Doing Good in the World: High School Graduate Emil Risk
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself …
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”
In June, there are a lot of graduation ceremonies, parties, pictures, celebrations, and speeches as youth transition from one stage of life to the next. For parents, it can be bittersweet as we watch our children confidently stepping into their future—one where our role becomes simply to trust, hope, and pray that we’ve done enough. In a world where we are acutely aware of the challenges facing our youth, I want to share this one moment of hope.
The speech below is not by a valedictorian or anyone famous (yet). It’s a talk given at a parent luncheon by North Central High School graduate Emil Risk.
Emil Risk to the Class of 2015
When I first thought of how to address my fellow graduates of the North Central Class of 2015, I thought of following the path carved out by countless speakers before me. This path is one of individual achievement; triumph of the self. My advice would be simple, open-ended, and, most importantly, focused on the idea of success: Follow your dreams. Build a monument to your own accomplishments. Carve your name into the huge stone slab of history, leave your mark on the world; bask in your own greatness. There are infinite sayings I could use, infinite metaphors I could employ to drive home my message: Do well. Succeed. Get ahead. Make a name for yourself. Embark on a journey that begins and ends with you. Live your life, the value of which is all too often measured by how far you get.
This path hit a roadblock as soon as I started to wonder whether there is any real happiness for the purely successful or any ultimate fulfillment for the purely ambitious. And, regardless, that advice all seemed too shallow for such a momentous time in our lives. But it did remind me of something.
As children, we’re told that it’s grammatically correct to say that we did well, not good. Becoming adults, we learn this same lesson: Doing well is better than doing good, in almost every way.
We learn the virtue of grades over the thirst for knowledge. We learn the virtue of points over sportsmanship; of winning over character. We learn the virtue of doing the right thing, but we forget it when we see how far and how much the wrong thing can get us.
Our culture and our education have prepared us to succeed but not necessarily to be good people. Good grades in high school get us into a good college, and good grades in college get us a good job; and yet, there was never an afterschool help seminar to teach us a moral vocabulary or any prep sessions to help us develop depth of character. These traits are passed over, as if you either have them or you don’t. Our world has forgotten that good people aren’t just born good, as if they possess a vestigial gene from some outdated race of human.
People choose who they are and what they do, and good people choose to be good. All of us, finally entering the world as adults, have that choice now more than ever before. My advice, my message, the path I chose when writing this speech, is not concerned with success. We already know how to do well, that’s why we’re here. My advice is to remember that there is more to the world than doing well.
Make your corner of the world a little happier, and, no matter where you end up in life, you’ll have done better than well—you’ll have done good. Don’t worry about building a monument to yourself and your accomplishments, it’ll be built anyway; first and foremost, give joy to the people around you, love deeply, be honest, be upright, be worthy of admiration, devote yourself to being a force of good in a world that all too often feels indifferent to the very concept of goodness. Minor Myers Jr. said it best; “Go out into the world and do well. More importantly, go out into the world and do good.”
Thanks to Emil for allowing me to share his talk. To him and all the young adults leading the way forward: Congratulations! So proud of you!
In joy & gratitude,
Diana J. Ensign