Presume Good Intent ~ Remarks at Austin Prep's 2018 Convocation
Good morning and welcome to Austin Prep’s 2018 Convocation. The faculty and staff join me in extending warm greetings to the parents and grandparents who are here with us this morning. We’re grateful for your presence. And, of course, I extend a special “shout out” to my friends in the Class of 2019 as we begin Austin Prep’s fifty-eighth academic year.
We mark the beginning of each school year at Austin Prep with the tradition of bag pipes, and gowns, and banners, and chapel dress in the form of convocation – a gathering of our community for the special purpose of asking God’s blessing on the year ahead.
Each year, Austin Prep adopts a theme that guides much of our discussion and many of our conversations both in and out of the classroom. In the spring, I started thinking about a theme for this year, but it wasn’t until the end of August that the theme – which I’ll share with you shortly – really felt right.
In late August, the people around the world mourned the death of Senator John McCain of Arizona and it seemed that our nation, at least for a moment, came together and focused on what unites us as a people, instead of what divides us.
Senator McCain was a naval aviator, war hero, son and grandson of four star admirals, prisoner of war, public servant, a patriot. During his service in the Vietnam War as naval pilot, he was shot down over Hanoi, captured by the North Vietnamese, and held as a prisoner of war for the next 5 ½ years. When he was pulled from a lake by a hostile crowd of North Vietnamese after ejecting from his plane which been hit by enemy fire, he had two broken arms and a shattered leg. He endured years of regular beatings and more than two years of solitary confinement from his captures. As a result of the injuries he sustained and the torture he endured, he was permanently disabled for the rest of his life, unable to lift his arms high enough to comb his own hair.
When the North Vietnamese realized he was the son and grandson of United States admirals, they offered John McCain early release from prison, an offer that Senator McCain declined because he would have broken the Naval code of “last in, last out” which prohibited him from accepting freedom before those who had been imprisoned longer. In rejecting his freedom, he kept his honor intact, avoided demoralizing his fellow prisoners of war, and denied the enemy an opportunity to spread propaganda that he was given special treatment as the son and grandson of admiralty.
It’s easy to understand how any human being could become bitter and angry as a result of that experience. Senator McCain, however, did not let those experiences define his life, at least not in a negative way.
Just over 17 years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Senator McCain at small gathering at a VFW Post with the students in my Advanced Placement Government class that I was teaching at the time. Without question, there was something special about him. He had a gift to take the high road at times and the road less traveled at others.
At the time we met Senator McCain, he had just released his book, Faith of My Fathers. This copy of the book is the one he autographed for me and I want share an excerpt from it.
I have often maintained that I left Vietnam behind me when I arrived at Clark. That is an exaggeration. But I did not want my experiences in Vietnam to be the leitmotif of the rest of my life. (page 146)
Surviving my imprisonment strengthened my self-confidence, and my refusal of early release taught me to trust my own judgment. I am grateful to Vietnam for those discoveries, as they have made a great difference in my life. (page 147)
I discovered I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized, but that neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, they gave me a larger sense of myself than I had had before. And I am a better man for it. (page 148)
My point in all of this is to explain this year’s theme: “Presume Good Intent.” For some that could mean giving others the benefit of the doubt. For others, it means finding good always in other people. For Senator McCain, I think it meant being an eternal optimist. Optimists see the bright the side of everything, they forgive quickly, and they are slow to judge.
John McCain endured 5 ½ years of captivity and torture, almost half of it in solitary confinement, yet for the rest of his life he was the happy warrior. In the 1990’s, he even worked tirelessly, using his influence as member a Senator, to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, a country and people that tortured and permanently disabled him.
As we begin this year, I think the life John McCain embodies the virtue to “presume good intent.” Good thoughts and good intentions are not enough. Action is what creates virtue.
Be empathetic to try to understand how others feel.
Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes
Show appreciation more to your mom and dad
Be slow to anger
Give others the benefit of the doubt
Slow down just enough to reflect on what’s true and real
Don’t’ automatically assume the worst about someone’s actions
Try to always look on the bright side
Here at Austin Prep, where veritas, unitas, and caritas are the foundation of our community, is where the presumption of good intent should foster and grow. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t. If, we as a community, are unable to do that, there’s no hope for the larger community beyond this campus.
I’ll end with a final thought about Senator McCain who ran for President twice and twice was defeated. He could have walked away bitter, presuming the worst about the judgement of the American people, but in his concession speech when he lost the 2008 election to then-Senator Barack Obama, and when he must have known he would never become President of the United States, he said:
Sen. Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face…
I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences and … and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited…
Tonight … more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Sen. Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president…
Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history. Thank you, and God bless you, and God bless America.
Powerful words that should inspire us.
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