Life lessons from Justice Thomas

Remembering This is the season of formulaic left-wing commencement speeches. Contributing to the cause of true “diversity” — diversity in the life of the mind — Zev Chafets has edited a volume of heterodox commencement speeches under the title Remembering Who We Are: A Treasury of Conservative Commencement Addresses.

There are several speeches that I find inspirational and/or moving and/or thought-provoking in the book. One that is all of the above, and that I think is my favorite (if I had to choose one, which for this purpose I do), is Justice Clarence Thomas’s, published under the title “Do Your Best To Be Your Best.” Through the courtesies of the publisher, we are posting the text of Justice Thomas’s 2008 commencement speech at the University of Georgia below as edited for publication in the book. I’m not given to predictions, but in this case I want to make an exception. I predict you will enjoy this:

One of the sobering realizations that I came to while thinking about and preparing to be here today is that most of the graduates from the undergraduate program had not started the first grade when I went onto the Court. Life comes at you fast, and passes even faster.

In 1971, when I sat where you all are now sitting as graduates, I was just glad to be done with college. I was both scared and anxious about the rest of my life. My grandmother and mother were both there in the stadium bleachers to support me and to be there for my wedding the next day. Absent was the one person I wanted and needed there—my grandfather. Mired in a distracting mixture of fear, apprehension, and sadness, I wondered just what would happen next. How would I repay my student loans? Where would I live?

Somewhere through this fog of self-absorbed confusion, I barely noticed the graduation speaker. His name was Michael Harrington, the author of the then-popular book The Other America: Poverty in the United States, and himself a Holy Cross graduate. He seemed to be exhorting us on to solve the problems of poverty and injustice. As important as those are, I, like most people sitting there that day, was more focused on whether I would be able to solve my own problems, so that I would not become a problem for, or a burden to, others.

So having sat where you are sitting today, I have no illusion that I am at the center of your attention, nor do I think that what I have to say will be long remembered. But I do humbly request a few moments of your attention, recognizing that there is much going on in your lives. I promise that I will not clutter up your special day with my own ruminations about jurisprudence, although I do have an interest in discussing, at some point, my views on the Dormant Commerce Clause. [laughter] I take that as a lack of interest.

I will say in passing, however, that even today, after almost seventeen years on the Court, many of the lessons that I learned about life and academics still serve me well on the Court and in life. Believe me, what you have learned thus far really matters and matters greatly.

I will also not bore you with another litany of complaints or grievances, or exhortations to solve the problems that none of us of advanced years have been able to solve, or in some cases, even understand. It seems to be standard fare these days to charge young people to go out and do great things. Often what is meant is that they do something “out there” as opposed to their personal lives. Many years ago, when I read Dickens’s novel Bleak House, I was fascinated by Mrs. Jellyby’s obsession with her telescopic philanthropy—her great projects in Africa—while at the same time her task at hand went undone.

Realistically, the great battles for most of us involve conquering ourselves and discharging our duties at hand. These are the building blocks for the great things.

When I take stock of the nearly six decades of my life, the great people are mostly the people of my youth—my grandparents, my relatives, my neighbors, my teachers. One of the things they all had in common was the way they discharged their daily duties and their daily responsibilities—conscientiously and without complaint or grievance. I think of relatives like Cousin Hattie, who cleaned rooms at the Midway Hotel in Liberty County; her husband, Cousin Robert, who cut grass and farmed; and Miss Gertrude, who labored as a maid.

They went about their lives, doing their best with what they had, knowing all the while that this was not necessarily fair. They played the hand they were dealt. And, through it all, they were unfailingly good, kind, and decent people whose unrequited love for our great country and hope for our future were shining examples for us to emulate in our own struggles.

Whether in the merciless summer heat of Liberty County or the sudden downpours at the bus stop at Henry and East Broad streets in Savannah, they taught us how to live with personal dignity and respect for one another. To this day, the people who do their jobs, raise their families, and sacrifice so that we can gather here in peace are my heroes, from whom I draw great inspiration.

Quite a lot has happened in my lifetime, as I alluded to earlier. Monumental events involving constitutional and civil rights have made it possible for me to stand here today, when I could not sit there years ago as a college graduate. There are also the technological advances: from the scrub board to the automatic washing machine; the dishwasher (that is one of my personal favorites); the television; the computer; the iPod; and of course the now omnipresent cell phone.

My wife, who is my best friend in the world, often comments on the range of my life. I have been blessed to know and befriend the best and the least educated, the wealthiest and the poorest, the healthy and the physically challenged. I have seen a lot in my journey from the black soil of South Georgia to the white marble of the Supreme Court. It has been a longer journey than the miles from there to Washington could ever suggest. Along the way, I have learned many lessons. There is a saying that if you want to know what is down the road, ask the person who is coming back.

Today I am coming back down the dusty and difficult road of my life to meet at the commencement of your journey, the beginning of your journey, through the rest of your lives. I would just like to take a few more minutes of your precious time here at the side of this road between the hedges. I have just a few modest suggestions; I promise I will not hold you up very long.

First, show gratitude and appreciation. None of you, not one of you, made it here entirely on your own. There are people in your lives who gave you birth, who raised you and loved you, even when you were not so lovable. Thank the people who put up with your antics and loved you through it all. Thank the people who paid your tuition and your expenses. There are those who helped and counseled you through difficult times or when you made hard decisions. There are those who were compassionate enough to tell you what you needed to hear, not what you wanted to hear. Take some time today to thank them.

Don’t put it off; some of us did.

I never took the time to properly thank my grandparents, the two people who saved my life and made it possible for me to stand here today. Deep down, I know they understand, as they always did and as parents always seem to find a way to understand. But it is still a burden that I will carry to my grave. Take some time to thank those who helped you.

A simple thank-you will do wonders. You may never know how much that expression of gratitude will mean. Twenty-five years ago, I went to visit my eighth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Virgilius, for the first time since high school. I thanked her for all she had done for me and for being compassionate enough to tell me about my deficiencies when I was in the eighth grade. I told her that I assumed that after more than forty years of teaching, I was among a long list of students who had come back to thank her. She said, “No, you’re the first.”

One additional word about her. On one of my recent visits to her at the retirement convent in New Jersey, she showed a friend and me her tiny room. It had a small bed, a bureau, and a chair. While telling us about her room, she listed the items to be given away after her death. She’s almost ninety-five years old now. A rosary to her niece; a prayer book to the Franciscan sisters. There was a large photo of her and me on her bureau. Lovingly embracing it, she said, “This goes in my coffin with me.”

Take a few minutes today to say thank you to anyone who helped you get here. Then try to live your lives as if you really appreciate their help and the good it has done in your lives. Earn the right to have been helped by the way you live your lives.

Next, remember that life is not easy for any of us. It will probably not be fair, and it certainly is not all about you. The gray hair and wrinkles you see on older people have been earned the hard way, by living and dealing with the challenges of life. When I was a young adult and labored under the delusion of my own omniscience, I thought I knew more than I actually did. That is a function of youth.

With the wisdom that only comes with the passage of years, the older folks warned me presciently and ominously, “Son, you just live long enough and you’ll see.” They were right; oh, so right. Life is humbling and can be hard, very hard. It is a series of decisions, some harder than others, some good and, unfortunately, too many of them bad. It will be up to each of you to make as many good decisions as possible and to limit the bad ones, then to learn from all of them. But I will urge you to resist when those around you insist on making the bad decisions. Being accepted or popular with those doing wrong is an awful Faustian bargain and, as with all Faustian bargains, not worth it. It is never wrong to do the right thing. It may be hard, but never wrong.

Each of you is about to begin a new journey. Whatever that may be, do it well. If you are going to a new job or the military or to graduate school, do it to the best of your abilities. Each year at the Court I hire four new law clerks. They are the best of the best. The major difference between them and most of their classmates is self-discipline. By self-discipline, I mean doing what you are supposed to do and not doing what you aren’t supposed to do.

Though there are many enticements and distractions, it is up to each of you to take care of your respective business. Remember, the rewards of self-indulgence are not nearly as great as the rewards of self-discipline.

But even as you take care of business, there are a few other necessities for the journey. At the very top of the list are the three F’s—faith, family, and friends. When all else fails and we feel like prodigal sons and daughters, they will always be there, even if we don’t deserve them. Having needed them, I know they will always be your saving grace.

Trustworthiness and honesty are next. If you can’t be trusted with small matters, how can you be trusted with important ones? It may be hard to be honest, but it is never wrong. For my part, I can only work with honest people. I need to be able to trust them, and so will you.

Conscientiousness and timeliness are invaluable habits and character traits. As I tell my law clerks, I want my work done right and I want it on time. No matter what you do, do it right and do it on time. My brother used to say that he hurried up to be early so he could wait. Not a bad idea.

Stay positive. There will be many around you who are cynical and negative. These cause cancers of the spirit and they add nothing worthwhile. Don’t inhale their secondhand cynicism and negativism. Some, even those with the most opportunities in this, the greatest country, will complain and grieve ceaselessly, ad infinitum and ad absurdum. It may be fair to ask them, as they complain about the lack of perfection in others and our imperfect institutions, just what they themselves are perfect at.

Look, many have been angry at me because I refuse to be angry, bitter, or full of grievances, and some will be angry at you for not becoming agents in their most recent cynical causes. Don’t worry about it. No monuments are ever built to cynics. Associate with people who add to your lives, not subtract; people you are comfortable introducing to the best people in your lives—your parents, your family, your friends, your mentors, your ministers.

Always have good manners. This is a time-honored tradition and trait; it is not old-fashioned. Good manners will open doors that nothing else will. And given the choice between two competent persons, most of us will opt to hire the one with good manners. For example, no matter what older adults say about calling them by their first names, don’t. Believe me, they remember, and not as kindly as you might think. I thank God my grandparents made me put a handle on grown folks’ names and taught me to say “please” and “thank you.”

Finally, the Golden Rule that is virtually universal—treat others the way you want to be treated. Indeed, when others hurt you, you may well be required to treat them far better than they treated you and far better than human nature would suggest they deserve. Be better than they are.

Help others as you wanted and needed to be helped. If you want to receive kindness, respect, and compassion, you must first give them. But to do that, you must first have them your- selves to give. Almost thirty years ago, a janitor in the U.S. Senate with whom I often spoke pulled me aside. I must have looked like the weight of the world was on my shoulders; at the very least, I must have looked despondent, not an uncommon look for a young man with common difficulties and hoping to make some difference in the lives of others. In sober, measured, and nearly toothless diction, he counseled me, “Son, you cannot give what you do not have.” He was right, and merely echoed what I had heard throughout my youth in South Georgia.

My grandfather would look at the fields late in the summer and make the point that we could not give to others if we had not worked all summer to plant, till, and harvest. As a child, that meant little; as a man, I know he was right.

There are no guarantees in life, but even with all its uncertainties and challenges it is worth living the right way. As you commence the next chapter in your young lives, I urge you to do your best to be your best. Each of you is a precious building block for your families, your university, your communities, and our great country. It is truly up to each of you to decide exactly what kind of building blocks you will be.

Excerpted from Remembering Who We Are: A Treasury of Conservative Commencement Addresses, edited by Zev Chafets, in agreement with Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Zev Chafets 2015.

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