April 14, 2015
Last night, I had the privilege of giving the keynote address at my school’s National Honor Society Induction. At the request of colleagues and parents, I am posting a transcript of my speech below.
Good evening, everyone. I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to this group of National Honor Society members, their friends & family, and my fellow faculty. I would like to thank the NHS Board for asking me to participate in this special event; it is always a huge compliment when students choose to listen to you more than they are already required to! I hope that what I say in the next few minutes doesn’t have you regretting your choice.
When I was first asked to give a speech tonight, my thoughts immediately turned to a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred texts within my own religion, Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita, which translates as “Song of God,” is a text within a text and consists of a conversation between Arjuna, an accomplished warrior from a noble family, and Lord Krishna, who has disguised himself as Arjuna’s charioteer. The conversation begins at the outset of a battle between two branches of Arjuna’s extended family. Arjuna, who has lived his whole life as a warrior, despairs at the thought of going in to fight against members of his own family. He starts to question his life’s path and meaning. If you remember, Arjuna’s chariot-driver is Krishna is disguise; it’s convenient when you have an existential crisis and an avatar of the Lord just happens to be nearby.
So Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna and the two proceed to have a conversation about the proper way to live one’s life and what it means to do one’s duty. This brings me to the quotation that I mentioned—at the apex of their impassioned conversation, Krishna assures Arjuna: Anyone who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way. I have carried this quotation with me since I was in high school, and I want to share a bit about how I have interpreted it and what it means to me.
Most people don’t realize this, but Hinduism and Judaism actually have quite a lot in common. Each tradition emphasizes food, both for use in sacred ritual and in daily life, prescribing rules for proper preparation and consumption of food in observant homes. Hinduism has an incredibly strong cultural and geographic tie to India, while Judaism, of course, is inextricably bound to the land of Israel. And both religions use a modified lunar calendar, which means that our holidays almost always overlap. But the similarity that I love the most, personally, is the way that both religions emphasize the potential sacredness of everyday life. Ritual and goodness are built into the nooks and crannies of our seemingly mundane existence; we aren’t just spiritual when we go to temple or synagogue. Connection to God isn’t limited to one day of the week—every time a Jew says a blessing (which is why there is one for every occasion), or a Hindu chants a mantra silently in their head—they are honoring this emphasis on everyday goodness. Within both of these traditions, there are many different versions of what it means to live a good, noble life. Anyone who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way.
I find this notion incredibly comforting. Often, we find ourselves frozen by the idea that there is a “right choice” to make, and if we don’t identify that right choice, our lives will be ruined. This pressure is particularly acute, I think, during the period of life you all now find yourselves in. There is this notion—and I think it’s important to acknowledge that we as adults and teachers often perpetuate this notion, even without meaning to—that your task at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, is to plan out your life, set goals, and then go about achieving those goals. As if it worked like that for any of us! What talk about much less often is the fact that, ultimately, none of us have that kind of control over our own lives. We think we do, but that control is an illusion, an illusion that’s revealed whenever things don’t go the way we planned. We cannot control our circumstances. We cannot—fellow parents, I’m looking at you here—control other people. All we can control is our own reaction to what happens around us.
Personally, I think this is good news. Though I am a recovering control freak and can relate to some (many? all?) of you sitting in this room, I have come to find that many of the best things that have happened in my life have been things that I never, ever could have anticipated: coming to Houston to go to Rice, my relationship with my partner of thirteen years, my beautiful son. Of course, some of the unexpected pieces have been incredibly trying—losing my father very suddenly nine years ago—and these things will happen to all of you, if they haven’t already. In the midst of those kinds of moments, I turn to Holocaust survivor and writer Viktor Frankl:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This is perhaps the most powerful force we as human beings can exercise in our lives. Even when we have lost all other avenues of agency, we can choose how we respond to whatever is happening around or inside of us. To act with intention is, I would suggest, one of the key cornerstones to living an honorable life. Whatever it is that comes to you in your future, choose it. Choose it fully and commit yourself to it. Don’t allow others to make your choices for you.
Personally, I believe that in order to choose most powerfully, we have to know what we value. Some of the students sitting here may remember the Moral Courage unit from my eighth grade class. As we read To Kill a Mockingbird, we also studied historical figures who had taken incredible risks in order to stand up for their beliefs. The key is that they had to know what they believed ahead of time, so that they could identify when those values were being compromised in a way that they would not tolerate. We can all-too-easily lose our focus in the heat of the moment; that is why it is important to articulate and commit to one’s core values ahead of time. Focusing on our core values can offer a very powerful framework for our daily lives. The code of the ancient Japanese samurai states that one should be able to make any decision “in the course of seven breaths.” A warrior—or a student, or a parent—who is deeply rooted in and committed to their values is able to assess each situation in light of those values, allowing decisions to be make not merely quickly, but thoughtfully. There is tremendous freedom in this.
One more ingredient that I will assert as key to living honorably: managing one’s integrity. Often, we speak of integrity as a moral virtue, one we certainly wish to possess but which we can’t really define. We know it when we see it, and we can identify those who have it, but we’re not sure how to get it ourselves. As an English teacher and writer, I am fascinated by the way words can have multiple meanings. So while one definition of integrity is “the quality of being honest or having strong moral principles,” the lesser-known definition is the one I find most compelling: “the state of being whole and undivided.” We use this second definition more to think about buildings and machines than people—does the roof have structural integrity, will it hold, will it do what it’s meant to do?—but I have learned that a similar principle is applicable to each of us as well. Have we done what we said we would do? Are we dependable? Is the structure of our selves whole, or are we saying one thing and doing another? Just as a roof will eventually go out of integrity—losing some shingles and causing a leak—we will, too, inevitably, act in ways that are “out of integrity”—at odds with what we say or believe. But we do not despair over the moral infirmity of a leaky roof; we simply do what we need to do to fix it, put back shingles, clean up the mess. And so we, too, as human beings are responsible for cleaning up our messes. When we make mistakes, we must acknowledge them. When we screw up, we apologize—genuinely—and work to be better. We put systems into place to restore integrity to ourselves.
As a culture, we don’t do mistakes well. We expect our celebrities and public figures to never make a misstep, and we often shame each other publicly for poor choices. It’s impossible to overstate the damage this does to all of us. When we aim for perfection, we inevitably set ourselves up for failure—I say “we” because this is one I’m still very much working on. There is no day on which you are going to look around your life and say “Yep, today’s the day, I did it, I’m done growing!” That may be something you have to accept over and over again—I know have had to—bu you have to give yourself room to get it wrong. Certainly, there is work we can do to minimize our messes, but we are all going to make messes. The important thing, and the thing that will distinguish you from others, is how you take responsibility for those messes. Beating yourself up doesn’t actually make a difference, as it turns out. The most powerful response you can offer when you are out of integrity is to acknowledge it and to take action to restore that integrity. This you can do. It is both incredibly simple and the hardest thing.
Anyone who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way. Choose deliberately, honor your values, and manage your integrity. These are things you already do so beautifully, which is why you are sitting here today. Hold onto those pieces and trust yourselves. Everything you need is already inside of you.