The following is the text of a brief closing address that I shared with the high school students and staff of Compass Montessori School at the closing of their 2nd Annual PeaceJam Social Justice Conference on May 22, 2017:
"Good Afternoon. It is exciting for me to join you all here again, following a day of study, thought, and co-exploration of issues of self-expression, peace, and social justice. I wonder in what ways today has provided opportunities for you to question and theorize; to collaborate and partner, and to build capacity around being agents of change... I imagine that all of you have been moved in ways that have, perhaps, surprised you.
"Looking out and seeing the one hundred-plus souls here, I feel lifted by our community and each of the individuals that comprise its whole. And I hope that is a feeling that you hold, as well, following today’s events and also after a year’s worth of work and service. You know, if there is any true end-game to the collective work of the adults here that serve you, you all right now - sitting there as you are - are it. Within you reside our hopes for a more accepting society, and for a more peaceful world.
"I’d like to talk to you today about joy and suffering, two sides of life’s coin. When it comes down to it, I believe that it’s navigating the space between pure delight and the depths of pain that shapes a life lived fully and with attention. If I have a wish for you today, it would be to grow to feel life in its fullest, and to avoid the dullness that despair, ignorance, and disaffection can breed from within.
"Think for a moment: What is it that brings you the most joy? I mean, really: Consider those moments when you feel, surprisingly, most like yourself? I don’t mean when you’re having the most “fun”; I mean joy like you rarely experience - sheer delight, where you are able to lose yourself, but for being so immersed in the thing that you love. What is it that you love? Not the what you do because your friends do it too, or because it’s amusing, or because it distracts you from the real pain that you might be experiencing… What is it that calls to you, and allows you to feel more you in the process?
"Can you see it? Do you recognize it? Or, at least, have a sense of what it might be?
"It is critical is that we find time to more fully attach ourselves to the joy that is us, not merely entertainment or a balm that blinds us to the struggles of the day. You’ll find it, your truest self, or it’ll find you. Of course, it’s already there, just waiting to be acknowledged and let loose. Who we are is inescapable. That acorn of our soul has been with us since birth and, I believe, who we are each becoming is programmed in our genetics, our ancestry, and modified only temporarily by our day-to-day experiences. In the end, how we were destined to be is irrepressible.
"Now, consider this: What does it feel like to leave those moments of joy, and to carry on with the rest of your life? Does the person that experiences such joy at one moment, when returned to “real life”, feel like an alter ego of yours, met sometimes in hidden alleys of experience, but rarely connected to who you are day-to-day? What would it be like to be able to bring that joy forward, or that it was to be our truest self through which we interact with the world?
"For how many of you, are you truly aware of the masks and shields you wear as you leave the privacy of your own room? The clothes we adorn, the jewelry and hats we don, the styles we affect, the ways our bodies move, how and if we respond to others, the angle of our gaze, the curve of our shoulders, the smiles we hide, and the tears we quietly dry? Why in the world do we often bury our true selves in protective armor? Who are we protecting? What essential part of ourselves are we keeping safe and hidden from view?
"The way to true peace is, in part, to acknowledge the roots of our own pain so that we might more directly relate to the pain of others. We bring, I believe, violence into our lives when we do not acknowledge this solitary truth: that we are each suffering, and in each other we might find great comfort and solace - if only we open ourselves to that possibility.
"We all want to be seen and heard for the truth we are living. More than anything, we all desire to be seen as we know ourselves to be. For that, unconditional compassion is the key.
"To have true compassion, literally, is “to suffer with” another. When we are able to connect with others through empathy, we can immediately go right there - to the nugget of the other’s experience, to understand the nuances of an otherwise hidden life. This does not mean that we ride freewheeling into the darkness alongside the person with whom we are connecting; rather, we feel their pain as our pain, help to name it and contain it, and - when appropriate - provide new thinking as to its relief.
"What does that do for the other? They are able to be felt, truly and wholly, as they are: broken heart to broken heart. That simple act of bare and honest vulnerability does more to heal than we might expect. And what does this gentle act of grace and kindness do for you? It further unlocks a deeper understanding of your truest self, and connects you to humanity in ways that weave the fabric of peace.
"So how does one do this: Embrace that which brings you the most joy, all the while calling out the personal pain you feel within? Crazy, right? At a time in your life when you might be drawn to hide, cover-up, protect your ego… let it go. Humility is ultimately a much less painful path than hubris. You have within you the capacity to act with great care, rather than control; to be deeply compassionate, rather than coercive - all fueled by the courage to move beyond mere compromise alone.
"To live is an act of protest. To be alive is to cry out, “I am!” In mindfully balancing our delight and despair, our joy and our confusion, we bring to our friendships, families, and communities the capacity for more meaningful relationships, grounded in our personal truth. That level of self-reflection and care, coupled with the ability to meet others where they are is an act of great personal power and political provocation - much more of which is needed today, tomorrow, and the next day. The future is ours to build together.
(Image Sources: 1. PeaceJam Logo: www.peacejam.org; Eath From Space: www.nasa.gov)