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1986 Commencement Speech: John Powell, S.J., Professor of Theology, Loyola University

Source: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries

Thank you very much, my brothers and sisters. I'm really honored to be asked to give the principal address at the graduation of the Class of 1986.
Of course I'm not worthy of this honor, but I'm going to fake it anyway. You see I suffer terribly from what's called an impostor complex. My only con- solation is that ancient Chinese proverb that goes, “Blessed are those who could laugh at themselves they shall never cease to be entertained.”

On now to the more serious stuff. Recently, a study was made of one hundred persons, who were judged to be “most successful” in every aspect of their lives. Extensive interviews were conducted and all the available information was fed into a very sophisticated computer. The people con- ducting the study wanted to find out what these successful people had in common. What is the common denominator of success?

The best guesses were quickly ruled out. Some had doctorate degrees; others had only a grade school education. Some had come from affluent families; others grew up in cold water flats. One interesting statistic is that 70 percent of the select group came from small towns, with populations under 15,000. Finally, when the study was almost completed, at last a common trait was isolated. Every single one of these hundred people was a committed “goodfinder.”

By definition, “goodfinders” are people who look for and find what is good in themselves, in other people, in all the various circumstances and situations of life. “Goodfinders” are conscious, of course, of their own limitations, but they're even more aware of their unique goodness and giftedness. “Goodfinders” know that other people have their weaknesses and frailties. But they see through them and look for and find the sterling qualities that are under them. Lastly, “goodfinders” see a promise in every problem, a silver lining in every cloud. They recognize that many of life's greatest opportunities come to us in the disguise of problems.

Today, in a very real sense, your own lives, dear graduates, are at a new beginning. You're going to go out into that “cold cruel world” you've been hearing all about. What are you going to find? What will you find in yourself as you are put to this new test? What will you find in the others whom you will meet? How will you react to the problems that will certainly arise in your lives? I think you will find whatever you have decided to look for. “Two men looked out from prison bars. One saw mud, the other stars.” Or its more modern version, the rhyming couplet, has been expanded: “As you ramble through life, my brother, my sister, whatever be your goal: keep your eye upon the doughnut and not upon the hole.” “Goodfinders” are actively aware that Almighty God has done uniquely
good things in themselves. “Goodfinders” look for and find what is good in others, and they vocally affirm them. “Goodfinders” explicitly and gratefully appreciate the goodness and the giftedness of the other people in their
lives. Finally, “goodfinders” look for what is good in all the situations of life. They look for the silver lining in all the dark clouds and they expect a rainbow after the storm. They find a place of warmth in every winter and they see opportunities where other people see only obstacles.

God is, of course, the original “goodfinder.” Once God looked upon a cruel and vicious world. Two-thirds of the human race was locked into a torturous slavery. Most of the world was entertained by watching the violence
of the gladiators, who fought unto death to the delight of the spectators. In his book, A Traveler in Rome, H. v. Morton writes that when one of the gladiators was fallen, exhausted and wounded, the other would put his sword at
the base of the fallen man's neck, and then he would look at the excited crowd. They would hold up money or jewelry in one hand, and with the other they would make a gesture indicating that the fallen man should be spared or killed.

When the crowd signaled “death,” the gladiator would brutally plunge his cold sword through the neck of this victim. Morton writes that this always caused an eruption of cheering as though a homerun had been hit in a ballpark during a World Series. It was a cruel and a heartless world. And what was God's reaction to all this? The Gospel tells us that God so loved this world that He sent His Son into the world, not to condemn it but to love it into life.

Our world today is a very sad world for many of its inhabitants. Thoreau once speculated that most of us “lead lives of quiet desperation.” The World Health Organization insists that the major health problem in this world today is psychological depression. Fifty percent of all marriages in our country now end in divorce. There are broken homes and broken hopes everywhere. Sixty-five percent of all second marriages end in the unhappiness of divorce. Child abuse is epidemic, and one out of every three hospital beds is occupied by a mental patient. Someone has cynically remarked: “If you don't feel bad, you haven't been paying attention.” Walter Cronkite said if you don't worry you ought to have your T.V. set adjusted.

Recently I overheard two of my friends talking. One of them said that he heard that Alzheimer’s disease may be caused by the aluminum used in underarm deodorants. The other fellow shook his head glumly and said: “They're gonna get us one way or the other.”

What God's world needs most of all right now is an abundance of “goodfinders.” So the goodfinding God has sent you and me into this world to love it into life. The world needs us because the world needs an epidemic of optimism and hope. The world needs people who will look for and find whatever is good and testify that there are reassuring signs of hope.

Of course, the first place you and I must begin looking for goodness and giftedness is in ourselves. And this is not always as easy as it sounds. You see when you and I came into this world we were little living questions: Who am I? Who are all these people? Is this a safe world or do people and
things break easily? What is life for? How did we get here and where are we headed?

Even as we were asking all these questions our little mental computers
were all set to record the answers given to us. The messages we got are
still playing somewhere deep down inside us, and many of these messages have given us a healthy vision and a bedrock sense of values. However, Alfred Adler, the great psychiatrist, believes that we've all developed, everyone of us, inferiority complexes just listening to many of the messages that were given
to us. Someone who likes to count things claims that the average child between birth and age five gets 431 negative messages every day. “Oh, look at
the mess you've made … Get down from there before you break your neck … Be quiet now I've had a hard day … Who left that roller skate in the drive way? … Oh, go wash your hands … Look at the dirt in your clothes … and so forth, times 431.” I have a friend who thought that his name was “Freddy No-No” until he was ten or eleven years old. Bill Cosby tells us that early on he thought he was “Jesus Christ” and his brother was “Dammit.”

A couple of years ago, I was giving a weekend seminar and I asked all the participants to do the empty chair fantasy. I'm sure you've heard about it; but if you haven't, it goes this way. You close your eyes and relax; don't do it now please! When you begin to feel like a wet noodle, you imagine an empty chair out there in front of you. It's facing in your direction. After you get a vivid picture of the chair, you see a friend or family member come out of the wing of the stage and sit down in the chair. You register all of your reactions, your “felt sense” of that person as well as your intuitions about the other person's reactions to you. Then you say or you ask one thing of the person sitting in the chair. Then that person departs and the second person, a friend or family person, comes out and sits in the same chair. Once more you register all your reactions, your “felt sense” of that person, and you notice they're different from the first person. You study the other person's body language and facial expressions, and then you silently speak to that person. Then the second person leaves. Then the third person to come out of the wings of the stage and sit in the chair
is you. You go through all the same registration of reactions – the intuitions you get as you study your imagined self's body language, facial expressions and so forth. Then you get to question or say one thing to yourself. Finally you open your eyes and you quietly reflect on what you've learned about your own self-image and self-esteem.

About a year after I gave this weekend seminar, I got a letter from a young women who had participated. She reminded me that the brochure had advertised for people who are emotionally stable and in search of further growth. Then she added, “But I sneaked in. You see I've been a psychological cripple all of my life. I've had several breakdowns, spent three periods in a mental hospital. I tried suicide two or three times. But I knew after that empty chair fantasy that my troubles were over.”

“You see when I came out and sat on that chair I looked like a whipped puppy, I was grimacing and wringing my hands. I looked like a person bracing for another beating. I honestly felt sorry for myself. And when we were supposed to speak to ourselves, all I could do was apologize. I said: ‘I'm really sorry all I've ever given you is grief. I've criticized everything that you've tried and when I've looked at your face in the mirror I've looked for the blemishes and not for the beauty. I looked for and I found everything that was flawed and ugly in you. I'm sorry. I've never been a friend to you.’ Then I promised myself that from that day on it would be different. In fact, I started out making a list of everything I liked about myself. If you really like yourself your going to be with someone you like 24 hours a day, and that's important. That day, in fact, was really the first day of the rest of my life.”

Her letter continued: “My life in the last year has been a complete reversal of my past history. For the first time I'm not seeing a psychiatrist or hiding behind one of my walls or masks. Most of my life I have lived locked in a prison of my own supposed ugliness. But now I've broken out: I'm free, free at last to be me. A year later, her father flew into Chicago to ask me: “Hey, what happened to my daughter? She's completely different.” All I could suggest was: “I think she has begun to look for and find her own goodness. I think that she has begun to feel good about herself.”

Now “goodfinders” do this not only for themselves, but they also do it for the other people in their lives. There's a verse which I'm sure you've heard. It's been attributed to so many different people; I really don't know who wrote it. Anyway, I would like to dedicate my own paraphrase of it to all the “goodfinders” in our world, but especially to those who have touched and transformed my own life:

I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I'm with you. I hope I love you not only for what you have made of yourself, but what your love has helped me to become. I love you for passing over all the foolish and the weak things that you couldn't help seeing in me, and I love you for drawing out into the light all the beautiful belongings that no one else had ever looked far enough to find. I love you for ignoring the possibilities of the fool in me, and laying firm hold of the possibilities of goodness and giftedness in me. I love you because you have looked for and have found goodness in me and in my world.

Finally “goodfinders” look for and they find hidden possibilities in every problem. They see difficult circumstances and situations in life as a chance to be creative. As Genesis tells us that God did in the moment of creation, they fashioned a beautiful world out of seeming chaos. They find challenges where other people find only catastrophes.

Once I was driving a car along a busy freeway in Chicago when suddenly the car died. I mean that car really gave up its spirit; even the radio went off. So I edged over to the side of the freeway, the shoulder, and got out to survey the situation. I could feel pure panic rising in me and growing. I know nothing about cars except their color. I did know that a raised hood indicated trouble to passersby, so I tried to raise the hood. But the strong winds of the windy city almost blew the hood away. Then I tried to raise the trunk but that didn't work either. So I took out my neat little hankie to tie on the aerial only to discover that the aerial had been built into the windshield.

On the side of the freeway as I looked down, there was a deep ravine with high grass and a fence at the bottom. After one look, I decided I would never risk that ravine; but as I looked out over the freeway in the other direction,
I could see six crowded lanes of speeding cars. Now my mama did not raise dummies, so I was not about to play in traffic. I didn't know if rescue vehicles stopped routinely or if “care” packages were dropped from helicopters to stranded passengers. I even thought of the lyrics of that old song about poor Charlie trapped on the Massachusetts Transit Authority: “Did he ever return? No he never returned. His fate is still unlearned.” I was going to lean on someone else to get me out of this tragic situation. Now I wasn't wearing my Roman collar that day, which is an excellent asset whenever you're hitchhiking. You know: “Me and my RC.”

Finally a young college student stopped and he asked me, “Can I help you?” I would mention which college he was from, except it wasn't a Jesuit institution. Anyway I dived into his car and I latched on the safety belt and said in a quavering voice: “Yes, you can help me.” I confided my inner panic to him, but to no one else. You see, the sign I wear says: “I've got it all together. I don't remember where I put it but I know I've got it all together.”

Several weeks after this happened to me, a young lady who types for me came into my office an hour later than was anticipated. She apologized and explained that her car had died on her. I asked: “Where were you when it happened?” She located herself at the very same scene of my own secret tragedy. “Edens and Dempster.” I immediately thought of the Bermuda Triangle. Then I turned to her in my most sympathetic manner, and asked: “What did you do?” Smiling confidently, she told me about how she climbed down that hill, climbed over the fence, went through an underpass and found a telephone where she called for help. Rah rah! Over the top, girls!

Then, wearing my father-confessor look I said: “Could I ask you a personal question? How did you feel when you were doing all of this?” And so
help me God, she smiled widely and said: “Exhilarated!” And so help me God I said: “Oh, I hate you.” But I am working at becoming a “goodfinder.” I'm going to find challenges from now on instead of catastrophes. And I promise you that if my car ever dies again at Edens and Dempster, I am going down that hill!

You, dear Class of 1986, you're going out into a world that really needs you. It needs you to touch it and transform it with new meaning and a new sense of value. You see, the world is something like a large department store. And sometime during the night of history, someone has crept into that store
and changed all the price tags. Realities that God has always held in the highest esteem have been devalued. Even human life is regarded by some as expendable. Material possessions, the things that soon perish, have been overvalued. Pleasure and power over others are false Gods that have attracted many to their shrines of worship. An impoverished and phony personalism urges us: “Do your thing, baby, no matter who gets hurt!” The world needs you, Class of 1986, to get the right price tags on the right items.

Above all, please believe that God has sent you into this world with a special message to deliver, a special song to sing, and a special act of love to bestow. No one else can speak your message for you, or sing your song or offer your act of love. These have been entrusted only to you. Now, according to an old Jewish-Christian tradition, your message may be spoken, your song sung, your act of love to be delivered only to a few, or to all the folk in a small town, or to all the people in a big city, or even to all the people in the whole world. It all depends on God's unique plan for you with all your uniqueness.

Please believe that you are fully equipped by God to do whatever He wants you to do. Whatever He has sent you into this world to do. You're fully equipped so don't waste your time and energy comparing yourself with others. You're the one and only you and you are sent into this world to do something that only you can do and that no one else can do. You are an “original by God.” There are no carbon copies among us. God's special gifts have been given and they've been cultivated in your homes and by your families. Here at this excellent institution, Marquette University, your family values have been fostered and focused. All the right price tags are now in your hands.

Look for and find the good in everyone and everything and love this world into life. We really need you. Speak out boldly this message that has been entrusted only to you and warm the world with your song. And brighten the darkness of our world with your love. Keep your hand in the hand of the Man and enjoy every moment of life that God gives you.

Remember me as loving you. Bon Voyage! Go get 'um Class of '86!


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