The second shortest poem in the English language according to Bartlett’s Quotations is called, “On the Antiquity of Microbes.” The poem reads, “Adam, had ’em.”
I discovered this ridiculously obscure fact when I came across a commencement address given by the legendary boxer and political activist, Muhammad Ali. It was a thoughtful speech about how graduating students should use their education to make this a better world. Yet it is a speech best remembered for what he said after he finished his formal remarks.
A student yelled out to Ali, asking him to recite them a poem. Ali responded with what many now consider the shortest poem in the English Language.
Ali said, “Me. We.”
The outcome of the recent presidential election is being held up by the talking heads in the media as proof of an incredible divide that exists in our nation. My time in politics made me all too familiar with using demographic trends to divide the electorate and ride that wave to victory at the polls. Yet my subsequent experience in philanthropy has taught me that our shared values as Americans still bind us far more than our politics imply.
I had occasion to review Ali’s comments when I was preparing for a keynote speech I gave at the Volunteer Center’s Golden Heart Awards in 2015. As I so often do when writing a few comments, I prepared by reading the inspiring words of others who are much smarter and more eloquent than me.
While perusing the writings of commencement addresses and similar keynote speeches in years past, a common theme became readily apparent. Be true to yourself. Your time is limited, don’t waste it. Listen to your heart. Follow your passion. Dare to live your dream.
The clichés notwithstanding, there is some truth to all of this. Our time on this planet is limited, so we don’t want to waste it. Yet what struck me about all these speeches is that they overwhelmingly focused on the “Me.” What’s my heart say? What’s my passion? What’s my dream?
Now I don’t want to say that you shouldn’t listen to your heart, shouldn’t follow your passion, or shouldn’t live your dream. Of course you should. Yet I couldn’t help but think how diminished Door County would be if the people of our community only focused on the Me.
The author and New York Times columnist David Brooks writes about the difference between what he calls “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé. Your professional skills. Your job history. The work you’ve done that has contributed to your professional and economic success.
Eulogy virtues, on the other hand, are much deeper and more meaningful. These are the virtues that are talked about, well, at your funeral. These are the things that are core to your being. Perhaps it’s generosity. Or kindness. Or compassion.
Whatever they are, we intuitively know that eulogy virtues are far more important than résumé virtues. Yet as a society, and in our politics, we focus on our résumés. We direct most of our energy on the Me.
It’s disheartening that we spend so little time talking about eulogy virtues because they are how the world will ultimately view and remember us. Our eulogy virtues define our character.
Thankfully, by working in philanthropy, I am privileged to meet countless people in our community who define good character. Inevitably they are giving of themselves to bring people together in service of our larger community. Yet what makes them memorable is not what they do, or what they accomplished, though it might be grand. We remember them for the kind of people they are.
But here’s a little secret. None of these good people was born with good character. You have to build it. Brooks reminds us that it requires effort and artistry. Character is not comparative. It is not something you earn by being better than others. Character is developed by being better than you used to be. It comes from being sturdy when tested. Remaining faithful when tempted. Getting up after we have fallen down. Character comes from inner triumphs, not external accomplishments.
When people of character listen to their heart, it tells them to be generous with others. When they follow their passion, it is in support of a larger truth. When they live their dream, it becomes part of a greater good.
These giving people have made that transition from the Me to the We. In this view of the world, we don’t create our lives, we are summoned by life. We don’t find answers by looking within, we seek to be of value by looking without.
The question to ask is not what do I want out of life? Instead, ask yourself, what does life want from me? The Me is never more consequential than when it is in service of the larger We.
Brooks writes that all of us are given gifts, aptitudes, capacities – talents that strictly speaking, we did not earn. All of us are also put into circumstances that call out for action. These circumstances are our opportunity to use our gifts.
We all can walk this path together. None of us as individuals is as strong as when all of us come together in service of one another.
Ultimately, we must face up to the reality that the world existed long before we arrived and will be here long after we are gone. In this brief moment in eternity that is our life, this short time that defines the entirety of our existence, we have been brought together in this place and at this time by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, by God. Regardless of what it is you believe that brought us together, together we are.
This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on December 2, 2016.