The following address was presented by Liam R. Concannon '12 on May 19, 2012 at the 119th Commencement before to the Class of 2012 on the grounds of Saint Anselm College.
Good afternoon and welcome to Father Jonathan, Bishop Joseph and the Benedictine Community, Bishop McCormick, Members of the Board of Trustees, Honorary degree recipients, Abbot Matthew, faculty, staff, parents, relatives, friends, and you, my fellow classmates of the class of 2012.
So, this is it. We're here and it is time to remember the past and receive some advice for the future. It is time to ask the big questions. The one that really comes to my mind is "Have you ever seen a Starfish? I mean really seen it? It is by far one of the oddest looking living creatures in this world, like maybe the attachable end to some kind of tool that you would clean your bathroom. Odd as it may be, the starfish is the source of one of the most influential lessons in my life. It's a very common story, and I am sure many of you have heard it before, but it is worth repeating here before we step up on this stage and then take our leave of one another.
A young man off in the distance sees an older man gracefully tossing rock after rock into the sea. When the young man walks up closer he realizes the objects are not rocks but starfish. Once he reaches the old man he asks, "Why in the world are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" The old man explained that if the starfish stay on the beach, when the tide goes out and the sun rises higher, they will die. The young man responds "That's ridiculous! There are hundreds of miles of beach and thousands of starfish. You can't really believe that what you are doing can possibly make a difference!" The old man picked up another starfish, and tossed it into the waves, and said, "It makes a difference to that one."
I heard this story when I was studying abroad in South Africa, and a group of us were on a trip driving up though Mozambique on a dirt road that they call a highway. As we were driving, we witnessed poverty, but a type of poverty that most Americans never see. It was a type of poverty that creates a feeling of shock and frustration, a feeling that many of our classmates have experienced during Spring Break Alternative.
Needless to say it consumed my mind, and while my South African friend Grant was driving, he noticed. So he started to tell me the story of the starfish, and at the time I thought it was nice, but it wasn't until we pulled over for gas that it really had an impact on me. Once I got out of the car, groups of Portuguese speaking children swarmed trying to sell me cashews. I don't even like cashews. Naturally more and more kids came to hear the dumb American try to speak in what ended up being a mix of English, Spanish, and sign language.
I noticed Grant talking to a young special needs girl trying to sell a blanket full of inexpensive nick-nacks. Just then he took off his fairly new Puma sneakers, handed them to her and picked up only one object from the matt. While walking back he threw the object to me and when I looked at it I saw a dried out starfish. His only explanation was a quick wink and the simple response of "the starfish." That short response wisely summed it all up to me. You can't buy cashews from all of the children. You can't change their economy. So, why give up your sneakers? Well because it makes a difference to that one.
So what does that starfish story mean for us today? Well when we leave here we are walking onto a beach head covered in starfish. Our world is daunting. It is a world that, regardless of what career path we choose, comes with overwhelming waves of adversity. These challenges at times can seem hopeless, and make us feel helpless. How can a teacher change the education system? How can a business advisor change the financial system? How can a nurse change the medical system? How can any of us walking off of the quad today make an impact in the fields we have chosen when the needs are so overwhelming. Where do we even begin?
Well, we already have. We began four years ago when we walked into JOA and Dom and met that strange quiet roommate for the first time, who somehow became one of our best friends. It began at freshman orientation when the hypnotist made Caitlin Donovan forget what was after the number 3. It began the first day we sat in the class room and wondered why the teacher was wearing an all black robe.
During four years of our Catholic Liberal Arts Education we have been taught the importance of the individual. Humanities and Theology might have seemed like an absolute pain at the time, but they drove home how influential individual's actions can be on their environments. Out there waiting in that world there may be thousands of children needing your help, thousands of patients that need your aid, thousands of clients that need your assistance, thousands of starfish lying on the coast. The task we are given is not to take on the world as a whole, but to focus on its smallest component, the individual.
Help just one child comprehend math. Help diagnose just one elderly man with and early case of pneumonia. Help the finances of just one struggling family. Throw just one Starfish back into the ocean. Why? Because we have been taught that it makes a difference to that one.
The power of the individual and the power of the community were certainly clear when we each woke up this morning, feeling triumphant and also sad. These two emotions, sadness and triumph have just been wrestling inside of us for the past few weeks. Within the hour we will have finally graduated college. Once Caroline Wintersteen gets her degree we will be done. There will be no more lectures, drafts of a thesis, or comprehensive exams. We have passed every challenge Saint A's has placed before us, and yet with these significant achievements, we end a stage in our lives and therein lies the paradox.
During our quest to receive this degree, we have created such deep personal relationships with so many special individuals. In doing so we have formed a community. And now the friends we have made over these short four years will no longer be across the hall from us. We will never be walking into their classroom. We may never hear them say mass again. It is natural for us to branch off from one another and follow our own path across the country or the world. But what are we suppose to feel? Triumph? Or sadness? Well here is the best advice I can give.
There are few moments in our lives, when we can stop and realize how important the very minutes of the day are. When it happens to me, though it may seem odd, I take myself out of the situation. I pull back from whatever is immediately going on, and I just sit. And while sitting there I try and record every single moment that occurs, so that I can always remember it, so that I can remember till the day I die: the sights, and the sounds, and the smells, of the place, the people. I take it all and place it in my heart, because the things that we keep in our mind are always changing, but the things that we keep in our heart last forever.
This, right here, right now, is one of those moments. So take it all in. Take in the image of Alumni hall, the smells of a spring day in New Hampshire, the image of each one of us in our cap and gown, the gratitude you have for the monastic community, teachers and faculty, the feeling of pride your parents have for you, and most importantly the faces of your friends. Place it in your heart. Keep it there.
Life is a challenge. So in the future during triumphs and disappointments, when you are overwhelmed by the amount of dying starfish on the beach, or feel rather like a dried out starfish yourself, may this moment, these day, these years be enough to keep your heart full.
Godspeed Class of 2012!