Thank you President Qayoumi. Thank you Dean Badejo. Thank you to my friend Jeffrey Bleich and all the other trustees at Cal State University for this recognition. It’s a great honor for me to be this year’s recipient of the doctorate of Fine Arts. And it is very fitting that the award comes from CSU, a cultural and educational powerhouse right here in the bay area, a place I have happily and proudly called home now for nearly 2/3 of life, a region also home to tens of thousands of fellow Afghans.
Though this is a very prideful moment for me personally, and for my family, I would like to spend the next few minutes talking about you. This is a happy day for you as well, and rightfully so. This is a moment to be savored, and you have earned the right to relish it. Congratulations to all of you. Today, after this ceremony is done, go out and celebrate with your family and loved ones. Eat a hearty meal, and go to sleep tonight knowing that you have passed a major landmark in your life and that you have every reason to be pleased with and proud of yourself.
But, if I may, I’d like to offer a gentle word of caution: Don’t be too proud of yourself. And don’t pat yourself too hard on the back. I take nothing away from your accomplishments, from your years of hard work and all the midnight oil you’ve burned to get where you are today. I commend for that and I congratulate you. But if you really think about it, arguably the biggest reason why you’re seating in those seats today about to receive your diplomas has little to do with you or anything you did. For that, you can thank pure, sheer, dumb luck. Certainly not to impune any of you or your hard work, but it was random luck, after all, wasn’t it, that you were conceived by your particular set of parents, and it was random luck, wasn’t it, that those parents happened to live in this corner of the world, where you never lack for shelter, where you get to drink clean water and never go hungry, and where you get to reap the fruits of education and opportunity. Be grateful, is what I am saying, be humble and don’t mislead yourself into thinking that you deserve everything you’ve got. In the words of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, Deserve’s got nothing to do with it. You have worked hard, but you are also lucky. Hell, I am lucky. The fine folks sitting behind me are lucky. We have all hit a grand cosmic lottery. Almost certainly our fates would have turned out differently if we’d been born in, say, in a remote village in Sierra Leone or in the deserts of South Sudan.
The truth is, none of us gathered here today can be said to be proper representatives of this planet. Not you, not me, not the fine folks sitting behind me. We are the exception. If a spaceship were to land today, and little green aliens waddled out with the mission to take a sample of 100 typical humans from earth to take back home and study, they likely wouldn’t take very many of us from this room. Because we are not proper ambassadors for this planet. Because we live lives so radically different from those of most of the people on this still fundamentally impoverished planet. We live one set of realities, you and I, and much of the world lives another.
Here is what the green little aliens would find if they decided to scout this planet:
-That of the 2.2 billion children in the world, half live in poverty.
-That 25,000 kids die every day, and by the time I am done with this sentence, another child will have died (or one child every 3.5 seconds,) of hunger, poverty, or preventable illness.
-That over 20 million people live uprooted lives as refugees or displaced people, an issue close and dear to my own heart, given my Afghan origins.
-That 1.1 billion people live on less than a $1.25 a day, and nearly half the planet, over three billion people—live on less than $2.50 a day.
-That almost 800 million people in the developing world are chronically undernourished.
-That nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read or even sign their names.
That is the reality of the planet that we share, you and I. How can this be? How can this go on in this, the age of genetic engineering, and satellites in space, and robots testing rocks on the surface of Mars, in the age of Facebook and Twitter and i-phone and the Kindle and the hybrid car, how can so much of the world live in such deprivation? And why don’t we hear more about it? In a sane world, wouldn’t calamity of this scale be front page headlines and the prime time news leading story every night? Why are we more interested in the Octomom’s book deal or every trivial detail of Jon and Kate Gosselin’s marital woes than the fact, for instance, that average life expectancy in Afghanistan is an astonishing 43 years?
Poverty in the world that you as CSU graduates are about to enter has causes that are as diverse as they are complex: Economic factors, environmental degradation, poor governance in developing countries, corruption, war, social inequality, overpopulation, and others. Some of these factors, even we in the privileged world cannot affect adequately. But many of them we can. Why is it, then, that we haven’t done more to defeat world poverty? Is it because we don’t notice? Or is it something more sinister, that We. Just. Don’t. Care. There may be something to that. In fact, I think there is a lot to that. Because I feel personally, and I realize that this isn’t a particularly enlightened position, I feel personally that among the villains in this war on poverty, the Darth Vader of them all is apathy and its insidious, enormous negative power.
It was Helen Keller who said, “Science may have found a cure for most evils, but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all--the apathy of human beings.”
The uncharitable explanation for apathy is to say that we’re too selfish. That we in the rich industrialized world have become lulled in self-centered lives of comfort, that we are a tranquilized people entangled in the pursuit of luxury and self-gratification and entertainment, that we don’t take the time to think about the hardships of people less fortunate than us, and therefore we do nothing. The great Physician William Osler said, “By far the most dangerous foe we have to fight is apathy - indifference from whatever cause, not from a lack of knowledge, but from carelessness, from absorption in other pursuits, from a contempt bred of self satisfaction.”
I think there is an element of truth in that. But I think this is both unfair and a decidedly jaundiced view of human nature. I personally prefer a less cynical explanation. I think apathy is borne from the belief that we are helpless. That suffering is pervasive and a way of life as long as there have been people on this planet. That poverty and the associated suffering are both ubiquitous and inevitable in the human experience. The suffering in this world is so widespread and of such mass scale, that we feel overwhelmed by it. We are defeated by it and we slowly turn fatalistic and lose our sense of moral urgency. Our perception of impotence at the face of all this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and gradually we lose our impetus to relieve suffering. Why try when we can’t change anything?
Well, if you remember anything from I tell you today, I ask that you remember this –and if I am grandstanding, you have my apologies, but when you hand people like me a ladder, don’t blame us for climbing the soapbox.
What I want you to remember is this: Yes, go out and find work that fulfills you. Make an honest living and get the things you want. Marry someone you love. Start your family. Live a full life. But, don’t live an insular life. Never lose sight of the fact that you are of the lucky few who have hit the lottery and always remember those who have not. In the greater narrative of your own life, make room for those who, as the fable goes, suffer the most and cry out the least.
The East Bay is a wonderful, culturally rich and diverse region and a great place to live. But I suggest that at some point you get a passport. Travel. Read. Meet people from other walks of life and see for yourself, if you haven’t already, that there is a much broader world at large, one that extends well beyond mine and your fortunate lives, a world where there is beauty and grace and kindness, but also a world wracked by social injustice, and brutality, and hunger, and suffering. And if what you find moves you, if it inspires you, if it enrages you, if it compels you, then act out of it. Because I tell you that you are not helpless. You are young and resourceful and educated and capable and talented, and you can always help, be it as an individual, or as part of a family, a congregation, a community. Don’t let yourself fall to apathy. You are not helpless. You can change things. Everything you do matters and nothing that you do is too small when you help a fellow human being on this planet whose only sin is to be less lucky than you. As Winston Churchill said, “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.”