Sunday, July 13, 2008

Spokesman's Briefing... on Life

For the second time in a month, the Washington press corps mourns the premature loss of one of its own; the former White House press secretary and Fox News commentator Tony Snow died Friday at 53, losing a lengthy and high-profile battle with colon cancer.

He might've been best known for his flair in the briefing room, but the same sense of curious zeal carried Snow throughout his journey, especially as he maintained an unusual level of visibility and candor over the course of his illness.

Encouraging his audience to "live boldly," "go off-road," "commit" and "love," among the spokesman's major appearances before departing the West Wing was his delivery of last year's Commencement Address at the capital's Catholic University of America:
You are about to encounter a world larger than you know with peaks, valleys, pits and precipices that you cannot possible imagine. You’re going to work long hours. You’ll eat pizza at four in the morning. You’ll try to find love in the weirdest places. You’ll audition personalities, outfits and styles until something seems to fit but eventually the way you’re going to craft your legacy is predictable. You will stamp your imprint on other people’s hearts. You’re not going to get to do that writing in front of a computer.

I’ve been informed by my teenage daughter that there’s a new trend in high school now: dating. Only it’s a peculiar kind of dating because the “datees” do not actually spend time in each other’s presence. Instead they conduct their courtship online. Now technology invites us to build communities out of electrons rather than blood and flesh and I’m just encouraging you, please understand the difference between a closed parenthesis followed by a colon, and a smile. Ladies and gentlemen, you cannot kiss a cursor.

Now, the world can be a frightening place, and sometimes a computer may seem to provide refuge, but don’t do it. We also try to hide in other ways. By looking away from the panhandler around the corner or ignoring the fact that somebody is berating someone for no reason at all. What you have to do is learn those adult wiles that I was telling you about but don’t give up the child in you. When kids see injustice, they mention it. “Daddy, why is that man screaming at his wife?” They ask about the things we pretend not to see and we have to step up to. So, when it comes to the world, engage it in every possible way. Don’t be chicken. Get dirt under your fingernails. Scrape your knees. Laugh … a lot … at yourself. Trust me, if you don’t, others will do if for you. But don’t shrink from the pain and the poignancy and aches because they’re essential. They bring us together. They are a part of our experiences. They enliven everything you do but they cannot work their magic until you leave the computer screen and get out that front door.

Finally, love. How trite is that? But it’s everything. It separates happiness from misery. It separates the full life from the empty life. To love is to acknowledge that life is not about you. I want you to remember that: It’s not about you. It’s a hard lesson. A lot of people go through life and never learn it. It’s to submit willingly, heart and soul, to things that matter. Love is not melodrama. You don’t purchase it, you don’t manufacture it. You build it.

Every time I buy something gaudy for my wife she says, “Oh that’s nice,” and then it goes away someplace. The love letters she keeps; I don’t know where the jewelry is.

Love springs from small deeds, the gestures that say casually and naturally “I care.” That acknowledge what’s special about somebody else. If somebody’s smarter, quicker, better, prettier, wiser than you, tell them. Learn from them. Don’t be jealous. Glory in it.

Now the reason that I talk about love is it pulls together the strands of the other tips I’ve already given you. I’ll give you some examples, another presidential story. I traveled with the president last Wednesday to Greensburg, Kansas. Now 10 days ago, that town was small, pretty and whole. But within minutes on a Friday, a giant tornado reduced Greensburg to splinters. Once-nice homes now lie in matchstick heaps. The trees stretch their barren, barkless limbs toward the sky. It looks like Hiroshima, but with grass all around. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I ran into a guy who hadn’t had a shower in five days because the water is not back on, and he motioned for me to come up. He just wanted to tell me a story.

He’s a plumber. And just the week before, they put a brand new boiler in the local school. Well, the school had been leveled and the boiler was just a hunk of twisted metal. He came and he said, “I got a call from the people who sold it to me. They said they saw what happened and said ‘Don’t worry about the boiler. When the time comes, we’re going to replace it.’ ” Then he stopped and said, “You know what else they did? They said they’re sending me a truck. They said, ‘We saw what happened, we know you lost your truck. The one we’re sending you isn’t new but it works great.’ ” And then he stood there, surrounded by the splintered homes and Halloween trees, and just cried. He’s crying and he reached his arms out and he hugged me. He said, “Thanks.” See, here’s somebody who let somebody else help. He let somebody else into his life. He went off-road in a different kind of way, baring himself, and then he decided to pass on the favor.

Think not only of what it means to love but what it means to be loved. I have a lot of experience with that. Since the news that I have cancer again, I have heard from thousands and thousands of people and I have been the subject of untold prayers. I’m telling you right now: You’re young [and you feel] bullet-proof and invincible. [But] never underestimate the power of other people’s love and prayer. They have incredible power. It’s as if I've been carried on the shoulders of an entire army. And they had made me weightless. The soldiers in the army just wanted to do a nice thing for somebody. As I mentioned, a lot of people — everybody out here — wants to do that same thing.

To love is to place others before you and to make their needs your priority. Do it. When you put somebody else at the center of the frame, your entire world changes, and for the better. You begin to find your own place in the world. When you’re drawn into the lives of others, you enter their problems, their hopes, their dreams, their families. They whisk you down unimagined corridors, toward possibilities that had been hidden to you before. So resolve to do little things for others. You don’t know where they’re going to lead but then again, you don’t have any idea where your life is going to lead. When I was your age, I had long hair, a beard and thought of myself as a socialist. You are going to pinball all over the place, from experience to experience, job to job. And I want you to remember that you’ve got company. And that if you engage them with heart and mind, with faith and energy, you are going to find yourself on a cresting wave. It’ll carry you forward and it’ll push you under water from time to time. And some day in the dim and distant future, when you’re looking back at it, you’re not going to think about your car or your career or your gold watch. You’ll think about a chewed-up teddy bear you had as a baby or maybe your child’s smile on a special Christmas morning. The only things that are sure to endure are the artifacts of love. So go out and build as many as you can.

And finally this: Wherever you are and whatever you do, never forget at this moment, and every moment forward, you have a precious blessing. You’ve got the breath of life. No matter how lousy things may seem, you’ve got the breath of life. And while God doesn’t promise tomorrow, he does promise eternity.

Let me make a confession: I’ve never been happier than I am today, not because I got this wonderful, fancy degree. But because the tips that I’ve been sharing with you are leading me toward my next graduation. You see, 30 years after I got my Bachelor of Arts, I’m just like you. I aspired to new graduations and I’m just as excited about the future. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, none of us ever stops taking baby steps. Be humble, be alive, be awake. Take each new step as if it were the first. Then take another. And when you tumble, as you will, when a kind hand reaches out to pick you up, smile, say “Thanks” and give back to them. It may not give you a whole life, but it’ll sure get you started.
In a statement over the weekend, CU president Fr David O'Connell CM recalled that, despite the speaker's hectic schedule, Snow "was so generous with his time, offering to pose with any of the graduates who approached him" for a post-ceremony photo and chat.

"Tony was eager to tour the campus and Basilica after the ceremony," O'Connell said, adding that he "left CUA that afternoon to spend time with his family.

"'They are my priority,' he told me."

PHOTOS: Reuters(1); The Catholic University of America(2)