MAXWELL:  Serve others and fulfill yourself

5/31/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In Florida, the commencement and hurricane seasons briefly converge this time of year. Which produces more wind is an open question. But unlike the hurricane, which gathers its force from heat and water, the commencement speech derives whatever power it has from cool logic and inspiring words. As a columnist and an editorial writer, I am sometimes invited to speak at commencements. Following is the gist of what I shall say to graduates this year:

In addition to striving to achieve lives of personal success, go out and serve others. By service to others, I do not mean quid pro quo, doing something for something in return. I mean unselfish kindness and generosity, acts that validate our good fortune, that give meaning to our lives and, above all, that sustain and dignify the lives of others. In this regard, no acts are too small and no person in need of assistance is too lowly.

Unselfish service is marked by humility _ a hard-to-find trait in this age of egoism and individualism. But I give the same advice offered recently by George Rupp, president of Columbia University, who told graduates that as committed community volunteers, they can comprehend “the need to revitalize our common life as a necessary part of individualism.” In other words, the life of the community and individualism need not be mutually exclusive.

Rupp’s words complement the wisdom of Dot Richardson, an orthopedic surgeon and the Olympic softball gold medalist who asks graduates not to squander the “moments in our lives when we will be given the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others.”

After winning her medal, for example, she brought it to the children’s hospital in Los Angeles where she works and placed it around the neck of each child there, some of whom had undergone brain surgery. Why did Richardson perform this act of kindness?

“I wanted to make sure every one of those kids got to wear that medal,” she said.

So simple _ and yet at the heart of what makes humans human.

As a parent and a citizen of this great nation, one of my biggest concerns is the increasing strife among young people of various races and ethnic groups. Here again, service is important. As you enter the workplace as professionals, routinely reach out in kindness and understanding to people unlike yourselves.

Do not simply chat with others around the water cooler or coffee urn. If you are white, find time to regularly have dinner with a black or Hispanic or Asian colleague. If you are African-American, invite colleagues of different ethnic backgrounds to explore new areas of black life, even parts of the city that are reportedly off-limits to them.

These efforts, too, are part of community service, for they foster enlightenment, civility and democratic values. The workplace, then, should be treated as an extension of community life, which includes our churches, our civic organizations, our neighborhood sports teams. Be vigilant, always searching for ways to share your good fortune.

So, to this year’s graduates, I say this: If you go into the world and serve others, you will help give meaning to life itself. You will fulfill our purpose for being on this earth.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.