14th Graduation Keynote Speech

During ancient times in the Middle East, people had to travel great distances over inhospitable terrain in order to conduct their business. They moved in caravans — huge expeditions of men, women and animals — to cross the huge expanse of desert in order to reach their destinations.

These caravans attracted a mixture of people. There were traders who needed to deliver and sell their goods in other lands. There were pilgrims making a spiritual journey across the sands. There were families in search of a new and better life. There were adventurers and even mercenaries. These caravans would travel hundreds of miles for many weeks or even months and, while those concerned had different reasons for being there, they were all bound by a common objective to complete the journey no matter what hardship would be encountered along the way.

Even in the comfort of numbers, crossing hundreds of miles of sand under the scorching heat of the sun would not be possible without making vital stops along the way. Survival in such desolation depended on reaching that rare and unlikely patch of ground called an oasis, where one can rest and shelter and, most of all, find life-giving water. Once refreshed and replenished the caravan again moves on to continue its journey.

Coming here today brings this image to my mind, for here we are, people of different backgrounds and persuasions with various reasons for being here, but, at the same time, bound by a common objective to make this trip. And we have chosen to come to this place because today marks a most meaningful milestone in the lives of 15 men and women we will honor and send off from this place for they are once again ready to continue their journey.

When SELF’s Taal View House opened its doors for the first time some 10 years ago, we considered this facility to be a field hospital amidst an ever-growing malady of drug abuse. Those of us who were here at the time couldn’t help but sit on the top of those steps marveling at the seemingly impossible realization of Martin’s passionate dream to someday have our own place.

And when it finally became a reality we couldn’t help but worry. How will we ever sustain it? How can the vision of SELF be kept going through this facility so it can continue to reach out to substance abuse dependents, helping them overcome their addiction and ultimately return to society? How truly providential it was that we discovered this small patch of remote land to nourish and restore other people’s lives.

Taal View House is therefore a genuine oasis as well. Throughout the years many travelers from different places and circumstances have come and stopped here. Some of them stayed for a while but always with the realization that one day they would move on and continue the rest of their journey since this oasis is not their final destination.

Here they — and we — have found solace from a harsh and cruel environment. Here they — and we — have found rest as well as nourishment for our bodies as well as our spirits. Here they — and we — have come to know each other so that we can never again be total strangers. Here they — and we — have bound ourselves to a common objective to heal and be healed.

This is the 14th caravan now and, like the ones that came before, it too will move on, joined by 15 more travelers reunited with their loved ones as they continue with their life’s journey. SELF will continue its mission.

This Taal View House will remain an oasis for all who pass this way and will await everyone who needs to escape their cruel and intolerable environment in order to find shelter and be saved. And we will continue to make this journey together.

To our dear graduates, you will never be traveling through life alone because, in our own ways, we will be with you. And to those whose time has not yet come to go with this caravan, be patient. Rest assured you will likewise continue your journey one day. In the meantime this oasis will keep nourishing you, and, when your own caravan finally comes, you too will never travel alone.

On behalf of the Board of Directors of SELF, I wish to convey our admiration to our 15 graduates today. Congratulations for making it through the program and we wish you all the best as you resume your rightful places in the outside world.

To your families, loved ones and friends who are here, we sincerely thank you for supporting SELF, for believing in its mission, for your willingness to take this arduous journey as well. May you continue to walk with enduring faith in God and in one another.

Now let me address our graduates more directly by sharing with you the story of Mike. Mike is a young man I met in my recent trip to the United States a few months back. He has his own life story to tell and, when he shared it with all of us, I couldn’t help but be touched as well as inspired by his example.

You see, when Mike was a young boy he had the entire future brightly shining in front of him. He came from a good and loving family, maintained very good grades in school and, most of all, was a gifted athlete who could excel in any sport he got into. By the time Mike was about to graduate from high school he had opportunities to enter top universities on an athletic scholarship. Mike was naturally the pride of his family, and he was determined to live his dreams.

But one fateful day, Mike went home with his best friend whose father happened to be a policeman. There his friend showed Mike his father’s gun, and tragedy struck. The gun accidentally went off, shooting Mike at point-blank range. Mike did not die, but the bullet that penetrated his body shattered his spine, rendering Mike without the use of his legs for the rest of his life.

The first few weeks in the hospital were a terrible ordeal for Mike. In an instant his bright and enviable future went down the drain. Mike brooded and cursed God for his fate. He questioned why, of all people, this had to happen to him. He fell into a deep depression.

Mike just wanted to die because he saw no more point in living. How, he anguished, would he ever be whole again? How would he ever realize his goals to finish college, become a top athlete and one day fulfill his biggest dream to represent his country in the Olympics?

For the first time in his young life Mike was tormented with questions he could not answer; he was filled with a rage he could hardly control. It is during situations like this that one realizes the indispensable value of family. In particular, Mike’s self-pity, anger and depression refused to be accepted by his mother. After all she had always been and would continue to be his biggest cheerleader.

So one day, as Mike continued to wallow in despair threatening for the nth time to give up on life, his mother had enough. She looked at him intently and said as firmly as she could, “Mike, just because you can’t stand up doesn’t mean you can’t stand out!”

Inexplicably, his mother’s words had the force of a sledgehammer and stirred something deep inside Mike that forced him to reflect seriously on what she said. It must have sparked Mike’s competitive spirit, for in that very instant it was what he critically needed in order to start picking himself up.

Mike decided he really did not want to die; rather he wanted so badly to live as best as he could despite his disability. Thus Mike began his long and arduous road to recovery. It wasn’t easy. His physical rehabilitation was more demanding and taxing than anything he had ever experienced in his athletic life.

But Mike’s iron will prevailed and he eventually recovered enough strength and positive disposition to face the world as a paraplegic. And Mike did go on to college and graduated. More importantly, during his college years he discovered an organization devoted to promoting athleticism in disabled individuals like himself.

He rediscovered an old sport to get back into in a new way — playing basketball on a wheelchair. Mike became so skillful at it that one day he proudly made it to the men’s basketball team of his country competing in the worldwide Paralympics games. His team then went on to claim the silver medal, with Mike making the last second shot that enabled them to win the game.

Mike’s story may not be unique but it is wonderful to be reminded of the power that lies within the human spirit to endure every setback and ultimately triumph. Since that time Mike resolved that there was nothing he couldn’t do as a permanently disabled individual. His love for life and his appetite for excellence made him do many other things most of us who are not physically incapacitated would refuse to do. Mike learned to skydive. Not content with that he learned how to fly a plane. He went rock-climbing by himself — imagine how a paraplegic can do that! And when he reached the peak, he decided he wanted to bungee jump to the bottom. Yes, indeed, Mike can no longer stand up; so he just stands out.

In recounting his journey thus far, Mike shared with us the three most important principles he has learned along the way. First, resist change and you die. Second, accept change and you survive. But third and most of all, create change and you succeed!

I feel Mike’s remarkable story and life principles must also be shared with all of you. When you first came to SELF you resisted this change that came over your lives, and if you had indeed rejected the reality of your situation then you would have been doomed to a life of continuing and worsening addiction until you inevitably died. But the turning point came when you accepted what brought you here to this place — your self responsibility and accountability. Because of that, you survived and could again harbor the hope of one day resuming a drug-free life.

But Mike’s third principle is the most vital of all. Do not be content with mere survival. Instead, be more determined to live your lives to the fullest and be all that you can be, just like Mike. When you leave this place today, ask yourselves how you will create those changes in your lives that will make you succeed far beyond even what others may think. Do not be satisfied with merely existing, with counting each day without addiction. Be stronger than that and more determined. Be absolutely inspiring because, whether you realize it or not, that is your gift from this place.

Your victory over your demons makes you uniquely positioned to stir others out of their own hopelessness. Lead them out of their own hell by the force of your life’s example. Leave this place with our love and prayers. We will always cheer you on. Make your lives truly meaningful and by so doing you will make this world better than what it is today.

Congratulations and enjoy your new found sobriety.


Board Member, SELF
May 2009