Special Order Speeches Archive

A Moment Missed, At Last Recovered

Posted July 30, 2016 By Dave Thomer

When I was in high school I had the opportunity to spend a week in Washington, DC as part of a program called Presidential Classroom. We toured the city, participated in workshops, and listened to speakers talk about different aspects of the government. It was a great week, intense and draining. It also was the source of a missed opportunity that I did not realize I had missed until years later, and did not have a chance to get over until this week.

One of the sessions that I had most anticipated was our visit to the floor of the House of Representatives, where we would meet with a member of the House. I was then, as I am now, a political junkie, so I was eager to hear something about how someone got elected to Congress and worked to pass laws. Instead, as I remember it, the speaker spent much of the time talking about his work in the civil rights movement. And as I remember it, 16-year-old, tired Dave tuned out a lot of the discussion. Plenty of people had worked in the civil rights movement, I thought. It was over 20 years in the past, I thought. It wasn’t relevant now, I thought.

If you want to direct a few choice words at 16-year-old me, go ahead. I’ve done the same. But by that point, my junior year of high school, I don’t remember doing much serious study of the civil rights movement. My American history classes tended to run out before getting to the late twentieth century, and rarely dug deeper than a few anecdotes about Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had never heard of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and I had never heard of John Lewis, one of the six civil rights leaders to speak at the March on Washington.

That started to change when I was in graduate school. I had decided that I wanted to be a social studies teacher, and so I started taking graduate history courses so that I would have the depth of knowledge I needed. I started seeing references not just to Parks and King but to Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and SNCC. I was intrigued by the struggles within the movement, the constant tension of trying to figure out how hard to push, which tactics to use, which allies to accept. I decided to study the civil rights movement as a case study of democratic reform.

Although I focused on King and the SCLC, I found SNCC extremely compelling. Here was a group of student organizers committed to direct action, working with but sometimes at odds with the famous names and organizations I had learned as a kid. And one of the leaders of that organization was John Lewis. I honestly don’t remember when it clicked in my head. “Wait . . . this John Lewis . . . isn’t that the guy I saw in high school?” But shortly after it clicked I went to my bookcase and pulled out the book from the Presidential Classroom program where I took notes on each speaker. I found the page where I had notes on Rep. Lewis.

It was practically blank.

I have wanted to kick myself for my high school ignorance ever since. I have no idea what I think would have concretely changed if I had had a little more energy, a little more knowledge, a little more concentration. Lewis’ impact comes much more from the power of his example than that of his storytelling. But if I had really understood the importance and magnitude of Selma, if I had appreciated the sacrifice and commitment Lewis had shown for his ideals, if I had truly grasped how far our nation has had to travel on the road to civil rights and how much farther we still have to go, then that day in Washington could have been an opportunity to connect to that past beyond the pages of a book. It could have been an opportunity to say “Thank you.”

But because I didn’t know any better, I squandered that opportunity.

In its way, that missed opportunity has been a blessing. It’s helped remind me to listen more, to try to be aware of what I don’t know, and to think more deeply about how to do the work of building a more just society. It’s helped motivate me to make sure that my students hear a variety of voices and understand the workings of the American system so that they can leverage that system and make it better. It’s kept me humble and reminded me not to assume that I’ve got it all figured out.

It still bugged me.

And then last week my wife sent me a text that Lewis would visit Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse in Philadelphia. He and Andrew Aydin, one of his aides, have co-written a series of graphic novels called March, drawn by Nate Powell, about his work with the civil rights movement. The third and final volume comes out next month, but they wanted to launch it during the Democratic National Convention at Amalgam, which is owned by an African-American woman named Ariell Johnson. I had bought and read the first two volumes, with the third already pre-ordered. As I fumbled with my phone trying to get to the Eventbrite site to get tickets, Pattie told me she had gotten two, one for me and one for our daughter.

I started sobbing. Now, this is something that members of my family do at significant family occasions, Harry Potter movies, and random vistas, so you need to take that into account. But this really was overwhelming, because at that moment I had a chance to reach back to 16-year-old me and say, OK, I’m gonna take care of this.

We got to the store about an hour early on Wednesday, where around a dozen people who didn’t have tickets were waiting outside. (They did eventually get in.) My daughter and I were allowed in and we started browsing around. There was quite a crowd, some of whom appeared to be regular customers and others who seemed very unfamiliar with comics. I spent too long browsing and wound up buying my copy of Volume 3 as the signing line had already formed, so by the time Lewis and Aydin arrived I was toward the back. I listened as Lewis talked about the supply of peanuts and Coke products he had in his congressional office as a representative from Atlanta, and as Aydin talked about he hoped to use comics and sequential storytelling to help educate today’s kids about the civil rights movement and social justice.

And then we reached the front of the line. We handed our books over to be signed and shook the authors’ hands. I said, “Thank you, Congressman,” and then my daughter and I had our picture taken with the authors.
Lewis at Amalgam 1
We all build stories to tell ourselves who we are; we take moments and magnify their importance because of what they say to us or about us. Out of those individual stories we build the story of our society. I feel grateful today that a week that has featured so many amazing moments for our national story gave me a chance to recast one of the moments of mine.


Never the Same Dave Twice

Posted April 1, 2015 By Dave Thomer

It’s been almost nine years since I finished my dissertation; a little more than six since I finished getting my teaching certification. I spent most of my 20s as a grad student and yet that part of my life is rapidly moving into my proverbial rear-view mirror. I talk about it with my students sometimes, often in the context of encouraging them to avoid student debt. But that life, with its intense focus on academic reading and writing, feel disconnected with who I am now.

I started thinking about this when I thought about how long it’s been since I wrote on this blog. I started it as a website in 2000, and it was meant to be a forum to talk about all the things I cared about at the time. Now I think about those sections and wonder if they still apply to my life in 2015. Am I still a philosopher if I haven’t read a journal article or written a philosophical essay in years? My reading and thinking about Dewey still influences the way I try to teach. Is that being a philosopher, or an educator, or both? I’m not sure.

I don’t know how much I can call myself a comics fan these days; I have a small pile of trade paperbacks to read, but since I stopped buying monthly comics and both major superhero companies did assorted revamps to their lines and continuity, I can’t say I’m heavily invested in the medium. I know a couple of creators whose work I like have independent projects, but even there I don’t race to the store (or to an e-commerce site) to grab copies. I still follow some of the news, go to a convention once in a while, and wear plenty of superhero shirts. Am I still a fan? I don’t know.

And then I come to the big question: Am I still a writer? I write material for my classes. I write short anecdotes to share with my friends and family on Facebook, and one-liners to share with folks on Twitter. But essays? Interviews? Deeper exploration of a topic? Putting one sentence in front of another until you have a paragraph, and then doing it again and again until you have a completed piece? I feel so rusty there, and so often I feel too tired to do the work of organizing my thoughts. There are things I want to write, and plenty of things I want to have written. But am I a writer?

I’m not sure. I think it’s time to find out.


I’ve been waiting to write about the mistrial in the Jordan Davis murder trial because I have been hoping to hear something about the jury’s deliberations. The jurors agreed that Michael Dunn was responsible for firing 10 shots at Davis’ car and endangering the three other people who were in the car. They agreed that he was criminally wrong to do so. But they could not agree that beyond any reasonable doubt he was criminally responsible for murdering Davis.

I have so many questions about that. Was there a single holdout on the jury, or an even split? Was there something about Florida’s self-defense laws that proved to be a sticking point? Did the jurors believe Dunn when he said he saw a weapon?

The thing is, all of these questions are technicalities. They’re important technicalities. They’re technicalities that we need to understand so that we can intelligently work to reform self-defense laws, weapons laws, and other parts of the criminal justice system. But they don’t do a damn thing to address the hurt and pain that I have seen on Twitter and commentaries across the web. For millions of people, the fact that Dunn will most likely spend the rest of his life in prison if the guilty verdicts are upheld pales next to the fact that the jury could not deliver the simple, clear statement that Dunn murdered Davis.

That’s the part that hurts me, that has me feeling so lost right now. Because at the moment, I have a lot of sympathy for that jury. Our legal system is not always set up to deliver straightforward statements; sometimes you have to read between the lines. Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion. Plenty of people get busted for obstruction and not for the actual crime they committed. So if there was something that made it hard for the jury to make the specific point about Davis’ death, they were still able to make the point that what Dunn did was horribly wrong and that he needs to pay for his actions. There are people like Martin Longman at Booman Tribune who see that point and accept the verdict as adequate, albeit imperfect, justice.

My initial reaction to the verdict was along similar lines. Based on the evidence that I have read, I am pretty sure that Dunn is both racist and reckless, and that those two traits combined with a gun to result in a horrible death that is Dunn’s fault. I could also see how that same racism and recklessness could lead him to panic, and that in that panic he could suddenly believe that he was the one at risk. I wasn’t surprised that under Florida’s laws, some jurors might find that panic enough to raise reasonable doubt. I thought that this was another example of how our gun laws and self-defense laws can lead to tragic results, and felt relief that the verdict found another route to punish Dunn.

But then there are so many people like Tonyaa Weathersbee who see that verdict as a “hollow victory,” and ask what would have happened if Davis had been alone in his car. The mistrial speaks so loudly to them that no appeal to the end result can take away the pain. The deadlock calls out so loudly that no discussion of technicalities can make sense of the senseless. I did not have that immediate emotional reaction to the verdict, because I did not hear the same thing that they heard. But just because I did not hear what they heard does not mean that it wasn’t there. Indeed, the fact that so many people heard it makes me sure it was there, even if the jury didn’t mean for it to be there.

I’m grateful that Twitter and the educator communities that I belong to helped raise those voices up so that it was easier for me to hear them. I’ve been asking myself why I don’t see the verdict through the same lens that they do. It might be privilege. It might be my philosophical background leading me to view the verdict as an epistemological exercise. It might be my own experiences as a juror, when I have been torn between what I believed happen and what I believed the law required. It’s probably a combination of these and half a dozen other factors.

But beyond any of that, we live in a society that has a legacy of injustice. That legacy infects us in so many ways, frequently with tragic results. We need to confront that injustice every day. I do not know if we will ever get to a point where there are no Michael Dunns with their fear and anger towards others. I do not know if we will ever get to a point where the American justice system is not stacked against a significant part of its population. But we have to try or we will never stop inflicting these wounds on ourselves and each other.


Pride in One School, Sadness for Another

Posted December 11, 2013 By Dave Thomer

So last week turned out to be an interesting one in my life as an alumnus.

At the start of week I read that Fordham University – where I met my wife, first studied philosophy, and first coined the title that graces this blog – had changed the lyrics of its alma mater from “Hail men of Fordham” to “Hail Rams of Fordham.” I smiled when I read this. I smiled a lot, actually, and it might seem strange to be so happy about something that isn’t really a big deal. Truth be told, I don’t ever remember singing the alma mater, and probably wouldn’t get the words right if you spotted me the first verse.

But I think that fact that it is a small thing is what made it matter to me. I watch my daughter when she encounters something that assumes that male terms can be used as gender-neutral, and I see that it upsets her to be made to feel left out. There is now one less thing in the world that can upset her that way, and the university that helped me build so much of the foundation for my life is responsible for that. Fordham’s administration didn’t have to do it, and there are going to be people who are mad at them for doing it, and they did it anyway because they decided it was the right thing to do. I felt proud to be associated with the institution, and felt like my good feelings and support for the university were being returned.

In contrast, by the weekend, the Philadelphia media were reporting that Holy Ghost Prep, the high school that I graduated from and without which I never would have made it to Fordham or taken advantage of the opportunities I found when I got there, had fired a teacher. The reason for the dismissal was that the teacher, who had not hidden the fact that he was in a same sex relationship during the 12 years he taught at Holy Ghost, had applied for a marriage license in New Jersey with his partner. That violation of Church policy warranted firing an alumnus who had taught at the school for over a decade.

I watched the story spread over the Philadelphia media and beyond throughout the weekend. More significantly I saw it spread through my Facebook network, which includes many of my classmates. Many of us, whether we are straight or gay, were disappointed by the decision. I suppose it’s easy for me to disagree with it; I’m a marriage equality supporter who has moved even farther away from the Catholic Church than I was when I was in school. And as a teacher of high school students, I see how a lot of casual homophobia gets thrown around in the way students talk to each other, which makes me more conscious of how a school needs to support its LGBT students and make sure that they know that they belong and are valued.

But you shouldn’t need my experience or my distance from the Church to imagine how this hurts people, and in fact you don’t. On Holy Ghost’s website, the school promotes its dedication to forming a community in one heart and one mind. No community is perfect, but I have been a part of that community for over 20 years. I formed relationships there that I will always treasure and had experiences that formed me. Many of the students and teachers there inspired me to become a teacher myself. And this weekend I watched the leaders of the administration tell members of my community that they weren’t welcome, that their lives and their loves weren’t good enough for the Catholic Church or for Holy Ghost Prep. I watched the leaders of the administration tell any gay students that they had better be willing to deny part of themselves if they wanted to be fully included.

It isn’t right. Where Fordham University as an institution helped bring its community closer together this past week, Holy Ghost Prep as an institution chose to divide it. It will be a long time before I can forgive the institution for that. But I have seen many in the community express their opposition to the decision, including several who have supported an online petition against it. It’s a shame that many students and teachers seem to have learned the lessons Holy Ghost taught better than its leaders, but at least I can still say I am proud to be among them.


Overflow: Further Reading on Athletics and PEDs

Posted August 13, 2013 By Dave Thomer

I read a lot of good articles and essays while I was working on the last post on PEDs. Before I close those tabs on my browser, I wanted to share them here.

The new ephedra?: Shaun Assael at ESPN investigates a new supplement that might contain amphetamines. This is one example of the dangers of the lightly-regulated supplements industry – problems that extend beyond professional athletes.

Whatever happened to the spitball?: Jonah Keri at Grantland explores the history of the doctored baseball and examines players’ ambivalent relationship with this form of cheating.

Baseball experts say amphetamines ban, not steroids, is major reason for steep drop in offense: Bill Madden of the NY Daily News explores the effect that MLB’s ban on amphetamines has had on baseball. Amphetamines were part of the game longer than steroids, so this gives good context for the discussion on how PEDs have affected the history and tradition of the game.

Justice Served?: Keri again, although I didn’t realize he had written both Grantland pieces on this list till I went back to check bylines. This piece makes clear that Keri is more forgiving of PED use than many other fans and writers.

Understanding A-Rod’s infractions: Jim Caple at ESPN puts steroid use in perspective with baseball’s history of cheating and the fans’ demand for excellence.

The next two links aren’t really recommended for their writing, but I think they’re useful in thinking about how reporters and columnists can try to rework history. I found the two links on Baseball Think Factory.

The first is a Tom Verducci piece on si.com celebrating the fact that Alex Rodriguez is finally being held accountable for PED use. Among the many attacks on Rodriguez, Verducci talks about a conversation that he had with Rodriguez in 2002; Verducci says it was “chilling to listen to his feigned ignorance.”

The second is another Verducci piece, this one from 2007 when Barry Bonds was indicted for obstruction of justice. While slamming Bonds and his career home run record as tainted, Verducci says that baseball is turning the page on Bonds by placing its trust in another superstar. That superstar?

Alex Rodriguez.

Among the quotes:

Unlike Bonds, Rodriguez has never played under suspicion that his performance was enhanced by drugs, and he is not expected to be named as part of the Mitchell Report.


As The United States of America v. Barry Lamar Bonds became a reality, so too did baseball officials’ hopes for a new face of the game. In A-Rod they trust.

Verducci doesn’t sound particularly chilled or suspicious in talking up Rodriguez there. Makes you wonder which of today’s heroes will be facing scorn in six years.


Up to and Over the Line: Ethics of Athletics and PEDs

Posted August 3, 2013 By Dave Thomer

As I sit down to write this, Major League Baseball fans have been waiting for weeks to hear how MLB will punish players implicated in the Biogenesis performance enhancing drugs scandal. The rumor mill has constantly hyped an announcement of multiple suspensions that was just around the corner, but so far the only player to be suspended is former MVP Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers. As the story has been in the news, I have been trying to get a handle on my own feelings about athletes’ use of banned substances. I’m somewhat surprised to find that while I remain a goody-two-shoes who disapproves of anyone breaking the rules, I do not perceive PEDs to be the major threat to the integrity of sports that man critics and fans do. The reason, I think, is that I’m having a harder and harder time seeing the use of PEDs as something completely distinct from many other behaviors that are considered praiseworthy in athletic culture.

I do not want to overgeneralize here about people who like to play and watch sports. What I’m saying is mostly focused on the most popular professional leagues and competitions. I believe that the reason that these organizations have the audience and reach that they do is that a large number of people want to see people who are the very best at what they do, doing things that few people on the planet can do, under great psychological pressure. And not only do we want to see the best of the best, we want to see them pushed to the very limits of human ability despite the risks involved. You can not take physical (and psychological) risk out of the sport because the risk is part of why people are watching in the first place.

There is no clearer example than American professional football. Violence and danger have always been part of the sport’s appeal. Many players feel the effects of the sport long after their careers are finished. Now we are learning that the risk may have been even greater than we thought, thanks to increasing awareness of the effects of head trauma on the brain and the psychological problems that can result from that trauma. Pro football players – and all those who aspire to be pro football players – are expected to accept this risk with enthusiasm, and to push themselves past the pain that results. Read this story by Dan LeBatard about former Miami Dolphins cornerback Jason Taylor and what he endured in order to stay on the field. Medical science does not exist to help players get healthy in these situations. It exists to help them find short term fixes so that they can ignore what their bodies are telling them and continue to perform. If a player wanted to do what was best for his long term health, he would face pressure from the fans, his coaches, his teammates, and himself to take the risk instead.

We’re somewhat used to thinking of football and some other sports as dangerous, but this notion of pushing past your body’s limits at the risk of permanent damage isn’t limited to football. Baseball players may not risk the same brain trauma as football players, although they do face risks from batted balls to the head and other freak accidents. But the very act of throwing a baseball at 90-plus miles per our puts a strain on the body. Look at how many pitchers break down and require surgeries to repair the damage. Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies has needed numerous cortisone shots to play past the pain that hundreds of baseball games have produced in his legs and feet. These shots have their own health risks and may have long-term effects; indeed, there are some who speculate that the ruptured Achillies tendon that Howard suffered on the last play of the 2011 season might have been caused in part by the shots. But no one was putting pressure on Howard to take it easy and let his body rest. People wanted him back on the field. He wanted to be back on the field. So he took the risk and took the shot.

So we have an athletic culture that clearly promotes taking on long-term health risks in order to be able to perform at your best. I find myself asking why taking a weekly Toradol shot to stay on the field is considered “natural” but taking anabolic steroids is an affront to the competitive fairness of the sport. In both cases, a person is using chemistry to be able to do something that he would not be able to do otherwise. Some people suggest that using painkillers is different because it only allows an athlete to perform up to his natural level of ability, rather than to surpass it. But I see two problems with this argument. The first is that very few athletes are ever at their full, peak state of health – the wear and tear of playing ensures that they will not be at 100%. Part of what determines an athlete’s success is his or her ability to perform well even when he is not at his or her absolute peak. So mitigating that deterioration is, in fact, working against the athlete’s natural limits. Second, pain is a physiological function. Therefore the ability to ignore it and continue to play is, itself, a natural ability that is being artificially enhanced by painkillers.

That said, I can certainly see how a governing body might say that some substances that allow the human body to exceed its prior limits are acceptable, but that some are so dangerous that they are beyond the pale even for risk-taking athletes. I would absolutely love to see the major professional leagues, doctors, scientists, and athletes work together in order to help establish these boundaries in a clear way. The problem is, I don’t think we’re in that world. Not when the average person can go into a mall nutrition store and buy supplements that have been cited as having potentially dangerous amounts of heavy metals like cadmium. Not when it’s taken years for many sports to acknowledge the dangers involved with concussions. Not when scientists aren’t even clear on the dangers of anabolic steroids, let alone all of the other new substances that are out there.

This doesn’t mean that I am advocating for a free-for-all, or that I think Saturday Night Live‘s All-Drug Olympics was a great idea. I am all for the governing bodies setting limits. If it were up to me, I would probably ban more substances, including many of the painkillers. But at that point we’re talking about the rules of the game. And there’s something else about the ethics of sports that we need to acknowledge.

Athletes cheat. A lot.

Do a Google search for the phrase “If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying hard enough.” It’s officially a cliché. Ask any offensive lineman if he ever got away with holding – or what goes on at the bottom of a pile after a fumble. MLB pitcher Gaylord Perry was notorious for throwing doctored balls, and he’s in the Hall of Fame. Indeed, for decades, baseball players used unprescribed amphetamines to help them get through the season. When we celebrate athletics figures who say that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, we are helping to create a culture that says, “Do whatever it takes to be the winner. Push yourself. Push your teammates. Push the rules.” If we’re looking to pro sports to find role models for fair play, we are probably looking in the wrong place.

Again, I am not saying that this means we should get rid of the rules. As a teacher, I know that when I give a test or assign a paper, there’s a good chance someone is going to cheat and that I am not going to catch that person. It doesn’t mean that I don’t set the rule. It doesn’t mean that I don’t catch who I can. It doesn’t mean that the cheater is not wrong. It just means that I should not be surprised that some people cheat, and I have to live with the knowledge that I can not be 100 percent sure that every single result is 100 percent honest. I have to do my best and live with the outcome.

We should do the same with sports. Set rules. Establish methods to check that the rules are being followed, looking for the balance point between being thorough and being reasonable. Penalize those who are caught breaking the rules. Acknowledge that some people are breaking the rules but not being caught. And enjoy the game, but be careful about drawing life lessons from it.


Warming Up

Posted March 25, 2013 By Dave Thomer

In high school and college I had an ambition to become a writer. I liked putting words together to create stories and share ideas. I was pretty good at it, too . . . not brilliant, and I needed a lot of practice, but I felt like I had potential.

But as I went through grad school, I started to think that maybe that wouldn’t be my profession. It was a slow process, but there was something I saw a lot of writers say that made me think about myself and whether I had what it takes. The idea is that you become a writer because you can’t not write. It’s not just something you like, or something you want to do. It has to be something you need to do. And I’m not sure I have that. I have to read . . . if I’m away from books and magazines and websites for more than a day or two I start to get itchy. But as you can see from the time stamps on this blog, I can go long periods without putting words together on a blank screen. I’m always thinking about things I want to write, things I want to say. Life, work, and the need to step away from those things and relax take the time and energy I need to get the words out of my head and onto the screen. I wish it were different, but I haven’t made the commitment to make it different. If I had a job where I had to write every day for a living, I think that would be different. But I don’t have the daily need to do it for myself that I would probably need to ever get myself to a point where I could get such a job.

I’m OK with that . . . I think that teaching and my family give me plenty of chances to do meaningful work with my life. But even if I don’t have the daily passion, I can’t stay away from writing forever either. So every so often I pull myself back to the keyboard. That time has come again. I promised myself that among the projects I would carry out over spring break would be to resume a rhythm of writing every day, at least for a while. So I consider this a warmup. Let’s see where we go from here.


Idle Musings

Posted January 24, 2013 By Dave Thomer
  • My daughter really likes to play board games. I also really like to play board games. This works out very well. This week, she wanted to get a copy of Clue, so we went to Target. We came THISCLOSE to buying a newer, updated version of the game that changed a lot of the rules and the cards and would have sent me into a fit of complaining. It also wouldn’t have been the same version she played at school, so no one would be happy. Fortunately, Target also has a set of retro editions of a lot of Parker Brothers games, so the day was saved. Professor Plum rides again.
  • Over the next year, I am adding “Learn how to build model castles” to my resolution list. This year we’re doing a lot of improvising, which is fine. But I may be able to be more help next year.
  • I am trying not to comment on current news in the SF movie world as of 10 PM Eastern time January 24, because I feel a heavy case of Geek Curmudgeon Syndrome coming on.
  • For the second time in three years, I think it’s gonna snow the weekend of EduCon. Hopefully we only get a couple of inches this time.
  • I am also not commenting on the lack of filibuster reform in the Senate because you guys don’t want to read a post that’s the equivalent of a Don Music sketch on Sesame Street. (Is it true tat they retired him because they didn’t want kids to bang their heads on their desks? Or was that just me?)

It All Went By So Fast

Posted January 20, 2013 By Dave Thomer

I just realized that 20 years ago, I was using an IBM PC and a 1200 baud modem to connect to local bulletin boards.

I was getting ready to graduate from high school, and still didn’t know where I would go to college.

Bill Clinton was giving his first inaugural address:

I still feel like I’m that 17-year-old kid a lot of the time. The last 20 years feel like a perpetual ongoing “last week” in a lot of ways. It’s not until I look at images from that time, and they look almost like historical relics, that I realize how much we have all changed. Although as I listen to the speech, I also think about how much hasn’t changed.


I Don’t Deserve This, and That’s OK

Posted January 9, 2013 By Dave Thomer

I have had numerous opportunities to think about how fortunate I am. I am married to a wonderful woman wit whom I have an amazing daughter. We both have parents who worked hard to help us get good educations, and we have both been able to find jobs that let us use our skills and knowledge to provide a comfortable home for our family. We have access to many forms of leisure and entertainment, and we have a network of friends who provide us with joy and good company on many occasions. I mean, when I was a teenager I didn’t know how good I had it, and today I have it even better than I ever thought I would back then.

And as much as I am thankful for all of this, as much as I hope and work to keep building on this good fortune, it’s become very important to me to remind myself that I don’t deserve any of it. These wonderful things are not a prize I earned by completing some set of trials. They are the result of circumstances beyond my control combined with some good choices and lucky outcomes.

Have I worked hard and tried my best? Sure. Is it possible that I have worked harder or done more for others than some people who are materially better off than I am? It’s conceivable. But it’s also certainly true that there are others who have worked as hard or harder and don’t have nearly as much to show for it. As I sit here typing and listening to music, am I more deserving of this luxury than the person who worked in a factory to put together the chips for my computer and iPod? When my family decides to go out for hamburgers, have I scored more points in the game of life than the agricultural workers who got those ingredients on their way from the fields? When I hug my daughter to help her through a cold, am I somehow proving myself a better parent than the mother or father who has to watch their child struggle through cancer or some other disease? No. You can’t look at the scoreboard and say who’s better or who deserves more. The world’s too messy and complicated for that. Sometimes life deals you a great hand, sometimes it doesn’t, and no matter how much we try to work the odds in our favor, we don’t hold the deck. Here are a couple of examples.

Pattie and I met on her first day at Fordham. With one brief exception, I didn’t see her again for a year, until she decided to start writing for the features section of the school paper while I was features editor. If I had a different job – which I had originally applied for – or if I had quit the newspaper – which I had seriously considered a few months before – would I be here now? I don’t know. Maybe it would have worked out some other way. And I give myself credit for taking advantage of the opportunity when it came up, but there was so much out of my control that was required to get to that point that I am not going to claim that I have earned the happiness this relationship has given me for the last 16 years.

I went to a high school that introduced me to a lot of friends and mentors and was absolutely essential in giving me the chance to grow into a responsible adult. I worked hard in school, got good grades and did most of the stuff I was told to do, and spent a lot of time on activities. But when I think back to the things that had to happen for me to get to that school – from my mother insisting that I take the entrance test when I had no desire to do so, to an administrator who was willing to go several extra miles to get me an affordable aid package to afford the tuition, to living in a neighborhood that made it a relatively easy school to get to in the first place – there’s no way that I can say that everything I gained there is because of something I did.

Now, why am I harping on this point? I am not trying to rub my good fortune in anyone’s face. Instead, I’m doing it to remind myself, and urge everyone, to look at the world with humility. The universe gives some of us more than we “deserve.” I’d argue that anyone who has had some success and happiness can point to those moments where the world lined up in our favor. Maybe we did something to give circumstances a nudge, and if so we can give ourselves a pat on the back. But we shouldn’t confuse that nudge with the whole lift. If we assume that everything that we have is solely the result of our own actions, then it becomes easy to take the next step and assume that anyone who is less fortunate must be less fortunate because of their own actions. Then we have no responsibility to figure out how we can help them, and no need to sacrifice anything of our own. Indeed, to do so would be to interfere with the fairness of the universe in giving everyone what they deserve! But if we’re humble and appreciative of what we have, we are more likely put ourselves in each other’s shoes and try to build a world that works better for all of us.

This humility can be scary, because it forces us to accept that we are not always the masters of our destiny. Our hopes and dreams and work and ambitions can be torn away in a matter of seconds, just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They may lay unfulfilled because we never find the right environment to nurture them. They may be cut short because of some quirk of our genes. When you spend a few minutes thinking of all of the things that can go wrong, it can seem like a miracle that anything ever goes right. But rather than being a reason to give into despair or resignation, I think that this humility and appreciation for the universe’s capriciousness can motivate us to reach out and share our good fortune, or lift up those who have been brought low by tragedy or circumstance. And when we do that, we leave the world a little bit better than we found it. Since the world has given so much to me, I think the world deserves it.