Life lessons: Make a difference in the world, speak up and, always, keep learning | Opinion
David Lawrence, Jr., recently received the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce “Sand in My Shoes” Award. This is an excerpt from his speech.
My life’s journey has been built on what forever will be important: That is, If you work hard to be fair, if you truly care about other people, if you are a genuine lifetime learner, if you spend real time and energy to make opportunity and optimism more real for others, then your life will be accompanied by moments of genuine joy brought to be by the difference you made for others. I bear in mind the words of Horace Mann, more or less the inventor of the American public school system, who said this at a college commencement just before the dawn of the Civil War: “Be ashamed to die before you have won some battle for humanity.”
I remain as optimistic and idealistic as I was growing up on a farm seven decades ago. This evening I share a dozen lessons of life that I absorbed from great parents, eight siblings, great bosses and colleagues, and so many of you. I am still learning. I always will be. Here, then, those lessons:
▪ Tell people you love them while they are still here. Life can depart so quickly. Many deaths can be more or less expected. Others come as a stunning surprise — a recent example being the loss of Paul Farmer. Let us celebrate people and let us show love, way before a funeral. May we treat all with respect, decency, kindness and, most of all, with love.
▪ Believe in people. The second President Bush warned of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” That happens often. But if we expect the best from others, the best more likely shows up.
▪ Grow spiritually. Believe in what is higher and better than yourself. For otherwise, what could be the meaning of life?
▪ Know that racism is the great cancer of society. I have been in 56 countries, and witnessed racism in every one of them. Only by confronting oneself can racism be diminished.
▪ Have the courage to speak up. Never tell so-called “jokes” that diminish others. Being thoughtful and sensitive has nothing to do with being “politically correct,” whatever that is.
▪ Be a lifelong learner and reader (especially of history and biographies). Live all your life enveloped in the wisdom of the author Edith Wharton, who a century ago wrote this: “In spite of illness, in spite of even the arch-enemy sorrow, one can stay alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things and happy in small ways.” Know, too, that the future of our republic depends on genuinely informed people. Just last week, I read that one of every six Americans believes in the so-called QAnon conspiracy. Social media should not be the single source of anything. Read widely. Read wisely. Deeply. Closely. Then make up your own mind. Be skeptical — and never cynical.
▪ You and I cannot get through life without pain. But we can grow from pain. The way we handle pain can teach us what is really important in this world, and for the next.
▪ Get back to people quickly — the same day, even if it is to say, “It will take me a couple of days to give you a full enough response.” Lincoln, my favorite president, who grew all his life, told us: “Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today.”
▪ Believe in redemption. We are all sinners. We all make mistakes. I think, by way of example, of a truly good man in our community, a leader who messed up, “owned” it, apologized — and deserves to be remembered for all the difference he made in so many young and older lives.
▪ Always vote for someone with an obvious moral core — someone who can inspire us in the spirit of Mr. Lincoln’s clarion call to “the better angels of our nature.”
▪ Love this country. Help make us better. Listen, really listen, especially to those who see things differently than we may. The future of this great republic depends more than ever on diminishing tribalism and hatefulness.
▪ And now, the final lesson. Leo Rosten, the Yiddish philosopher, wrote: “I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be ‘happy.’ I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you have lived at all.” I add only this: May we bring from what is within each of us the best of ourselves to do the best for others.
David Lawrence, Jr., is the chair of the Children’s Movement of Florida and retired publisher of the Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald.