President Barron, Dean Korner, Trustee Goldstein, Directors and Heads, distinguished members of the platform party, family and friends of the graduates, and most importantly, GRADUATES. What a beautiful and momentous day this is. Thank you for the privilege of being part of your commencement celebration.
Although I am thrilled to have been invited to speak, I’ve been worried for months about what to say. I kept asking myself: What can an old band director say to these bright young men and women as they celebrate their academic accomplishments and begin to chase their dreams? “Forward march!” just doesn’t seem quite enough!
Then—in mid-March—a story reported by Steve Hartman in an “On the Road” segment for CBS News caught my attention. The teaser—you know, that “hook” they try to get into you just before going to commercial break—was “Proving the Butterfly Effect with a Single Act of Kindness.” The segment was about Chris Rosati. Chris is a remarkable human being, who—even though being afflicted with a debilitating terminal disease—has not allowed that circumstance to adversely affect his mind, his heart, or his outlook on life. The segment that night was a follow-up to an earlier report in which Chris had been featured because—despite his grave physical condition—he had decided to initiate random acts of kindness around his hometown in North Carolina. He had begun with something as simple as giving doughnuts to strangers.
That teaser headline mentioning the Butterfly Effect did “hook” me. It piqued my interest because I was vaguely aware there had been a movie of the same title. But I had never seen that movie, so I did what anyone at a Research 1 university would do—I “Googled” Butterfly Effect. And the first entry to pop up was for the movie. The plot synopsis informed me it was about a young man who discovers a way to go back in time. By changing an action in the past he produces a markedly different current reality. A little more online research took me to that other fount of knowledge—Wikipedia—where I found an entry for a Theory of the Butterfly Effect. And, as it turns out, there’s something more to the Butterfly Effect than being the premise for a science fiction movie. Please bear with me as I summarize what I learned.
It seems that in 1972, an MIT Professor of Meteorology, Edward Lorenz, presented a paper on Predictability at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was titled Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas? Unlike the movie script where the principal character goes back in time to effect a change, this paper theorized the effect of current variables on the future—particularly as applied to weather forecasting. Lorenz proposed a unique approach to predicting complex weather systems by postulating that the flapping wing of a butterfly represented a small change in the initial condition of the system, causing a chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena.
This new idea spawned a field of study known as Chaos Theory. My only prior awareness of chaos theory came from my work with the Blue Band over the years. When you try to get 310 young people between the ages of 18-22 to move in the same direction at the same time, in the same way, there are inevitable moments of chaos.
Lorenz’s theory caused physicists around the world to begin to study whether the “butterfly effect” could be applicable to more than weather forecasting. Now, I have no physics expertise whatsoever. Despite having taken a high school class, most of what I know about physics now is a result of watching The Big Bang Theory on Thursday evenings. But, my curiosity did lead me to learn that some really smart people in fields as diverse as mathematics, meteorology, sociology, physics, engineering, economics, biology, and philosophy have since accorded Lorenz’s theory the status of a “law.” It’s officially called the Law of Sensitive Dependence Upon Initial Conditions.
While the scientific name is quite impressive, I prefer “The Butterfly Effect”—it has a much more “artsy” sound to it, don’t you think? Basically it means that small actions have far-reaching effects. This is, of course, an old band director’s over-simplification of the concept.
Musicians tend to like analogies; it’s a way to use words to describe sounds. What I learned about The Butterfly Effect led me to consider an analogy that I think relates to your commencement today. Across campus this weekend—from every discipline imaginable—Penn State releases another group of newly minted graduates into the world. Like butterflies, you are about to unfold your wings after gestating in the cocoon we know as Happy Valley. Family, friends, faculty, and university officials gather today to celebrate the beginning of this next stage in your lives with great anticipation of the impact you will have.
While my butterfly analogy may not be perfect, I think it is particularly applicable for graduates of the College of Arts and Architecture. Just as butterflies add beauty and inspire awe in our world, you and your art are poised to do the same. It seems we live in an increasingly impersonal and at times depressing world. A world in which more and more people need to be reminded to celebrate those human endeavors that bind us together rather than focusing on those issues that divide us. During your time in the Happy Valley cocoon, Penn State has nurtured you with opportunities. Opportunities to learn, to inquire, to grow, and to hone your potential as artists, scholars, and people. In the process, you have morphed into butterflies who are about to test your wings as you pursue your passion. The flapping of your wings will impact countless others.
Wherever you go from here and whatever level of professional success you achieve, you are going to have an impact on people. It may be ordinary or it may be extraordinary. It is impossible to fully anticipate how many people YOU will impact through YOUR work. But the Law of Sensitive Dependence Upon Initial Conditions means you WILL have an impact, so I encourage you to make it the most positive one possible, wherever you are and in whatever you do.
You have worked hard to reach this day. You are prepared to seize the opportunities that lie ahead. You have a “vita” prepared that lists your accomplishments and experiences. Each line is carefully crafted to define who you are to the reader. To a prospective employer it’s intended to confidently shout HIRE ME!
One of the things I remember from high school Latin is that the Latin term we attach to that list of professional accomplishments translates as “life.” Your vita will continue to accumulate your significant accomplishments and highlight important experiences throughout your professional life. There is no doubt that document is—and will continue to be—important to you.
But keep in mind that it is what lies BETWEEN the lines of your vita document that becomes your real vita—your real life. The entries on the document are markers along the journey you have begun and that will unfold over the years, but they are not what will truly define the life you will live. Don’t get so caught up in the pursuit of those professional milestones that you fail to embrace and enjoy the richness of the journey. Believe me, the journey moves quickly.
When I bounced some thoughts about what I might say today off my son, he said, “that sounds like a John Lennon song, Dad.” Although the quote he referenced was first published in a 1957 Reader’s Digest entry attributed to Allen Saunders, the lyric from Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” reads like this: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
As you pursue your plans for a life in the arts, I urge you to Create, to Perform, to Design, to Teach, to Entertain, to Research according to your passion. Flap your artistic wings so as to have a positive effect on a world in need of beauty, understanding, tolerance, and appreciation for what it means to be human. By themselves, the arts may not be able to solve the difficult societal issues caused by injustice, bigotry, economic inequity, religious intolerance, and political differences. However, I believe the arts can elevate and can enlighten. The arts can bring people together in shared humanity, and make contributions to improving the human condition.
If you want an example, try Googling “Iraqi cellist.” You will learn how Karim Wasfi is using his art to counter violence. Wasfi, a cellist, has given impromptu solo concerts at the sites of numerous car bombings in Baghdad because, in his words, “Iraqis needed to experience beauty, not just endure one bomb after another.” He goes on to say: “It’s about reaching out to people at a higher level after they have experienced something grotesque and ugly. What happened was extraordinary. Everybody—soldiers, officers, street cleaners, the workers who were fixing the shops—they all left what they were doing and gathered around and listened to my music. Drivers stopped their cars, snarling traffic. They were kind enough to understand the importance of civility and beauty.”
In addition to your commitment to your art and the impact your professional activity is going to have on others, also remember that YOU, as a person, in your everyday living, will impact more people than you can imagine. In his short book, The Butterfly Effect, Andy Andrews encourages us to extend our effect on others in ALL that we do. In your everyday, seemingly mundane interactions, even the smallest gesture of kindness or acknowledgement is a flap of your wings that can have a positive effect on someone. And conversely, a harsh reaction or indifference toward someone has an effect as well—and you will never know how far that negative impact might extend.
Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Isn’t that what being in the arts is all about? I encourage you to extend your effect beyond those that are closest to you. Even beyond your Facebook friends and your Twitter followers! Strive to make kindness a part of your everyday person-to-person interactions.
Back to that human-interest story on Chris Rosati that I mentioned earlier. That report went on to reveal how Chris, while dining out with his wife, had randomly given $50 each to two young girls who were in the same restaurant with their parents. Neither the sisters nor their parents were known to Chris. When he gave them the gift, he said only, “Do something kind.” The two girls, Cate and Anna, reported that getting $50 from a stranger made them WANT to do something kind. They knew of a village in Sierra Leone where their dad had worked in the Peace Corps, and were aware that the residents of that village had been working hard to fight Ebola. So the girls sent their gift to help fund a feast for the entire village to celebrate becoming Ebola-free. Sometime later, to his surprise, Chris received a video clip from Sierra Leone in which youngsters were holding signs saying, “Thank You for Spreading Kindness, Chris Rosati.” From Chris Rosati in North Carolina, a kindness had spread halfway around the world to Africa—proof of the Butterfly Effect.
One of the things that has become apparent to me this past year is that your everyday wing-flapping has an effect. Be on the lookout for opportunities to extend kindness to others as you take flight today.
My parting words to you are simple: Be kind. Flap your wings. And carpe (the heck out of your) vita (life)!
Thank you and congratulations!