he retrieved it and pushed it up again, over time making incremental but essential progress. He managed to save the lives he did less because of his judgment than because of his resiliency.

When I think about resiliency today, I also think about a man named Gil Loescher. When the suicide bomber struck the UN's Iraq base in 2003, Sergio happened to be meeting with Gil, an American human rights and refugee advocate. Miraculously, although the bomb went off right outside Sergio's office, Gil managed to survive the explosion and was pinned beneath concrete. Now sadly American soldiers had been deployed without the equipment they needed to do a proper, full-scale search and rescue mission. Nonetheless, they improvised, tracking down a rusty saw in one of the bombed-out UN offices. With this saw they amputated Gil's legs and pulled him out of the collapsed building. Gil was flown to a U.S. military hospital in Germany and given a 25% chance of survival. For more than a year after the attack, tiny shards of glass would work themselves free from his skin. His face was badly scarred, and he initially had no use of his right hand. But Gil made extraordinary progress, reacquiring the use of that hand and mastering computer-assisted prosthetic legs. He resumed writing a book on protracted refugee crises and, in 2006, just three years after the attack, he managed to travel 1,200 miles along the northern Thai border to interview Burmese refugees. In one of the camps, he made a special point of visiting an out-of-the-way care center for disabled refugees run by Handicap International. But after wheeling himself across the camp, he found the facility had been built atop a steep mud bank that his wheelchair could not ascend. Resigned to turning back, Gil suddenly saw five Burmese faces peering down at him from the top of the bank. The Burmese, each of whom had a wooden prosthetic leg, scrambled down the bank, raised Gil's wheelchair onto their shoulders and carried him up the hill.

Loescher divides his existence into his "first life" and his "second life." He says that on occasions when he is tempted to feel sorry for himself, he thinks about refugees. "My whole career," he says, "I have been visiting refugee camps, and, without realizing it, I was getting tutorials about resilience. If they can bounce back, I certainly can." Life is a crucible, but whenever I'm tempted to give up on something, I think of Gil and those selfless and determined Burmese. And after today, whenever I waver, I'm going to think about Lauren. [Lauren Steinberg is a Pitzer senior who spoke during the commencement ceremony. Last year she was hit by a car and narrowly survived. Despite extensive head and body injuries, multiple surgeries, and prolonged absences, she returned to Pitzer this year and came just one credit shy of graduating with her class.]

Success is not about who never fails. It is about who can spring - or even stagger - back up. That immortal American philosopher John Wayne said "life is getting up one more time than you've been knocked down."

Fourth, find friends who have your back. Last weekend I attended a conference in honor of a Nobel Prize winning Princeton psychologist named Danny Kahneman. Kahneman is a remarkable scholar who has done groundbreaking experiments which showed the ways in which humans are not as rational as had long been assumed. At the conference, which celebrated his retirement, lawyers, economists, and psychologists got up to present work that had been galvanized or influenced by his theories. The day was a tour de force, a monument to the kind of impact one man and his ideas can have on the world. At the end of the day Kahneman was asked what he was most likely to be remembered for. The audience hushed in anticipation. Here Kahneman would elevate one of his many theories above the rest. Posterity would record which experimental research the great Kahneman himself thought most landmark. "The one thing that I'm sure of," he said, "is that I'll be forgotten." But he was next asked the source of his nearly unrivalled professional success. Again the scholars in the room waited expectantly. This time, he gave them a response they could take home, answering, "my choice of friends."

The beauty of this is that, while much in this life is beyond our control, all of us hold the power to choose our friends. We can each be a Nobel prize winner at friendship. None of us are perfect friends always, but one way to think about friendship is in terms of carefulness. Be careful with those you love. And surround yourself with people who are careful with you. A good friend of mine devised a rather taxing standard for love and friendship - and a grim one too - "who would you want to become a refugee with?" If your neighborhood were hit by Hurricane Katrina, or Cyclone Nargis, who would have your back? Look around you today. Your parents have your back, your siblings have your back, your closest friends have your back. Keep it that way. And be sure they know you have theirs.

Fifth and final suggestion -- actually more of a plaintive appeal -- please be a good ancestor. Two or three or even four decades from now, you will get to sit where your parents are sitting today. Your kids will know that in 2008 your generation stood at a crossroads. They will know that you had a chance to stem the tide of global warming -- to undo the damage that my generation and our predecessors have done to our shared planet. Your kids will know that you had a chance to restore the Constitution of the United States, a constitution that of late has come to be seen by some as optional. On issue after issue, your kids will know that you were the first generation to be educated about global challenges -- global warming, nuclear proliferation, global disease pandemics, terrorism, etc. -- and your kids will ask you, "what did you do to meet those challenges?" I hope you can claim prouder ancestry than we can. Already seventy-two percent of you can say you studied abroad, many of you can say that you led the drive to make your resident halls green and energy efficient, and several of you high-tailed it down to New Orleans after the hurricane to help those in need. Your student body amassed 110,000 hours of community service. That is 110,000 hours you could have spent doing something else!

And now going forward you can build on these efforts. You can be the generation that makes this country energy independent; you can be the generation that wipes out malaria in the developing world; you can be the generation that summons global resources to halt genocide in Darfur and beyond; you can be the generation that deals with the scourge of terrorism and its causes; and you can be the generation that ends extreme poverty. My generation and our predecessors haven't been responsible caretakers. But you can be. In John F. Kennedy's inaugural address he observed that Americans were daunted by the mortal challenges of the Cold War and the nuclear age. But he declared, "I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation."

That is the attitude to bring out into the messy world you inherit. The responsibilities of global citizenship are a burden. But my, those responsibilities are also a real privilege. Some poet once said, "Two men looked out from prison bars. One saw the mud, the other saw the stars." You can choose to see the stars, Pitzer class of 2008.

Take the time this weekend to celebrate with the parents who made today possible, the teachers who made today valuable, and the friends who made your last four years unforgettable. And then go forth to be this 21st century's "greatest generation." Follow your nose. Find quiet time to listen to your gut. Be resilient. Find friends who have your back. And above all, please be a good ancestor. You can. And you must.

Thank you, Pitzer class of 2008, and good luck.

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