Inspiring Commencement Speeches | Elmer Hewitt Capen

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Now, on to today’s reading, which was edited and adapted from The College and the Higher Life by Elmer Hewitt Capen, published by 1905.

Many people appear to think they are right so long as they are within the letter of the law. Technical morality is the only morality they know. But formal obedience is not enough. We must have regard rather to the ever-varying circumstances of human experience and need. This we cannot do by marching up to some rigid boundary line of duty fixed and determined by a definition that is unchangeable and eternal.

It is important that those who are starting out in life, or who are entering upon a new and untried way, should bear this in mind. We cannot simply frame our own standards. The whole compass of human duty cannot be embraced in a single formula, however broadly conceived or skillfully drawn.

The truth is we all stand under the boundless canopy of God. We confront a multitude of responsibilities whose complicated bearings are absolutely endless. Moreover, the imperatives which each of us must heed are inextricably involved with our own endowment. Because we are what we are (not merely as a child of God, but as the product of history and civilization), we are summoned to our own unique work.

Every individual should look within and around. You should make an inventory of what you have, and consider how the things in your possession are related to the things you would wish to acquire — how being and doing are parts of the same abiding reality and are to be present in every achievement. Thus, and thus only, can you properly interpret the everlasting commands of your soul.

Let me remind you that your talent, your endowment of intellect and moral perception, is a gift. This is what you brought with you into the world. It affords no ground for vanity, nor even of self-congratulation. You have no more right to pride yourself upon it than people have to pride themselves upon inherited wealth.

It should rather make you humble; though of course it may invite to gratitude. It may make you thankful that you are thus gifted and set apart. But even though you may be conscious of unusual power and means of accomplishment, it affords no reason for elation. It is only so much to start with.

Neither is there any occasion or justification for depression because you realize the limitation of your powers. The single talent is to be exercised for its own enrichment and for the “good of all” just as faithfully as the many talents — for it has just as much dignity and importance. The world requires from you not brilliant performance (striking and great achievement), but fidelity, steadfastness of purpose, and devotion in whatever station in life you are called to fill.

Sometimes people are paralyzed by what they regard as the insignificance of their gifts. Because they cannot do great things, they think it hardly worth their while to try to do anything. They are prone to magnify their disadvantages. They excuse themselves for not entering upon particular fields of effort because the way is hedged about by so many difficulties. They hesitate to measure their strength with that of persons of more commanding ability, or to try to overcome their weaknesses. They are inclined, too, to look upon those who have made great achievements as the favorites of fortune.

The lesson of history and of all human experience is that talents become great by use. Why do we put an athlete in training for a sports contest? Is it not so that their muscles may be hardened, that their eye may become skilled, that their passion may be inflamed, and that as far as possible the movements they may be called upon to make may be automatic?

Do we not often find, moreover, that in this process of training, the lesser athlete who is faithful and persistent often outstrips the one from whom, by reason of their endowment, great things are expected? That undoubtedly was what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he said: “So run that you may obtain.”

The idea is that it is possible for you to bring your skills, whatever may be their nature and power, so under the control of your will that they will be effectual in the uses to which they are put.

Let me emphasize, your original talent is a gift of God — simply that and nothing more. But it is a gift whose power is capable of almost indefinite expansion under proper management and use. No person can get away with saying, “Because of the smallness of the talent committed to me, I was afraid and went and hid it in the earth; lo, there it is.” If there is justification in the use of great talents so that they are multiplied and increased, how much more should we seek the development of the smaller gift.

In the final summing up of our being there are two parts. First, there is the inheritance that we bring with us into the world, the free gift of the Creator, and this varies by a law or principle which no person has yet been able to discover; and secondly, there is the acquisition or growth that is built upon the inheritance (and wholly impossible without that as a foundation but differing marvelously and endlessly in each individual), according not merely to opportunity and circumstance, but according to fidelity and diligence.

In the light of these reflections, I am thus led to go a step further and affirm that the original endowment of each individual is a gift in trust. No one can be warranted in saying, “It is mine, I will do what I please with it.” That is the cheap excuse of indolence and selfishness.

So long as there is a spark of humanity left in you, you must think of your relations and relationships. If you have a light which others have not, you are bound to uncover it and let it spread its beams abroad. Not only your own advancement but the advancement of humankind is something that you must take account of. Indeed, you can scarcely fail to see that all possibility of progress, whether it be for yourself or the world, is wrapped up in this principle of the use of your powers for the sake of others.

No person has a right to hide their talents. Think what would have befallen the world if its great leaders had refused to respond to the call which came to them to forego their selfish ease and enter the service of humanity. Suppose Washington had turned a deaf ear to the call of the Continental Congress, thinking that he preferred the quiet ease of a country gentleman at Mount Vernon to the hazards and hardships attending the leadership of an ill-conditioned army engaged in an almost hopeless struggle with the best disciplined soldiery of Europe — where would be our glorious independence?

Suppose Lincoln, seeing that his election to the Presidency meant secession and rebellion, had faltered and declined the issue — where would be our redeemed Union whose flag floats as a symbol of the noble freedoms enshrined in our Constitution?

It may not be out of place for me to say, moreover, that what is true of the individual is likewise true of states. For states are entities. They have a moral life, and should be held relentlessly to the inherent and inalienable virtue of things no less than its citizens. States must not forget that the great law — to whom much is given, of them much will be required — applies to nations. That is to say, a nation’s responsibilities and duties in the family of states are precisely measured by its opportunities and gifts.

Let us always remember that talent is the instrument, through use, by which we rise to new heights of power. The original gifts which we bring with us into the world are but little more than the seed as compared to the perfected organism. The acorn which you drop in the furrow on one of these spring days has in it all the possibilities of a mighty oak. But it will take years, perhaps a whole century, in which day and night, sunshine and darkness, summer and winter, fair weather and tempest, shall have their proper alternation, before the oak can stretch out its arms so as to furnish a grateful shade for a multitude of people, or lift up its head in full defiance of the weather’s blast. Then only, do you completely realize the possibilities of the seed.

We find, moreover, that all development is along the lines which inherent possibility prescribes. The oak and the elm are both trees, but they are vastly different in the form of perfected beauty which they present; and by no possible arrangement can you change one so that it can present the same appearance as the other. There certainly is not much resemblance between the domestic cat and the lion, though both belong to the same species — and no way has ever been devised by which you can build a bridge from one to the other.

But you may seek the perfection of each variety after its kind. Each shrub, each tree, each living creature, may, under cultivation, or, at least, under favoring influences, unfold and grow until it touches the very climax of its type. Here, then, is the lesson that suffices for the whole matter of human development.

The native powers of humankind are God-given and divine. But after all, they are only the shadows of great possibilities. God has not done everything for them. Indeed, it seems, sometimes, as if almost everything has been left for human effort. For it is only after our talents have been fashioned and wrought upon by years of protracted cultivation that they can reach the full measure of divine power. This, too, is in the design, apparently, of the Creator, that perfection shall come only through tribulation and perseverance.

Two great imperatives confront every child in the cradle. The first is power, vigor, and vitality; the second is symmetry, harmony, and grace. “Strength and beauty” are the essential elements of every temple in which God will condescend to dwell. The first thing we have to do is to compact and energize the powers we have. They may not be many and they may not be striking. But we have no reason to be discouraged on that account. Small things may grow to vast proportions.

What is it that makes the blacksmith’s arm as hard almost as the steel, which he molds and shapes according to his will? It may not have been a powerful arm in the beginning. Indeed, it may have been weak and puny. But daily use in swinging the hammer above the anvil has brought out all its latent energy, and transformed it into a thing of might.

This likeness holds in the spiritual realm. Let the mediocre in skills console themselves with the reflection that it is not always those who exhibit the greatest brilliancy in early life who win the prizes in the great contests of later years. In the battleground of life, industry counts more than inheritance.

Let no person despair, therefore, because their powers are not those which compel the admiration of every beholder. Be content rather to stand in your place and do the duty of the hour, meeting bravely all the responsibilities of time and place — and then trust in the final result, whatever it may be.

Remember that you can accomplish nothing by hiding your talents. Constant diligence is the law of acquisition. Remember also that you are here not to be ministered unto but to minister. You must live not for yourselves but for others — for your neighbors in the drudgery of the everyday, for your country, for humankind, and for the divine flame.

Above all, remember that you are to do your own work, live your own life, and fulfill your own destiny. This you cannot accomplish by imitation. It must be the free movement of your own soul — the healthy, natural, easy, and graceful unfolding of the powers which you brought with you into the world.

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