Undergraduate Commencement Exercises
Santa Clara University
Buck Shaw Stadium
June 11, 2011
Thank you for inviting me to be part of today’s celebration. As you may know, I graduated from this university in 1988 and have many fond memories of my time here. It is a privilege to be a member of the SCU community. And a very special honor to be asked to speak to you today.
At the time I graduated, I was preparing to become a physician. Actually, I can admit now that being a doctor was what I thought I should be, rather than what I really wanted to be, but nonetheless, it’s what I thought my education was preparing me to do.
As some of you may know, I did become a physician and practiced that craft for over eight years before I was fortunate enough to realize my secretly held ambition of becoming a writer. Still, thinking back, I can see that much of what I learned on this campus is more relevant to me now than I could have ever imagined it would be. And I think that, in at least one aspect, you and I will come away from our Santa Clara educations with one very important thing in common.
And that thing goes back to what this university is all about. Because when it comes to identifying one thing to which you can hold fast throughout your life—regardless of the career you choose, where you live, or how much money you do or don’t make—I think the founders of this university, members of the Society of Jesus as they were called in 1851, were spot on. Their aspiration was for you and I to become "men for others." Or as we would say today, they hoped we would be "men (and women) for others."
I’d like to tell you what this has meant for me and why I think this notion is not only the "true north" of education, but also of what it means to live a fulfilling life. Being a man or woman for others is a great responsibility but it is also a great gift
But first, in order to accept this gift, we have to first reject the prevailing mindset of our culture—the mindset of scarcity.
In the West, the mindset of scarcity is so deeply entrenched that even at an unconscious level, we believe things are scarce. Think about it…we don’t have enough time, enough money, bandwidth, friends, clothes, opportunities…fill in the blank. The list is endless. We have been trained to believe in scarcity because we are constantly being told we need more of everything, but that there isn’t enough of anything to go around.
Food is a great example. Every night on this planet one billion people—that is one billion with a "b"—go to bed hungry and we are told this is because there is not enough food. But that’s not true. The truth is that right now, this very minute, there is enough grain to feed the world twice over.
We are bombarded daily with messages that reinforce our belief in scarcity—and in our own incompleteness. These messages tell us that we should buy more, have more, and be more, because what we are and what we have is not enough. How can we possibly think about being for others, when we are convinced we will never have enough for ourselves?
The answer is we can’t.
In order to be a man or woman for others, the first thing we have to do is break free of the scarcity mindset, and try on a new way of thinking, something that author Lynne Twist calls The Great Truth of Sufficiency.
Which goes like this: "When you let go of trying to get more of what you don’t really need, which is usually what we are trying to get, it frees up immense energy to make a difference with what you have."
To repeat, "When you let go of trying to get more of what you don’t really need, which is usually what we are trying to get, it frees up immense energy to make a difference with what you have."
Right now your parents may be getting worried that I am suggesting you don’t need master’s degrees, jobs, or cars, or homes. So let me reassure them, and you, that this is not what I mean.
What I am suggesting is that each of us, me included, already has enough to begin thinking about how to be a man or woman for others.
We don’t need to wait until we land a good job, have sufficient savings or retire. And the best part is, the moment we begin to live for others—even if only for a small fraction of our day—we feel a release from the mindset of scarcity. Because making a difference in the world, no matter how large or small that difference is—will change your life in extraordinary ways. And connect you to a greater sense of purpose.
Now, being used for a larger purpose does not mean responding to the next natural disaster by getting rid of things in your closet or texting a donation on your phone. Although I do encourage you to do these things as well.
It means using your knowledge and your heart to gain wisdom bydoingsomething for someone else. Something that requires you to learn something different, think in a novel way, and imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.
I am certain that a great many of you do this already. You volunteer as tutors, raise money for breast cancer and AIDS research, work for environmental groups, deliver meals to the sick. You are, I am sure, helping hundreds of causes. And I am certain that your knowledge, ability to learn quickly, and most of all, your youthful enthusiasm, are of tremendous value to those you are helping.
Being a novelist has given me a unique opportunity to see just how great a difference young people can make—even those with little money and limited time. Every day I get letters from around the world. And in these letters people tell me that my stories have moved them to want to help women and children in Afghanistan.
I cannot adequately convey to you how gratifying it is to hear from a young woman in Sydney, Tel Aviv, Arkansas or London for example, that Miriam, a character in my book A Thousand Splendid Suns, has inspired her to change her life. It’s not that these readers can relate to being forcibly married at a young age to an older man. They cannot. But Miriam’s plight and her story have reconnected them to their own experiences of feeling helpless. And Miriam’s generosity and courage have helped them discover their own strength and desire to affect change.
And they do affect change.
In the fall of 2007, I took a trip to Afghanistan. On that trip, I met families who lived on less than $1 per day. I spent time with women who sheltered their children in holes dug in the ground because they could not afford a home and needed some way to protect their little ones from freezing to death at night. Everywhere I went, I encountered people who experienced real scarcity—not enough shelter, food, water, medicine, and certainly not enough opportunity for education. As a father, I was overwhelmed and heartbroken by what I saw and heard. As an Afghan, I felt connected to this suffering in a way I had not before.
When I returned home, I created The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, to provide shelter, healthcare, education and economic opportunity for people in Afghanistan. This is my way to affect change. Along the way, I have been joined by young people just like you. Some raise money for my foundation to help us build shelters. Others raise awareness about the plight of refugees in countries besieged by war. Others just awaken from the numbness that can set in after seeing so many photographs of people suffering in places and circumstances we know little about. And all of these things make a huge difference. All are expressions of being a man or woman for others.
The payoff for these efforts exceeds anything I could have imagined. When we hear that a 16-year-old girl in Afghanistan is finally able to attend school or that a family of refugees have a shelter to see them through the winter, I feel hope. Even on days when the news from Afghanistan is grim, I can trust that there is enough—enough good will and time and expertise to make a difference. If not for everyone in need, than at least for some.
And this is something else really important I have learned. The environmental and humanitarian problems of which we are all aware are enormous in scope. Overwhelming. Perhaps even impossible to solve. But I have learned not to be afraid to begin the work for fear it can never be completed.
The Christian mystic Thomas Merton counsels: "Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps bring about its opposite. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value of the rightness, the truth of the work itself."
Similarly, I have been told that one of the most profound Jewish teachings says that you are not required to complete the task of "healing the world", but neither are you free to refuse to start it.
All of these teachings aim to prepare us for the fact that we must practice generosity in this life without expecting to necessarily see the world change as a result of our efforts.
It’s hugely freeing to come to terms with this.
Especially after all these years in which your achievements have been measured and graded by others—and in which you have lived with the expectation that things can be completed, in order, in a predictable and timely manner.
Which brings me back to today—your day to celebrate being free from class schedules, finals and grades, at least for a while.
I am very grateful to be here with your friends and family to celebrate your accomplishments. You have worked hard and you deserve the accolades and attention you are receiving. Take it all in. You earned it!
Tomorrow, or next week, you may notice that things are already starting to feel a little hard. Most of you will find that the world is not rolling out the red carpet for you. Jobs may be hard to find in spite of how brilliant you have just proved yourself to be.
So here is my advice. When and if this happens, don’t get caught by it.
Instead of letting the voice of scarcity take over, remember the watchword of this university, and be a man or woman for others.
If you do, you will not only fulfill the aspirations of those who founded this great school for you, you will always have work, always have purpose, always have community, and always remember the promise of this great day.