Darlington School: Private Boarding School in Georgia 2021 Commencement Address: A Pandemic of Gratitude
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2021 Commencement Address: A Pandemic of Gratitude

Whit Whitaker | May 15, 2021 | 437 views

The Class of 2021 and their family, friends and teachers gather on the chapel lawn for the 116th Commencement ceremony, which featured an address by Darlington trustee Whit Whitaker ('77, LD '15), president of King University. Below is a transcript of Whitaker's address, titled "A Pandemic of Gratitude." 

Graduates, parents, fellow trustees, faculty, guests; Mr.  Bell, Mr. Woods, and Mr. Moss: 

And I have to stop here and say: Sam, it is always good to see you at  Darlington. Sam and I have known each other since 1959, when we each in very different ways arrived at the Upper School—Sam as new freshman and me as a newborn from the Floyd Hospital maternity wing, a child of a faculty member. Thank  you, Sam, for your long and unselfish dedication to this school we both love so much.

It is a high honor indeed to speak to you today. It is so because of the  quality, the rigor, the prestige, and the history of this extraordinary school.  And it is so especially because of the strength of this graduating class.  Indeed, those of you soon to graduate have had to face adversity of a sort  not known in peacetime for more than a century. You have had to be flexible, patient, and creative. You have no doubt had to contend with  worry—about the health and lives of those you know and love especially. You have had to adjust your habits and expectations. You have had to  sacrifice. It has not been an easy year. But you have conquered. You have  prevailed. And today you gather to move forward.

I would be remiss were I not to mention that there is one of your  own—one of Darlington’s own—sadly missing from our gathering this  morning. But Tyler Studstill is and always will be a member of the Class of  2021, and though all of us grieve his loss, we are also grateful for how he  contributed to his class, to this school, and to those who knew him.  

You have learned much in the days and years leading up today, and I  am keenly aware that I am now all that stands in your way from being a Darlington graduate and an alumnus. But permit me to offer you one—and  only one—last bit of advice, counsel I do earnestly hope you take to heart,  because from experience and observation I strongly believe it is a key— perhaps ultimately the key—to a happy and fulfilled life.  

And that is, quite simply: Be grateful. 

This is sadly a countercultural idea these days. We see angry,  unhappy, and ungrateful people all around us—and anger, unhappiness,  and ingratitude always seem to be traveling together, do they not? Indeed,  when have you ever seen an angry and unhappy person who was also a  grateful person? Never, I suspect. And why is this so? 

I think it is because the essence of gratitude is to look outside of oneself and to think of others. To be grateful is by definition to  acknowledge the gift of others—and thereby the dignity, the goodness, and  the wonder of others, also, beyond ourselves.  

It is to see ourselves as integrally connected to and dependent on others and not simply a self-sufficient island unto ourselves. Gratitude thus  organically forms friendship and community—community such as the one  your class has built and will continue to build through the years—and does  so one person at a time. That shared gratitude builds on that further still. 

To be grateful implies always seeing the good even when there is much bad—and maybe especially at times like these past 14 months when there has been much bad, and we have been compelled to see more clearly what matters most in life.  

Gratitude ensures having a realistic view of ourselves, rather than a  sense of entitlement. To be grateful implies we are not sufficient on our own, and therefore are by ourselves lacking and incomplete and in need of  others—thus forcing us to admit our shortcomings. Gratitude thereby produces humility.

And as we show gratitude toward others who are likewise imperfect,  gratitude engenders a balanced perspective about humanity and the self, and so also yields a balanced temperament and a character of grace. No longer do we insist others become like us: we see good outside ourselves, in others, and seek to be more like the best of them. 

Ungrateful people are rarely optimists. Indeed, because they are turned in on themselves, they are unable to be realistic, much less hopeful, about the world to which they’re connected. They indeed have little reason for hope, delimited as they are by the squalidness of the moment and  narrowness of the self. But the grateful person always sees possibilities far beyond that because the habit of gratitude has secured that broader horizon.  

This realism about ourselves and others—this comfort in our own skin and with others—is also what yields humor, as we are able to laugh about ourselves and all that is funny around us. Show me a humorless soul  and I will show you an ungrateful person. 

Being grateful—having that attitude and reflex—is critically  important, but it is not enough. William Faulkner once observed that “Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity; it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.” We must display and  express that gratitude for it to have its full force and power. 

That, too, is a habit. It can be in simple thank yous or in actions that  express thanks to others. It can be in handwritten notes or unexpected text messages. It can be words of encouragement and thanks. Most importantly, it is in how we choose to live the totality of our lives.  

But just as gratitude without action is meaningless, so also are such actions meaningless if false or feigned. We must be both truly and honestly thankful and express that. When this is done, without expectation of recognition or reciprocity, it in turn encourages gratitude in others. And so it spreads.  

And it is this pandemic of gratitude we so desperately need right now in our broken and angry world, with each of us as highly infectious and symptomatic carriers. 

I suspect some who embrace ingratitude dismiss gratitude as an excuse for avoiding change. They might see appreciation for the good as what allows the bad to continue. They might mistake contentment (which gratitude produces) with complacency. These are the sort of people who see gratitude as weakness, as passivity, as compromising. They are, by the way,  usually deeply unpleasant people: rigidly judgmental, intolerant, and  insistent on having their way. 

But they are also quite wrong, because it is only the person who is  grateful for the good who is able to see the good. It is only the grateful person who likewise can see the world clearly as it might actually become, versus pursuing some unattainable utopia, with all the anger, bitterness, disappointment, and ingratitude such unrealistic pursuits inevitably prompt. It is the grateful person, too, who having enjoyed the happiness  that comes with such real goodness, who is most likely to pursue it and bring about meaningful change. It is gratitude—more that politics, pity, or piety—that is the most powerful and enduring force for making the world a  better place. 

It is the grateful person, too, who is most capable of leading others.  

Most of you in the class, owing to your preparation here, will become leaders. And ungrateful people make terrible leaders. If you think about those leaders you have observed and under whom you have served, have not the best of them, in addition to all their other strengths, been those with  a spirit of gratitude? We reflexively trust and follow those leaders who we know appreciate our work and contribution, who recognize our efforts, and who see their success inexorably bound up with ours.  

Being a grateful person will not by itself ensure you are a great leader.  But if you are not a grateful person, you will never be one who can lead others effectively. 

In February of last year—just before the pandemic struck, and Mr.  Bell called me about speaking at graduation—one of my favorite comics,  Orson Bean (who was before your time), died when hit by two cars in  Venice Beach, where he lived. Your parents and grandparents will  remember Orson Bean from games shows and as one of the most frequent  guests on the old Johnny Carson show. He was a very, very funny man—a  great storyteller and raconteur. He was also for much of his life a very  secular soul, agnostic at best, who struggled with alcohol and other demons of all sorts, despite his success. In his fine memoir, "Safe at Home" (and a  similar wonderful one-man show with the same title I commend to you on YouTube) he tells his life’s story, and also the story of his encounter with  God, which began with showing gratitude.

The stories differ somewhat in the show and book, but in his book  Orson Bean writes of advice he got from a fellow AA participant he described as having a rough mug but eyes of inner peace. Bean recounts: 

“I told him about my reluctance to think of my higher power and anything divine. What advice did he have, I asked.” 

“Get down on your knees,” his friend said, “and thank God every  morning. Do it again at night.” 

“But I don’t believe in God,” Bean replied 

“It doesn’t matter. Just do it,” his friend retorted. 

“Why do I have to get on my knees?” 

“He likes it,” his friend said. 

Having failed to find meaning and healing in his life in any other way,  he gave it a try. “If there’s anybody there,” he prayed, “thank you for my  day.” 

Orson Bean made this a daily habit. Soon it was no longer foolish to  him, and it became very much a part of who he was. In offering thanks—even to a silent God he had not known—he felt something new. “Before I  knew it,” he said, “I felt as if there was something or someone there who  knew me and cared about me. Actually loved me.” 

Orson Bean in his later years was a deeply devout Christian—but no less a deeply funny man. But gratitude had changed his life at its core and  given him peace within himself, with others, with his past, and with God.  And when we begin to realize that so much goodness comes into our lives  from outside ourselves—from others, from the world around us, from ways  entirely unlikely and unexpected—it is hard not for that gratitude also ultimately to point us the giver of every good and perfect gift. 

Perhaps you have not yet developed that habit of gratitude, or, more likely, you have here at Darlington, but want to make it far more of a reflex. Today is exactly the right day to do that. That is because today is the culmination of many gifts you have been given, many sacrifices made on  your behalf, and much, much love poured upon you in abundance—over all  the years you have lived so far.  

Let me quickly highlight, in addition to God, three worthy recipients  of your gratitude.

Your family, your parents, worked for many years—years before the  thought of preparing for college ever entered your mind—to make this  moment possible. They did so by supporting your education even before  you went to kindergarten. They worked hard and sacrificed many things so  you could reach this moment today. This is your accomplishment, but it would not have happened without their love and encouragement and  support. Thank them in unmistakable fashion today and thank them also  with how you live your life moving forward. 

Likewise, you had faculty and staff and coaches here invested in your  success. Almost to a person they could have, owing to their smarts and talents and many attributes been elsewhere making more money and pursuing other lines of work. But well before meeting you they chose to serve you, to dedicate their lives to helping you become the successful person you are today and will continue to be. And don’t think for a moment  that Darlington faculty are like those at other schools: they are not. They  are truly set apart because of the intensity of their commitment to you. They, too, deserve your thanks today and for many years to come. 

Now at the risk of your telling your friends after today, “our  graduation speaker sees dead people,” let me tell you about another group  of people who are with you today, although you cannot see them. They stand in every empty space on this campus, at every window; they cover  every rooftop; they surround the lake. That is, they would if gathered here, because there are thousands of them. And, no, you cannot see them, exactly, but they have been here with you for your entire time at Darlington and your being here today is proof of that. Many of them, some living and  some not, are alumni of this school, but others are those who simply share Darlington’s values and commitment to making your Darlington education possible. All of you worked hard and sacrificed with your families to be  here. But that did not cover the full cost of your education—for some of you not even most of the cost. It was this silent, invisible group of people who made that possible by the scholarships they funded, the buildings they  built, the programs and teams they underwrote. And for most of them it was a sense of gratitude that prompted them as they paid it forward: an expression of their own thanks for what Darlington did for them directly or indirectly.  

So, you see, we are all here—you are here—at this moment of  gratitude because of the gratitude of others, bringing it full circle. Shortly, you will receive your diploma, but standing beside us on the platform, unseen, they, too, are here, passing to you the baton—for today you join them as alumni to one day make this same moment possible for the students who will follow you for generations to come.  

Finally, let me express my own gratitude on a deeply personal level. My connections to this place span my entire life—and more than half of this  school’s long history. There is very little about me that does not bear the  imprint of this school and its people. You will soon enough say the same  thing, and your gratitude for this place, as has mine, will only increase as you realize what a great gift you have been given in a Darlington education, in all its dimensions. 

We are all exceedingly proud of you, of all you have achieved here, and of all you will accomplish in the years ahead. Congratulations, Class of  2021. Godspeed to each and every one of you. 

And remember: Be grateful, always.