My family attended our son's graduation over the weekend at the University of Vermont where the commencement speaker was Eric K. Shinseki, United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Aside from delivering a short and rather entertaining speech, he got across a pretty simple message to the emerging graduates: the real mark of success is kindness, and sharing that with others.
We sat through 3,000 graduates receiving their diplomas (a four hour ceremony) and celebrated with brunch afterward. Toward the end of the day, my husband and I and our new graduate took a walk from the hotel to the small town of Burlington where we ran into a young boy asking if we had any paper towels. Handing him a few Kleenex we turned to walk away, when we all stopped and turned to follow him asking ... do you need more? Is everything okay?
As we looked to him, around the corner came a mother carrying her small child with blood gushing from his head - obviously having fallen in some sort of accident - and a small brother crying and trailing close behind. The mother calmly asked us to drive them to the hospital as the child screamed in pain and fear, blood now covering the mother's arm completely as she struggled to hold him and calm him while trying to get help. The three of us led the mother quickly to our car as we talked to the younger brother and helped calm him down. My son jumped into the driver's seat and calmly but quickly drove us to the emergency room at the UVM hospital where the mom and child were met by an immediately responsive hospital staff. As the mom began to talk to the staff, we said goodbye and returned to our hotel to walk again to town for dinner.
It was a perfect example of people helping one another - what we all do in a crisis - and what many of us do on a day to day basis: be kind to one another. I heard the other day that the Dalai Lama said we, as a people globally are becoming more compassionate, and the only reason we don't all know it is that the media focuses so much on the negative: disasters, war, crime and horrors in the world. I am constantly reminded of the kindness of strangers, of our humanity, in the way people go out of their way to help one another - crisis or not. At the same time I know there are people acting cruelly to one another in areas where people have become hardened by war, violence and poverty. But then I think of the people I have met in my travels to India, South Africa, Kenya, Malawi and many other countries around the world, and I know that I see kindness far MORE than cruelty, and I see people working to stop the cruelty that exists. I know I am far luckier than many in the opportunities I have had in my life but I see the kindness of humans - our humanity - across economic, educational, religious and other socioeconomic differences. Perhaps the Dalai Lama is right and we are evolving into a kinder species with time, or perhaps that basic kindness has always been there it just becomes overshadowed by the rarer cruelties of humans that demand our attention to stop them and to assure they will not happen again.
As I see our three children grow into global citizens of the world, I see their kindness to one another, their friends, and strangers on a day to day basis. And I see the same in my friend's friends, and the kids whose parents I do not know, and the kids I meet when traveling all around the world. Perhaps it is worth reminding us of our human kindness and to remind us to notice it every day; and as the commencement speaker suggested, to keep expanding it in all we do.
I share this Maya Angelou quote whenever I can, and in light of the commencement speaker's message to new college graduates as they venture out into the world to gain 'success.'
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.