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This column is adapted from a commencement address that Jim delivered at Georgetown University on Sunday, May 20.
Each new generation has a chance to alter two very basic definitions of reality in our world – what is acceptable and what is possible.
First, what is acceptable?
There are always great inhumanities that we inflict upon one another in this world, great injustices that cry out to God for redress, and great gaps in our moral recognition of them. When the really big offenses are finally corrected, finally changed, it is always and only because something has happened to change our perception of the moral issues at stake. The moral contradiction we have long lived with is no longer acceptable to us. What we accepted, or ignored, or denied, finally gets our attention and we decide that we just cannot, and will not, live with it any longer. But until that happens, the injustice and misery continue.
It often takes a new generation to make that decision – that something that people have long tolerated just won’t be tolerated any more.
So the question to you as graduates, as ambassadors for a new generation, is this: what are you going to no longer accept in our world, what will you refuse to tolerate now that you will be making the decisions that matter?
Will it be acceptable to you that 3 billion people in our world today – half of God’s children – live on less that $2 per day, that more than 1 billion live on less than $1 per day, that the gap between the life expectancy in the rich places and the poor places in the world is now 40 years, and that 30,000 children globally will die today – on the day of your graduation – from needless, senseless, and utterly preventable poverty and disease? It’s what Bono calls “stupid poverty.”
Many people don’t really know that, or sort of do but have never really focused on the reality or given it a second thought. And that’s the way it usually is. We don’t know, or we have the easy explanations about why poverty or some other calamity exists and why it can’t really be changed – all of which makes us feel better about ourselves – or we are just more concerned with lots of other things. We really don’t have to care. So we tolerate it and keep looking the other way.
But then something changes. Something gets our attention, something goes deeper than it has before and hooks us in the places we call the heart, the soul, the spirit. And once we’ve crossed over into really seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting the injustice we can never really look back again. It is now unacceptable to us.
What we see now offends us, offends our understanding of the sanctity and dignity of life, offends our notions of fairness and justice, offends our most basic values; violates our idea of the common good, and starts to tug at our deepest places. We cross the line of unacceptability. We become intolerant of the injustice.
But just changing our notion of what is unacceptable isn’t enough, however. We must also change our perception of what is possible.
In that regard, I would encourage each of you to think about your vocation more than just your career. And there is a difference. From the outside, those two tracks may look very much alike, but asking the vocational question rather than just considering the career options will take you much deeper. The key is to ask why you might take one path instead of another – the real reasons you would do something, more than just because you can. The key is to ask who you really are and what you want to become. It is to ask what you believe you are supposed to do.
You do have great potential, but that potential will be most fulfilled if you follow the leanings of conscience and the language of the heart more than just the dictates of the market, whether economic or political. They want smart people like you to just manage the systems of the world. But rather than managing or merely fitting into systems, ask how you can change them. You’re both smart enough and talented enough to do that. That’s your greatest potential.
Ask where your gifts intersect with the groaning needs of the world – there is your vocation.
The antidote to cynicism is not optimism but action. And action is finally born out of hope. Try to remember that. At college, you often believe you can think your way into a new way of living, but that’s actually not the way it works. Out in the world, it’s more likely that you will live your way into a new way of thinking.
The key is to believe that the world can be changed, because it is only that belief that ever changes the world. And if not us, who will believe? If not you, who?