Barack Obama, in his commencement address at Wesleyan, subbing for Senator Ted Kennedy, gave an oration on the topic that Ted was planning on delivering: service to one’s country.
Barck indicated that we are misinclined to believe that there are two differing and unconnected themes in society:
“The first is the story of our everyday cares and concerns – the responsibilities we have to our jobs and our families – the bustle and busyness of what happens in our own life. And the second is the story of what happens in the life of our country – of what happens in the wider world. It’s the story you see when you catch a glimpse of the day’s headlines or turn on the news at night – a story of big challenges like war and recession; hunger and climate change; injustice and inequality. It’s a story that can sometimes seem distant and separate from our own – a destiny to be shaped by forces beyond our control.
“And yet, the history of this nation tells us this isn’t so. It tells us that we are a people whose destiny has never been written for us, but by us – by generations of men and women, young and old, who have always believed that their story and the American story are not separate, but shared. And for more than two centuries, they have served this country in ways that have forever enriched both.
“I say this to you as someone who couldn’t be standing here today if not for the service of others, and wouldn’t be standing here today if not for the purpose that service gave my own life.
“You see, I spent much of my childhood adrift. My father left my mother and I when I was two. When my mother remarried, I lived in Indonesia for a time, but was mostly raised in Hawaii by her and my grandparents from Kansas. My teenage years were filled with more than the usual dose of adolescent rebellion, and I’ll admit that I didn’t always take myself or my studies very seriously. I realize that none of you can probably relate to this, but there were many times when I wasn’t sure where I was going, or what I would do.
“But during my first two years of college, perhaps because the values my mother had taught me – hard work, honesty, empathy – had resurfaced after a long hibernation; or perhaps because of the example of wonderful teachers and lasting friends, I began to notice a world beyond myself. I became active in the movement to oppose the apartheid regime of South Africa. I began following the debates in this country about poverty and health care. So that by the time I graduated from college, I was possessed with a crazy idea – that I would work at a grassroots level to bring about change.I wrote letters to every organization in the country I could think of. And one day, a small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago offered me a job to come work as a community organizer in neighborhoods that had been devastated by steel plant closings. My mother and grandparents wanted me to go to law school. My friends were applying to jobs on Wall Street. Meanwhile, this organization offered me $12,000 a year plus $2,000 for an old, beat-up car.
“And I said yes.”
Barack points to national and community service, not only as a way to discharge a debt to society, but to give meaning to one’s live and connect one’s life and narrative to a larger whole.
[Talking about his Chicago organizing experience...] “[It] wasn’t easy, but eventually, we made progress. Day by day, block by block, we brought the community together, and registered new voters, and set up after school programs, and fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity.
“But I also began to realize that I wasn’t just helping other people. Through service, I found a community that embraced me; citizenship that was meaningful; the direction I’d been seeking. Through service, I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of America.
“Each of you will have the chance to make your own discovery in the years to come. And I say ‘chance’ because you won’t have to take it. There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should by. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.
“But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do have that debt.
“It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story.”
“We will face our share of cynics and doubters. But we always have. I can still remember a conversation I had with an older man all those years ago just before I left for Chicago. He said, “Barack, I’ll give you a bit of advice. Forget this community organizing business and do something that’s gonna make you some money. You can’t change the world, and people won’t appreciate you trying. But you’ve got a nice voice, so you should think about going into television broadcasting. I’m telling you, you’ve got a future.
“Now, he may have been right about the TV thing, but he was wrong about everything else. For that old man has not seen what I have seen. He has not seen the faces of ordinary people the first time they clear a vacant lot or build a new playground or force an unresponsive leader to provide services to their community. He has not seen the face of a child brighten because of an inspiring teacher or mentor. He has not seen scores of young people educate their parents on issues like Darfur, or mobilize the conscience of a nation around the challenge of climate change. He has not seen lines of men and women that wrap around schools and churches, that stretch block after block just so they could make their voices heard, many for the very first time.
“And that old man who didn’t believe the world could change – who didn’t think one person could make a difference…”
[See earlier blog post regarding Barack's speech on national service]
Full text of Barack Obama’s Wesleyan commencement address available here.