This weekend, I had the honor of giving the commencement address at the university where I received my bachelor’s degree, William Woods University. This is the text of my remarks:
I take great comfort about today knowing two things:
1) If you are looking down at your smartphones the whole time, I can pretend you are so inspired that you are live tweeting, and
2) You won’t remember who spoke at your commencement anyway.
I threw it out there on social media, as I do sometimes for ideas, and one person told me to simply tell my story. Then he reminded me of something I had posted days before. In a nutshell, this is my story. I am calling it “Breakfast,” because essentially, that is where you are today. I will explain.
I have a son with Down syndrome through the miracle of adoption, and he is the belly laugh of our family. …
I have five amazing children. I am the most disgustingly sappy mama you ever knew. But Sam is special, because somehow, through his Down syndrome, he manages to teach us the most. And somehow, though nonverbal, he manages to say the most to me. And somehow, though he doesn’t get to do a lot of things we might think are important in life, his life is the fullest. And he seems to know that best of all.
I am not a perfect mom. I am one of those moms who burns it at both ends, and when someone tells me to slow down, I yell for them to bring me more wax. Dr. Hertzog (my own favorite professor who was sitting in the audience) says it’s my caloric personality. I say it’s the way God made me.
Anyway, one morning, in my haste, I forgot to make Samuel breakfast and didn’t even notice he was awake before all the other children. He made himself a bowl of grits with honey. We live right on the sand of the Pacific Ocean, and I found him eating on the front balcony in the sunshine, smiling, with his kitty beside him to keep him company.
I had no idea he could make breakfast all by himself!
I smashed a banana in it for him and made him a glass of coconut milk, hugged him and told him how he amazes me every day with how smart, capable and resourceful he is! His smile got even bigger!
This is the baby they said I was adopting to sign a death certificate. This is the boy they said should have been aborted.
What an amazing boy! What an amazing God! He could make breakfast!
I posted the picture of his little breakfast with the kitty by the sea that he made all by himself that morning on social media. I believe we live to tell stories, and that is also how we learn.
But I can certifiably tell you that I wasn’t as wise as Samuel when I was his age, and I couldn’t have done what he did that morning. I might have been able to make the grits, but I wouldn’t have had the wisdom to eat it in the sunshine, with the view and a feline friend. I wouldn’t have had the patience. I didn’t understand how important those moments in the new light of the day were.
I came to William Woods University looking for my life.
Like Samuel that day, one day as a brand new freshman, I got up and went to breakfast, and I was on my way to my first hour psych class when a white cargo van pulled up full of frat boys and told me to get in and go give blood.
Ladies, don’t do that.
But, since I was yet to receive my education from William Woods University, I was dumb as a box of rocks, apparently, and I hopped in the cargo van – with no windows. And I didn’t turn up dead in a field by the grace of God, and I met my husband that day at a frat boy blood drive.
It was there, in the St. Mary Aldermanbury where we met, and four years later were married. That was one week after I sat exactly where you are, exactly 25 years ago this month. We chopped on the Berlin Wall alongside Reagan on our honeymoon, and I joined him on the steps when he dedicated the sculpture made of the wall by Churchill’s granddaughter, Edwina Sandys. Freedom, risk and adventure has been the theme of our lives and our marriage. This month we celebrate our 25th anniversary. It is no mistake that I am here with you today.
And so here I am. And here we are. And what can I possibly say to prepare you for this voyage into the abyss? Because you know that’s what it is, don’t you?
I had the honor of coming to campus late last year and talking about my co-written, bestselling book, “What Women Really Want.” I know you’re thinking that had to have been an encyclopedia, not just a book. You’re right.
In that book, I tell the story of my moment. You will have your moment, too. The moment God Himself shakes you and says, “Wake the heck up, you idiot!” Or maybe that’s just what He said to me.
At that time, I had a little radio show on a tiny Christian station in St. Louis, Missouri. I was happily married to my husband, who was a senator, and I was happy as a hog in slop as a mom of five who got to stay out of the limelight and take a pass on any of the real ugliness of politics. Until that moment.
Like many moments, you eat breakfast with no idea what is coming at you, but it’s coming.
I had a woman on my show that day from Austria who was in her 80s. As a little girl, one day after breakfast, her school let out and directed the children to a newly constructed building with high walls all around it. That day, Kitty Werthmann found herself sitting across from her mother in a concentration camp.
Kitty asked her mother what she was doing while their country was falling to tyranny.
Her mother replied just as I would have that day: “I was taking you to violin lessons and your sports activities and I had you in the best schools. Your clothes were ironed every day, and you had a hot breakfast each morning!”
Yes, mother, but what were you doing to save us from tyranny? What did you do to preserve freedom?
That became my life. That moment jolted me out of my minivan and into your television set to try to explain to the world, to the best of my ability, why freedom isn’t only on the shoulders of our troops, our leaders and the smart guys who don’t mind getting dirty – because politics is nasty dirty.
I ask myself every day what I would say to my children 20 years from now, if I were sitting next to them in a gulag. What would I tell them I was doing to fight to preserve freedom as it was slipping away? That question weighs heavily on me every day.
Freedom is on me. And on you. And that day, despite her warm breakfast, it was the heaviest thing that had ever landed on the shoulders of Kitty Werthmann’s mother as she sat across from her daughter in a gulag.
I began to devour the great writings of freedom fighters and founders of our great nation and framers of our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, and I began to understand freedom by understanding how fragile it is, and how many times it has been lost before.
How is it lost?
“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” Lord Acton knew, and Winston Churchill restated after Dunkirk, when a Nazi invasion seemed imminent. “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Those, like Kitty Werthmann and her mother, who fell to tyranny in Austria under Hitler didn’t know that they were exchanging their freedom for free stuff.
This year alone, we have watched as a new nuclear threat has risen on the world scene.
We have seen thousands of Christians slaughtered for their religion.
We have lost our First Amendment right to those who would terrorize our media and body politic.
We have taken a giant step toward tyranny.
We once lived in the freest nation in the world, but that has changed. We have watched as our country has gone from one of liberty to one of frailty.
We have forgotten what real freedom is, and we have compromised.
Just this week, ISIS threatened that it has terrorists on the ground in every city, seeking to destroy freedom.
“Raise the black flag and ride hard, boys. Our cause is just and our enemies many” – William C. Quantril.
But I believe we are still that shining city on the hill that Reagan described. It isn’t because we are just somehow arrogantly “better.” America is great because America is good.
The reality is that we give more, do more and fight for freedom for the entire world more than any other country in the world.
Those who stand idly today as our freedoms and standing in the world diminish do not know what might happen after breakfast. There is never a warning when the fragile bell of freedom tolls. It is deathly quiet as it slips away. You can’t hear a whisper. And then suddenly everything within you screams to go back, to fight, to make noise, to get uncomfortable in whatever ways it takes for you to recapture that precious moment again when you were free.
Every Holocaust victim could tell you. Every slave. Every prisoner.
As Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
And to me that means one thing: I am called, implored, to get so uncomfortable every day in the preservation of our freedom.
So what does that mean to you, today?
We stand at the most pivotal moment in history.
Twenty seconds can change your life forever, whether you make a decision or someone else does. Be sure you make good choices. The choices you make over the next couple of years will have more impact on the history of the world than any preceding American generation. I promise you that.
That means you start by grabbing onto every opportunity life gives you and by taking risks every day. If you aren’t uncomfortable, you aren’t progressing or contributing.
Your life to this point has been about doing what felt right. Fitting in. Doing the logical. The sensible. The comfortable. That ends today.
From this moment on, you will be defined by how uncomfortable you are willing to get.
I predict that your generation will not have it easy. You may have to fight all, and be willing, as our founders were, to risk your life, your fortune and your sacred honor. But remember that there is honor in the fight. It might be dirty; it might require that you surrender more than you had hoped, and it might even be that you are regarded a fool. But ultimately, when God calls, if you answer, there will always be glory to Him.
And by the grace of God, if you rise up and find power, remember Lincoln’s wisdom that “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
But also remember to live well. Twain reminds us:
“Life is short, break the rules, forgive quickly, kiss slowly, love truly, laugh uncontrollably, and never regret anything that made you smile. Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Your college education has taught you how to learn. Now it is up to you to learn how to think. Sometimes, for me anyway, it requires that I truly humble myself and remember all of the stupid things I thought were true in my life, like that it was OK to get in a cargo van alone with a bunch of frat boys who said they were taking me to donate blood. Sometimes I have to spend a lot of time listening to my enemies. That can be unpleasant. But we learn more when we listen than when we talk, and I believe that if we can force ourselves to be humble enough to always entertain the idea that we might be dead wrong, then we will know what to do with power when it comes.
And if that moment comes, and you find yourself truly staring down at the death of freedom, being made a fool, or forced to stand alone in your fight, be brave. Remember: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat” – Teddy Roosevelt.
So get up, eat breakfast, and go boldly then and live the truth. And the truth is this: America still is the land of the free and the home of the brave. But we are only free for one reason, and that is because we are brave. And America is only great for one reason, and that is because she is good. And humans are only good for one reason, and that is what comes from God. Always be ready for what happens after breakfast.
Stay brave and stay good, graduates, and then you will always stay free.