Thirty years ago this Spring, I delivered the Valedictorian address for my Jr./Sr. High School. Reading it now gives me goosebumps. At the tender age of 18, I had strong ideals. Over the course of the following three decades, I turned those ideals into ideas and acted upon them. It reminded me that everything I have done in my life so far has led me to do the work I am doing today—as a mother, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a lover, an entrepreneur, a life-learner, and, quite humbly, a work-in-progress. I am proud to share with you the speech I delivered to a packed gymnasium in Scituate, RI on June 8, 1984.
Greetings to all of you who are here to share in the graduation of our class of ’84. I had a difficult time deciding what to say tonight. Everyone here is celebrating this special occasion, so I wanted to deliver a message that had special importance to all of us. Well, that eliminated, “My Critical Analysis of a Current Issue,” or “How the Class of ’84 Can Solve the World’s Problems.” I was searching instead for a theme that would have relevance to each of us in a personal and meaningful way and would leave us all with something to think about. As I was struggling with this dilemma, I picked up a book written by one of my favorite authors, Leo Buscaglia, and opened up to the chapter “The Art of Being Fully Human.” It occurred to me as I read through the chapter that we’ve learned a great many things in school, but one essential topic was left out. No one ever really taught us how to be a human being and what it means to be human. Everyone assumes that we have acquired this knowledge by osmosis or something. Well, osmosis isn’t working. Erich Fromm says, “The pity in life today is that most of us die before we are fully born, before we become fully human.”
This concept of “being human” seems so abstract, yet when I investigated the topic of humanness, I found a whole book written by John Powell titled, Fully Human, Fully Alive. What I read made such an impression on me that I decided to share the ideas of Buscaglia and Powell with you tonight.
How, then, do we become fully functioning human beings? John Powell outlines five essential steps to become fully human people.
First, we have to accept ourselves as we are. All growth begins with self-acceptance. Only when, and if, we feel good about ourselves do we have the freedom and confidence to become fully human. In other words, the foundation of our humanness is a positive self-image. Every one of us is unique and special—a magic combination that will never be again. As Buscaglia suggests: the next time we pass a mirror, look in and say, “My Goodness; you know, it’s true; there is only one me.”
Secondly, we have to be ourselves. Fully human people are liberated by their self-acceptance to be authentic and real. Often times we hide behind masks to protect us from our vulnerability. But masks screen us from reality and reduce our visibility. Masks diminish our capacity for living. As fully human people, we don’t need masks, because we have to rise above the nagging need for the approval of others. As the old expression wisely advises, “To thine own self be true.”
Thirdly, we have to forget ourselves and reach out to others. Having learned to accept and to be ourselves, we, as fully human people, proceed to master the art of forgetting ourselves, the art of developing relationships. We learn to go out of ourselves in genuine caring and concern for others. We are not egocentric and are not bound by the limitations of selfishness, but instead are empathic to others. In this way, fully human people greatly enlarge the world and increase the potential for human experience.
The fourth step we have to take to become fully functioning humans is to discover meaning in our lives. Having learned to care for others, fully human people find a specific vocation or mission in life. It is a commitment that motivates them. This commitment, whether to an educational pursuit, a career goal, or a personal aspiration, provides direction for the lives of fully human people, thus making all of our efforts seem significant and worthwhile. Without meaning in our lives we are left almost entirely to the search for mere sensations or petty self-gratification. If we spend our days seeking new “kicks,” or new ways to break the monotony and boredom of our lives, we will go nowhere. We must find causes to believe in and goals to pursue or else spend the rest of our lives compensating for our failures.
The last step Powell suggests for becoming fully human beings is to belong. Fully human people belong, are “loved,” “accepted,” or “have a place” somewhere—in their families, their churches, their social groups, wherever.
In this way, we have a support system, a nurturing environment or community in which to thrive. Contrary to belonging, is the sense of isolation which is always destructive and which can lead us into the pits of loneliness, alienation, and unhappiness. We have to experience the deep peace and contentment that comes only with a sense of belonging, if we expect to become fully human beings.
In addition to Powell’s five steps, namely—to accept ourselves, to be ourselves, to reach out to others, to discover meaning in our lives, and to belong—Leo Buscaglia elaborates on some other aspects he feels are necessary to be fully human. He says that the ability to forgive is vital. I quote, “One of the greatest attributes we have is the marvelous attribute of forgiveness. I forgive you for being less than perfect. I will demand that everybody else be perfect the day that I become perfect, so you’re all safe.”
Another human element Buscaglia thinks is essential is a sense of humor. We all have the tendency to take things too seriously. We don’t laugh enough. It has been medically proven that laughter is a healing agent. In some hospitals today, doctors prescribe Abbot & Costello movies for some of their patients instead of painkillers, knowing that laughter will make their patients feel better than any drug ever could. When we get in serious states of mind, nothing seems funny. Sometimes we forget how to be joyous. We need to keep in touch with our sense of humor and let it take over. See what happens. It will brighten your day!
Tonight, I extend a challenge, not only to the graduates of the class of ’84, but also to everyone in this auditorium, to try to become fully human and fully alive people. If we can achieve this goal, life will be so much more fulfilling and positive for us. In closing, I’d like to quote Leo Buscaglia one last time—“You know, I have a strong feeling that this wonderful quality of humanness, with all of its wonder, is God’s gift to you. And what you do with it is your gift to God. Don’t satisfy yourself with anything less than offering God the perfect gift that you are … and have a blast doing it.”