The Ocean Within
By Julian Aguon
a speech prepared for the Commencement Exercises of Simon Sanchez High School
UOG Fieldhouse, Mangilao, Guam
June 2, 2010
Class of 2010: Thank you. I am deeply honored by your request that I share some of my thoughts with you on this very special day. First of all, congratulations! It is wonderful that you have come this far and completed your high school education. Not everyone can say that. Be proud of what you have accomplished.
I have to tell you. I racked my brain for weeks for something to say that could actually be useful to you at this particular moment in your lives. At last it came to me. As someone who was in your shoes exactly ten years ago—who wore that very gown in this very fieldhouse—I realized that the best gift I could give you is a reflection on some of what I have come to know of the world since walking out these fieldhouse doors. I know what some of you are thinking—it’s hot and I can’t wait to get out of here. Don’t panic. I’ll keep this short—meaning, stay with me for about seven minutes.
When I first thought of you, I was so happy to think of the adventures that await you. Soon some of you will pack up your bedrooms, board planes, and journey to cities like Seattle and San Francisco for college. Others will stay and pursue a degree at the University of Guam. Others still will join the workforce, enlist in a military branch, learn a trade. Some of you have absolutely no idea what you want to do. What you all have in common is that today marks the end of a chapter in your life—that is, adolescence—and pretty soon, whether you’re ready or not, the world will demand more from you. In the coming years, you will be challenged in ways unfamiliar to you now. You will be forced to make some difficult decisions; defend what you believe. You will be prodded, pushed. Tested. You will be bumped up against the Great Wall of Uncertainty again and again—the question on the lip of the universe always the same: Who are you? So when I look out at you, I must admit my enthusiasm is tinged with concern. I worry because I know that by virtue of having come of age on this island, you may be in danger of not having what you’ll need on your journey to adulthood.
Let me explain.
Growing up in Guam, we constantly hear the word “can’t.” We are always hearing about what we don’t have, what is not possible, what can’t change. We become fluent in the language of limitation. We become romantically involved with the notion of impossibility. Just read the news. The message we are constantly being told is some variant of this: Guam’s broken. Probably unfixable. GMH is at capacity. All the beds are taken. Code Red. Guam DOE is in trouble and may lose millions more in federal funding. Any minute now, the bottom will fall out. Take the popular local expression OOG, Only On Guam. We all know what this means. How can we be self-governing when we can barely cut paychecks by 5 o’clock on Friday? When we can’t even close Ordot Dump? What I am talking about is fatalism. Fatalism is the idea that we are powerless to do anything to change our circumstance, to change the world. What does this mean? What does this look like? More importantly, what does this do to children?
I cannot think of anything more terrifying than children who do not believe the world can be changed. Bettered. Children who do not dream do not grow. They grow up, but they do not grow. Do not become adults. Adulthood is when we discover who we are. It’s when we figure out some really important stuff—like what our strengths and weaknesses are, what our unique individual gifts are. Also, what shortcomings we must mitigate. It’s when we go through that very important process of introspection, soul-searching, self-discovery. If we do not go through this process, we inevitably become unhappy people who wake up in the morning empty, afraid, unfulfilled.
Guam is a microcosm of the world. It is confused and suffering. And it needs you desperately. It needs more hospital beds, yes. More doctors in fact. More teachers, more environmentalists, more social workers. More farmers and fishermen, too. Guam needs all these things. But what this island really lacks—what it really, really needs—is more imagination. More dreaming. More than professionals per se, Guam needs people who are self-actualized. People who know who they are. People who let the beauty they love be what they do. In some ways our island, though surrounded by water, is a desert—a desert of imagination. So many in our community have an impression, a sense, that they are not smart enough or capable enough to do things, not monied enough to travel, not talented enough to make a living from their art. So many of us so early on in life give up on our dreams. We place our dreams in boxes, seal them shut, and shelve them somewhere just out of sight. Maybe that’s what colonialism looks like: Dreams Under Duct Tape.
There is a book, The Alchemist, that tells of the importance of quieting down the noise of the outside world, the noise of other people, and listening instead to one’s own heart. The book is about a young shepherd boy who journeys to the deserts of Egypt in search of a treasure he has dreamed about. Along the way, the boy faces many challenges and at one point finds himself penniless in a foreign land. He eventually gets a job in a small crystal shop, where he learns about the danger of abandoning one’s dreams from the shop-owner, who himself lacked the courage to go in search of his dreams and, as a result, lived a life of emptiness. The boy eventually reaches the desert, where he slowly starts to learn what is described in the book as the Language of the World. In the desert, the boy gets quiet, learns to read the omens and, finally, listens to his heart. In the end, he learns that one’s only real obligation is to realize one’s destiny.
What I want to tell you today is this: Get quiet. In each of you, there is a whisper that speaks of a special, unduplicated gift that you alone possess and are meant to bring forth into the world. Attend to that whisper. Jesus said: If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you. I dare to add—if you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save other people, too. When we do what we love, we nourish the soul of the world. When we do something else, something we don’t love, we run the risk not only of being very unhappy people, but of hurting other people as well, even people we supposedly love. In fact, we run the risk of never knowing love at all; that is, the kind of love that is separate from possession. If we don’t learn how to be quiet and attend to that whisper in each of us, if we fail to cultivate our own inner gift, we grow cold. Less kind. Quick to rush to blot out other people’s light. You might know this phenomenon as the Crabs In A Bucket syndrome. We in Guam have had enough of that.
I originally intended to buy each of you a copy of The Alchemist. Long story short, I couldn’t swing it. I do, however, have something for you. Underneath your seats, you’ll find a seashell. This shell is special. It was not imported from somewhere else; not bought from any store. Local Chamoru artists have spent the last several weeks combing the beaches and waters of Guam retrieving them for you. There is a beautiful exchange in the book between the alchemist and the boy after days of traveling the desert. The alchemist was explaining to the boy why it is that some people who set out to be alchemists are never able to turn metal into gold. He told the boy that those who are interested only in gold do not understand the secret of alchemy. In their singular obsession to turn other metals into gold, they forget that lead, copper, and iron all have their own destinies to fulfill. And anyone who interferes with the destiny of another thing never will discover his own. So the alchemist reached down and picked up a shell from the ground. “This desert was once a sea,” he said. The alchemist told the boy to place the shell over his ear. “The sea has lived on in this shell, because that’s its destiny. And it will never cease doing so until the desert is once again covered by water.”
Graduates, at the beginning of my talk, I told you that I worry you may be in danger of not having what you’ll need on your journey to adulthood. These small shells are my attempt to equip you. May they remind you of the ocean within you—your destiny. When the world gets too noisy—and it will—remember them. Get quiet.
If you would, please place your shells over your ears.
If you can learn to be quiet, if you can become good listeners to your own ocean, you—and Guam—will be better for it.