On May 23, 2015, writer, poet, and Northwestern professor Chris Abani congratulated Odyssey Project graduates in a ceremony at the National Museum of Mexican Art. You can watch a video of his speech here, or read the transcript below:
Good afternoon everyone and thank you for the kind invitation to speak today, and to be able to share in the victory of these recent graduates.
Dear Odyssey graduates, salutations and congratulations on this incredible achievement. When I was asked to deliver these remarks today, I immediately began to ponder what advice to give you as you leave this program and embark on your life’s next adventure. For isn’t that what commencement speakers are meant to do? Share their wisdom? Offer advice for the next steps in your life?
But sharing wisdom and advice make me uncomfortable because if I have any wisdom at all, it’s the knowledge that I have none. What manner of difficult or challenge and what story of how I overcame it can I share that you have not yourself encountered? Have not yourself overcome? This understanding was further cemented when I was able to read on the project’s website the work you have done to earn this moment. The remarkable and humbling way you have woven the fabric of your difficulties into theories and practices of absolute redemption. The manner in which you have approached your regrets, successes, sidetracks, and all the bumps on your individual journeys and used them as the material for an intellectual inquiry that makes the education you have acquired even more valuable and deep for the sacrifices you have made to obtain it. Not to mention the hope and humor you display and the depths of your moral and ethical explorations that have renewed my faith in humanity, mine as well as our collective one. So I thank you first and foremost for that kindness.
And so, in coming here today I want to offer you instead of advice a prayer. This I can do because it comes from the heart. It is an odd prayer at first, but one that resonates, I hope, for a long time and it is about something I have come to understand intimately – and that thing is failure.
And you might ask yourself: Why would I be talking about failure on the day of such joy? And I say that in my life there has been no greater joy than my failure. All my failures (and there have been many) – some small and quiet, some loud and spectacular – all of them, however, have taught me the true measure of my intellect, my heart, my soul, my resolve. And they have made me a deeper man.
My failures are the things I am most proud of because they not only shaped me, they have taught me all the ways in which I cannot be limited, the ways in which I cannot possibly understand the full depth of my own potential, but what they have taught me is that every single failure I have is marked by a moment when I was not afraid.
My grandfather was a warrior from an older time; a man who fought the British army, armed only with a sword. When I asked him what the most important test a warrior has to pass is, his answer surprised me. Instead of words like courage, or valor, or bravery, or honor, or ferocity, or even fighting skills, he said failure. A good warrior, he said, was a warrior who knew how to fail well and with grace and who came to understand what failure has taught him. More importantly, he continued, it tells them what failures to pray for and what failures to avoid. And so here is my prayer for the failure that will you to your own deepest understanding of your own deepest nature.
May you fail at being afraid, so that you will always have the courage to confront the tasks and challenges ahead of you.
May you fail at not being able to change, so that you may arrest the course of your life and take control of your destiny.
May you fail at anger and hate because these are the fuels that burn us to nothingness. May you instead always find room for forgiveness and compassion for yourself and for others. In this way our lives are filled with light.
May you fail at self-doubt. All the power we tied into this endeavor is the energy that you actually need to transform your life. there are enough people who doubt us, they do not need our help.
May you fail at having a blind belief so that you will always have a keen intelligence; one that will guide you like a true North Star so you may never be lost in the darkness.
May you fail at neglecting your loved ones. No matter how shimmering he dreams we have may be, we are in the end nothing more than how much we loved and how much we were loved, how much comfort and kindness we gave to others and how much grace with which we have tried to live our lives.
May you fail at being judgmental. Judgment always carries the ghost of shame – ours and others – and it will always fail you because judgment is deeply flawed. Instead, may you find the faculty of discernment, for this will lead you to make good choices without ever limiting someone else. It will allow you to decide what is good for your life without making anyone else feel shame. It will make you decide what is good for your children without teaching them prejudice. It will help you become a better person.
May you fail at living someone else’s life or someone else’s lowered expectations for you. There is too little time in this world to let others drown out your own desires and your own intuition. I know it is a cliché, but seize the day.
May you fail at not staying alert and present in your life. In this way you will always know that you have a choice in all things and that you can make the right ones for yourself, for your family, and for your community.
May you fail at being selfish, not being it is good and altruistic, but because we will learn that life is an endlessly renewable gift. And since life seeks only to give on to life, the more you give, the more life gives you.
May you fail at trying to avoid failure because this is life’s greatest gift to you. We will fail, a lot, but we must never be broken or defeated. You should also know that we can fail at things we don’t want in life, so why not risk it all going after our passions? It is never too late to settle, it is never too late to make compromises, so why should you begin there?
May you fail at becoming complacent. You must continue to educate yourself. The true value of an education is that the world becomes demystified and you realize that what some people might want to withhold from you can actually be earned in others ways very easily. Education teaches you that no one can belittle you and that you, in turn, cannot belittle others.
May you fail at playing it safe. Be sensible, for sure, do not be reckless, but remember that the world belongs to the bold, my friends. You are already a light unto others, but never forget to be a light unto yourself.
May you fail to talk yourself out of starting small in order to grow into something big. If you think there is no place for the humble things, the small things, I remind you that the African elephant is the largest land mammal and yet the small tick can drive it to defeat. Remember that the whine of a mosquito can drive you to madness.
May you fail at making yourself small to make others feel important. Instead, cultivate a simple humility that allows you to acknowledge all of your gifts and achievements, but temper that with the understanding that even with your hard work, these are the gifts of Grace. Plenty of people the world over work very hard, harder than we can sometimes fathom, and never find the good fortune that we do.
May you fail in comparison, in comparing yourself to the success of others. Ambition should hold you to an internal scale of achievement, not a competition with people around you. Your scale of achievement should be on that you have built-up of the true values of success, what they truly will earn for you – love, kindness, generosity, and balance. And may you always work towards that dream without ever comparing yourself to others and the things they have. An old Yoruba prayer says: I am walking the path that my destiny has carved for me. I am doing what I was sent here to do. If I meet a King on the road, may I greet him with respect, but not self-effacement. If I meet a beggar on the road, may I greet him with respect, but not pity. The road has its own destiny, the feet their own. The woodcutter has his own honor as does the ax and also the tree. May my ancestors hold me up with love that I may teach the next generation love. This is the path my soul has carved for me.
May you fail at not listening to your conscience because it is the best part of you.
Finally I thank you, my friends, for the chance to pray with you and to share with you, and, most importantly, I thank you for the gift of making me open my heart to you.
May the journey be good to you. May the angels of your better nature hold you up. May you life long and blessed lives. May you always find love. Ashe.