One of the things that tends to happen to high school seniors at this time of year is that people are constantly reminding you about thank-yous. If I’m not mistaken, at every single one of the senior events I attended, Dr. Barnes prompted you to express gratitude to your parents and teachers. And perhaps someone at home has been gently inquiring if you have written those thank-you notes yet; for a teacher or counselor who wrote a letter of recommendation, to a relative who sent a graduation gift, etc. Many of you have mentioned gratefulness when you yourselves have come to the podium at various ceremonies over the past few weeks as well.
Why all of the concern about politeness and good manners?
I would argue that this is not simply a matter of etiquette. Gratitude is actually at the heart of today’s Commencement ceremony; its cultivation is fundamental to what goes on in schools and homes. When you practice gratitude—whether by expressing it verbally to another person, by writing thank-you notes, or by reflecting in a journal about the things for which you’re grateful—you are getting at three core lessons that you have been learning throughout your school career thus far.
First of all, when we reflect upon the many things for which we can be grateful, we are re-affirming that lesson learned in social studies, science, and other classes that, both as individuals and as a species, we are incredibly interdependent. Or to consider the converse, in order to be ungrateful, a person has to think that he or she is pretty much self-sufficient and that they are entitled to everything they have. When we contemplate those who have sacrificed so that we might enjoy those things we have - freedom, justice, and equality, to name three key ones - it is not possible to reconcile the debt we owe them with any sense of entitlement or ungratefulness.
This is true for those whose names we know: Thomas Paine, Sojourner Truth, Cesar Chavez, Rachel Carson, and so on, as well as the millions and millions whose names we do not know - anonymous soldiers, activists, and ordinary citizens - who struggled and even gave their lives for our benefit.
Likewise, when we study biology, we learn that for humans to exist in the first place requires a web of life that involves millions and millions of other species. Or, on a more immediate, local scale, just consider the number of people who were involved in ensuring that you were able to have the most recent meal you ate - from the farmers - to those who harvested the food - to the truckers - to the people who provided the fuel for the trucks - to the processors, preparers, salespeople, and so on. It is mind-boggling how interdependent we are, and the appropriate response to our dependency on all of those others - our parents, our teachers, people we have never met, or even other creatures - is to be thankful.
A second thing we realize when we practice gratitude is that many of the things for which we now give thanks did not seem so great when we were first going through them. As you look back on what has happened through your life so far, you undoubtedly find that some events that were painful or problematic when you were going through them are now things for which you are thankful; perhaps because they taught you a lesson, or made you stronger, or made possible some other event that was important.
Again, there are countless famous examples of this from your classes as well: Helen Keller loses her sight and hearing, and ends up, along with her teacher Annie Sullivan, becoming an inspiration to the whole world. Failed scientific experiments lead to even greater discoveries. Or simply, individual troubles end up bringing a person to a better place.
I recall hearing a speaker who was addressing this topic being challenged by a man in the audience, “My girlfriend just dumped me - what do I have to be thankful for?” "Well," said the speaker, you could say, “I’m so grateful that she broke up with me, because now there is room in my life for someone who can truly appreciate me.”
This may strike you as hopelessly Pollyanna-ish, and I am not recommending that you write a thank-you card to the person who broke up with you in eleventh grade. But it is certainly true, however odd it may sound, that we often find ourselves saying “thank you” for problems, or adversity, or even failure, because of what they ultimately mean for us.
This in turn points to a third lesson of gratitude: namely that re-framing negative events as positive ones, in this way, eventually becomes an overall attitude to life. That it’s not about calculating the good compared to the bad in our lives and then determining whether to be grateful or resentful, but that in some way, whether one is religious or not, the best approach to this whole deal is to see it as a wonderful gift to which the only fitting response is, “Wow - thank you!”
It may be that little glimpses of that kind of experience have led you or will lead you to your chosen field. Music: "wow - thank you!" Engineering: "wow - thank you!" The way kids’ eyes light up when they learn something: "wow - thank you!"
I don’t know when you will receive that next reminder to be grateful - perhaps in one of the upcoming speeches today, or when a relative or friend says something in the next few weeks, or perhaps it will just occur to you when you have a quiet moment sometime later this summer. In any case, I encourage you to look at that expression of thanks not as just another responsibility that etiquette requires of you (like not talking with your mouth full or using the outermost fork first) but rather as a most appropriate way to mark the commencement of this next part of your life’s journey.
So in conclusion, I would just like to say: It stopped raining, the sun is shining, and we’re here on Bonnel Field to celebrate the Class of 2014.
at their Commencement Ceremony on June 19, 2014.
Dr. James Heinegg is the Superintendent
of the Caldwell-West Caldwell School District.