This week on hbr.org blogs there is a short post referencing a high school commencement speech that went viral in The US a week or so ago. The speaker tells the class that they are not special, in an amusing, wise and still inspirational way.
You can find it here Hbr.org In it, Sarah Green makes reference to another much older commencement speech I had not read before today. I won’t publish the two links here because they deserve to be read within the context of her “get to work” article.
I had not read or heard of the older one by John Chapman until I read that blog post this morning. Why would I, I am a Brit and we didn’t do commencement speeches or graduation from school. I just walked out of the door on the day of the last public exam happy in the knowledge I would never have to return there again.
I think we missed a trick, maybe it happens now.
Stirred on by her quoting the final few words I followed the link and read. Simple, unambiguous.
It is a hard argument to balance. We learn early that discretion is the better part of valour. We learn to weigh that up against not being silent when you can see something that is not right. We wait for others to speak because they know better, are better connected, perhaps are braver ( you think?) . Then there is the exhaustion angle, sometimes if you have been speaking up it becomes tiresome for others and tiring for yourself. What to do then? The classic/biblical when to speak and when to be silent dilemma.
Who are you to question? What is your significance,why should your opinion count?
What does it feel like to remain silent when you should have said something? I bet you can think of occasions looking back when you wished you had found the words, any words, to say something. Say Something.
It doesn’t have to be about a hugely significant thing, though it is easy here to think of Martin Niemöller
and his poem:
First they came for the communists
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
It can be as seemingly insignificant as “please stop making me eggs they make me feel ill”, or “what are you trying to achieve by doing X”. Chapman is saying question what you are seeing and imploring everyone to do so.
It is the insignificant things that add up to your life being your own, or someone else’s. He is saying don’t be passive.
Insignificance is underrated, and yet it is the insignificant who in so many ways change the world. Either because they have no caring about who they are and go about things that seem important to them; some view this as humble, others might conclude arrogant. Or because they don’t care what happens to them. The Cause has become bigger than them, more important to them.
Being in nature gives you a sense of insignificance, your place in the universe. At times this is a good measure to decide whether your concerns are proportionate and how to respond. Delve into the dilemma of speaking up or staying silent, contemplate this whilst emersed in the enormous.
Nature can remind us of our insignificance in other ways too.
Recently I was in a forest on a hill-side. There was a path I had seen but not taken before, previously I’d just enjoyed the serenity the green light gave me. That evening, without my fully understanding why, I decided I wanted to see how this path went up. It got steeper and steeper and wetter and wetter as a storm suddenly came in.I could hear a new waterfall nearby and realised my moment of enthusiasm was NOTHING in this place of trees, with a torrent of rain coming and a sky full of relentless black clouds indicating more and more.
At that moment I probably had less to help me than the insects that were under leaves just waiting for it to be over.
I did not have that option. I couldn’t wait. I had to get up there because the way back down from there was certain. I knew what the path lead to if I could get there, something solid and wide from which I could descend. Whereas turning back was now impossible to do safely.
My knowing my insignificance against the elements told me, I had to get up there, I had to complete.