by Randolph I Gordon
Seattle University School of Law Commencement Address, December 22, 2001
I speak to you of three guiding principles, or buoys, which mark out the trackless, fogbound seas. There are three astonishing mysteries of human existence which can serve as markers that guide you to the deep channels of lives well lived that are a credit to our profession, our community and our humanity.
The first of these is the principle of simultaneity, the knowledge that as we celebrate today, there are others who are suffering. For us this is a day of celebration – for others a day of mourning. Today is for us a day of peace – for others a day of war. In the Taoist symbol of Yin and Yang, we see in the bright heart of celebration the shadow of despair; we eat while others starve. According to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, the average American consumes 260 pounds of meat annually compared to 6.5 pounds for the average Bangladeshi. Do you feel you are 40 times more worthy? What makes us worthy to receive this gift and opportunity? Nothing.
This is the simple logic of saying grace. People try to isolate themselves from this knowledge – not to notice that by 2050, eight billion of the 9.5 billion people on this planet will be in the developing world. But let’s consider our world today. In the developing world, three-fifths of its people lack safe sewers, one-third safe water; 20 per cent lack access to any modern medical services at all. They aspire to the abuse we receive from HMOs.
This is a message of knowledge. This burden must be with you as long as there is injustice and hunger in the world. I cannot spare you this knowledge. The question is not how can you live knowing this, it is how can you live not knowing this?
The second guiding principle or buoy in your life’s voyage is that of our essential connectedness to our fellow man. This is the basis of our duty. This is the explanation of the laudable ritual of the Passover seder, where for each of the plagues visited upon Pharaoh, a drop of wine is removed from the glass. Our pleasures must be diminished by our essential connectedness to the despairs of humankind. So it is that one of the Five Pillars of Islam is Zakat, the giving to the needy; in Jewish tradition it is Tzedakim. It is what John Donne understood when he wrote: “No man is an island entire to itself…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
If you wear shoes, sleep under a roof, have eaten in the last eight hours and have the prospect of a meal in the next eight hours, you are one of the wealthiest people on the planet. As one of the one per cent who are lawyers – educated and trained in the switches and levers of power, you are among the powerful people on earth. Who shall do the work? If not you, who? Shall we call upon migrant laborers, illegal immigrants, refugees? Shall we leave it to the Taliban, the al-Qaida, the farmers of the lowlands in Bangladesh periodically threatened by flood? The foundation of all ethics is that one’s moral duty is commensurate with one’s power. So what then shall I expect of you, the most powerful people in the world – little or much?
That third principle is that of choice and renewal, the fact that with every moment of life we are blessed with a rebirth of our choice as to how to live that moment and this moment. Life is many moments; this is one of them – one of the best, pregnant with hope and possibility. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit philosopher and scientist, said: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” This is a message of hope. If you heed these principles, these buoys, you will head out to the deep seas and do the work of humanity.
This Commencement Address was written by Randolph I Gordon, a member of the adjunct faculty at Seattle University. It is reprinted by permission of the author and the Washington State Bar News. Copyright 2002.
This article was published in the August 2002 issue of BarTalk. © 2002 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.