Sanggeet Manirajah ’14
"Humbly, We Walk"
May 17, 2014
Hello and good afternoon everyone. I am incredibly honored and humbled to be standing here today and speaking to you, my fellow classmates. As we are gathered here for the last time together as the Scripps Class of 2014, I cant help but feel goosebumps (the good kind) imagining the journeys that each and every single one of us is about to embark on; the lives that we are going to live and the dreams, personal and collective, that we hope to fulfill.
And how does this journey begin? I believe that the most epic journeys begin with a question… and with this particular journey, the question has to do with a backpack. Each of you has been given a backpack, which you will carry with you on this journey ahead. You’ve been asked to fill it with items and things – anything that you think may help or will be useful on this path ahead. The catch is: you have no idea where you’re going, nor do you know what awaits. And the only company you have on this journey, is this small thing on your back. The question is, what do you bring with you?
This is an analogy that came up in a conversation that I had a with a dear friend recently, and it has been revolving in my mind ever since. It got me thinking about how our time here at Scripps has been an extended ‘backpack filling’ process of sorts: in the classes we’ve taken, activities we’ve invested our time, energy and hearts in, friendships and relationships that we’ve built and grown with, challenges we’ve confronted, and the causes that we – individually and collectively – have fought for. The experiences that we’ve had, the lessons that we’ve learnt and the memories we have created do not end here; they will continue to follow us in our future actions and decisions.
And today, as we part ways and head off courageously, confidently and hopefully on our respective paths, I would like to ask you: friends, as you walk away from this place, what will you carry with you?
I cannot speak for all of us, nor can I tell you what you should be carrying. But I would like to share with you what I hope I will carry with me on my own journey. For me, I hope that no matter what happens, where I go or what I do, I hope I will always have with me a sense of humility. That as I walk, or dance, along this path called life, I am continuously humbled by the people and communities I become a part of, humbled by the lessons, and challenges I encounter.
Now, one could associate humility with being overly modest, or self-deprecating – sometimes humility can be construed as being weak. I disagree. From being part of this incredible community that is Scripps, I’ve come to discover the many different facets of what it means to live with humility, what it means to be humble. Humility, I’ve discovered, means having an awareness of my own smallness and vulnerability, and being able to see and embrace the beauty and strength in that. Humility means recognizing the strength and power of my own voice, and using it when necessary, but not without remembering that when one voice is heard, others are left unheard. Humility means having the discipline to remind and ask myself, “What are the consequences and implications of my own thoughts and actions towards those around me?” It means challenging and pushing myself in the things I do, but at the same time, having a sensitive honesty of my own limits and limitations. I think it also means to be able to fearlessly dream but without being possessive of my dreams, and without letting my dreams possess me. I’ve discovered that humility means living in awe and appreciation of the small moments of beauty, kindness, love and compassion that happens in our day to day lives, the moments that make life worth living.
Now, perhaps you may be wondering, why of all things, do I want to be carrying humility? There is no one reason, and the story that I am about to share with you is one of many moments and experiences that have made me realize something important: that a lot of the things that happen in our lives are beyond our control.
In the Spring of my junior year, I studied abroad in India on a program that was focused on sustainable development and social change. We were a group of 25 students from different schools around the US, and the program involved numerous excursions to different parts of Northern India, where we visited local NGOs and grassroots development initiatives. This one time, we were visiting an all-girls elementary school in a small rural village in the northern state of Rajasthan. We were visiting an organization whose focus was to increase access to basic education for young girls in that area. The girls were between 7 – 15 years old, and for many of these girls, given their family background and circumstances, the idea of even attending school was a huge stretch of the imagination.
That hot and dry afternoon, we were all seated in a small classroom for introductions; our group across from the group of shy but giggly and excited girls. There was this one girl, who was quieter than the rest, who was seated right across from me; we caught each others’ eyes a couple of times and we smiled. As I looked at her, I started to imagine what her life must be like: what did she do first thing when she woke up, what her hobbies were, if she had siblings or not. If she had a favourite Indian dessert. And then, I started thinking about my own life, and I thought about how different it was from hers. We both represented two very distinct sets of life experiences, and I couldn’t help think about the little and not-so-little privileges I enjoy: of having a college-education, of having the freedom and means to travel and see new places, of having access to opportunities for my own self-growth and development. It wasn’t that my life was better than hers, or hers better than mine. They were just different; we each lived very distinct lives with their own particular struggles.
Our lives were different, but I could also see how they could be similar, perhaps in the aspirations and dreams we both have for ourselves; to learn and seek knowledge, to make our families proud, to be good human beings. Perhaps we were both similar in our determination and zeal to fulfill these dreams. As we sat across from each other, I saw quite vividly how easily my life could’ve been hers and how she could have been living mine. That it was random chance that we were born into the families, places and circumstances that led us to where we were in that moment, sitting on the opposite sides of that classroom. That had things happened quite differently in our past, our life paths could’ve been very different than the ones we were on.
I think it was that day that I realized my own smallness, my own insignificance, and it was refreshing, in a way liberating almost. It was liberating because seeing and embracing my smallness was an antithesis to the idea that I and perhaps, many of us, have grown up believing to be true, the idea that “if you work hard enough, you’ll make it, and if you’ve made it, it means you’ve worked hard enough and therefore deserve it.” I think that it is too simplistic an idea, and is an unsatisfying perspective of both the little and not-so-little struggles that we all go through in life. I began to question, if hard work indeed does merit me boundless opportunities and access to the good stuff in life, then what about the struggles of so many other women, men, people, who have worked as hard, if not, harder than me? Whose honest efforts and earnestness merits them the very opportunities and open doors that I have had the luck and grace to enjoy, but for reasons beyond my comprehension, they have not. Is there something that distinguishes me, that sets me apart, that entitles me to the best of what life has to offer?
The question is something that I keep circling back to, and I think seeking the answers will be a lifelong journey. But it has helped me realize my smallness; it has helped me realize that a lot of what has happened in my life – the privileges and freedoms I have enjoyed and the opportunities that I’ve stumbled upon –are all a function of something that is beyond my control, a result of forces that are constantly interacting, moving and shaping me and my path. That while my hard work definitely was a factor in the freedoms I have been blessed to enjoy, it was by no means the only factor. That really when it comes down to it, a lot of what has happened has been a result of luck; I have just been so incredibly lucky.
And I think that all of us, in our own ways, have been lucky. Think about it. We are lucky, just by virtue of sitting here, waiting to receive our undergraduate diplomas, by virtue of becoming soon-to-be graduates of an elite, liberal arts college. For the past four years, we have had the luxury of learning for the sake of learning, of pursuing experiences and opportunities for our own self-development, of being surrounded by a community of incredibly passionate and talented women, and to be inspired by this community, in little and big ways, every single day.
We are so lucky.
We are lucky. So what do we do with it, this luck? To me personally, I think that this luck calls for a certain sense of responsibility, which is to be humble, to live with humility. This responsibility means that I do not take my own achievements for granted, but also, that I do not take my own successes too seriously. Because the idea of something being “mine” – whether its an accomplishment, triumph or victory – is too simple an idea. Life is more nuanced than that. Remembering the ways in which our lives are an intricate product of forces beyond our control, and more significantly, a product of the relationships and communities we are a part of, is a humbling reminder of how small we are.
But how is recognizing our smallness going to help in this journey ahead, that is uncertain but exciting, terrifying but also inviting? In a world that constantly aggrandizes bigness, success, prestige, and opulence, I think that recongnizing and embracing our smallness is what will help keep us grounded, and help us discover and be reminded of what’s truly important to us. We are able to see things in perspective, and be more mindful of how we act, interact and treat others. By remembering our smallness, we are reminded of the smallness of others too; that every single person around us is fighting their own battle. And I think that we are able to walk this journey with a deeper sensitivity and openness to the intricacies of life; we are able to see beauty where there seems to be none, and to have gratitude at times when it seems impossible.
I would like to share with you a quote that for me, very elegantly encapsulates a recognition of this smallness, but at the same time, highlights the tremendous strength and potential this recognition carries. It is by my one of my favorite writers, Arundhati Roy. She says, “the only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you are alive, and die only when you are dead. To love, to be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of the life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
Let us never forget. Friends, as we walk our paths, let us never forget the ways in which we are complicit in systems and structures that perpetuate injustice, exclusion and oppression. But let us remember that in our complicity, we also have the voice and the choice, to resist. To question, to challenge, and to never settle for the status quo. To keep fighting, to keep going. Let us remember that our humanity lies in recognizing, respecting and loving the humanity in the people we interact and cross paths with every single day. That we are so inextricably connected and interdependent to each other, and that life as we know it would be meaningless without this interdependence. And let us remember that in this interconnected and intertwined web that we are all a part of, we are small.
Let’s remember our own smallness, fragility and vulnerability. For, it is in our smallness that we encounter our strength, our faith. It is in our smallness that we encounter life.
Life. That as we continue walking, singing dancing, on this path called life, let us never forget our connection to this place, the relationships that we’ve built and the communities that we have been a part of here.
I will leave you not with a quote, but with a question. As you take this first of many steps on this journey, what will you carry with you?
Thank you, Class of 2014, for the memories. Humbly, lets walk.