Back in June, I read an essay in the Los Angeles Times commenting on a graduation speech at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, given by faculty member David McCullough, Jr. The speech was "a gospel that bluntly reminded us how unspecial we are" and the speaker was "branded a hero by Rush Limbaugh." I was curious, but as the speech seemed like an extended scolding, I put the topic on the back burner.
For whatever reason, I recently got around to watching McCullough's speech and, not surprisingly, realized that the extensive media commentary had grossly misinterpreted it. What was almost universally labeled as the "You are not special" speech was really about something much deeper and more profound. It was not an adult ranting at self-absorbed teenagers and the culture that coddled them, it was a teacher's final plea to his students to embrace a life of goodness, selflessness, and love.
Do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer.
... Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.
McCullough himself reinforced this last line as his primary message in an article he wrote for Newsweek Magazine on the reaction to his speech: "None of them, I said, matters more than anyone else, because everyone is special, everyone matters - all 6.8 billion of us. Simple logic, really."
It is the simple recognition of our fellow human beings as our brothers and sisters, our family, and allowing that knowledge to guide our lives. Simple indeed.