The following is a commencement speech delivered by Jacob G. Hornberger at Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School in Joplin, Missouri.
The relatively short journey from birth to death remains a great mystery to all of us. While the Creator has breathed life into each of us, He has not yet seen fit to share with us the grand design behind it all.
Having given this issue some consideration and reflection over the years, I have concluded that while we may not know the overall meaning of human existence, it must have something to do with “hatching” as human beings-growing, maturing, developing, becoming-a constant process of self-improvement.
If there is an element of truth to this, then it would stand to reason that the best society is one in which there is the widest ambit of human choices-that is, a society in which people are free to live their lives any way they choose, as long as their conduct is peaceful. That is, no murder, rape, theft, and the like but otherwise each person free to make his way in life as he pleases.
Central to this notion is the right to make choices that are contrary to what everyone else in society believes are the right ones. For if people are free to make only those choices that everyone else approves of, how can people truly be considered free?
Two thousand years ago, Jesus was asked about the two greatest commandments. He said that the first and the great commandment is to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul. The second, He said, is just like the first-to love our neighbor as our self.
What is noteworthy is that God never forces anyone to comply with either of these two commandments. Man is left free to deny God, his neighbor (including his parents and friends), and himself.
A young rich man once approached Jesus, said that he had followed all the commandments, and asked what else was there for him to do. Jesus told him to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and follow Him.
Unable to meet the challenge, the man walked away with great despondency.
Significantly, Jesus did not force the man to help the poor. The man’s choice not to do so was honored.
The importance of freedom of choice in one’s life was emphasized by Thomas Jefferson, who pointed out in the Declaration of Independence that liberty is a fundamental right endowed in man by Nature and Nature’s God and thus preexists the coercive apparatus of government.
A society in which people have the widest ambit of choices with respect to their peaceful activities is apt to nurture the values that we hold important-such as responsibility, compassion, and morality. As the Christian theologian Norman Vincent Peale used to point out, the obstacles and problems that people face in life are often opportunities for human growth. Moreover, the constant struggle of each individual to choose between right and wrong often results in higher levels of conscience and consciousness in a society.
Unfortunately, in the 20th century, an opposite idea has gripped the hearts and minds of mankind: that coercion is the best way to achieve an educated, responsible, moral, compassionate society. One of the most extreme examples of this is in Cuba, which I recently visited. There, the state runs the schools, the health-care system, old-age assistance, and care for the poor. There are severe drug laws and gun-control laws. The job market is tightly controlled so that everyone has employment. The state owns the libraries, university, buildings, and highways. People are not permitted to accumulate large amounts of wealth. The result of all of these constraints of peaceful choices is severe impoverishment among the Cuban people, not only economically but psychologically as well.
Today’s graduates have the ability to lead the world out of this morass of coercion-to help the older generations to recapture what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “self-reliance”-the “can do” attitude that once characterized the American people.
To lead the way, you must believe in yourselves, achieving what is called “self-esteem.” To accomplish this, you must discover why you were born-what special role you have to play in the universe. Remember that throughout all the eons, God created only one of you and that this is what makes each of you so extraordinary.
Memorize how you feel this day-your hopes, dreams, and ideals. For as you reach your 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond, you will experience the natural setbacks of life, some of which will cause you great suffering. Keeping alive your idealism will help light your way when you pass through the inevitable periods of darkness.
March to the beat of your own drummer, and throw yourself into life with great gusto. In this way, when it comes time for you to finish this relatively short journey from birth to death-when it comes time for you to die-as Henry David Thoreau pointed out-you do not discover that you have not lived.