"I might..."

Ambassador Matthew Barzun '88
Ambassador Matthew Barzun ’88 is Form of 2017 Baccalaureate speaker

(As prepared for delivery.)

Doing the day’s work day by day, doing a little, adding a little, broadening our bases – wanting not only for ourselves but for others also, a fairer chance for all people, everywhere. Forever moving forward, always remembering that it is the things of the spirit that in the end prevail. That caring counts and that where there is no vision the people perish. That hope and faith count and that without charity, there can be nothing good. That having dared to live dangerously, and in believing in the inherent goodness of man, we can stride forward into the unknown with growing confidence. (From the tombstone of John G. Winant, Form of 1908, U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, 1941-46)
Thank you Rector Hirschfeld, Trustees, faculty, members of the clergy and the choir, and the Sixth Formers, their parents, and the people closest to them here in this chapel and those by video link in the Old Chapel – what a joy to be here with all of you.
A special thank you to the Sixth Formers – thank you for inviting me. And congratulations!
What a joy to be here with all of you.
I haven’t been in this chapel since I graduated here nearly 30 years ago, and in those days myspiritual life was, how do I put this diplomatically, not overly developed.
But now I’m a parent, and our youngest son Charles is here today visiting for the first time, and things are different.
You see, when I was his age – 11 – my parents had just gotten divorced and, since my father had been something between atheist and agnostic, my mother told us kids that we were now finally able to get baptized – if we wanted to. My older sister said yes, younger sister yes, younger brother yes. I said no.
My siblings got baptized soon thereafter at the little Congregationalist church next door in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and each got assigned godparents who gave them presents not only at the baptism but every Christmas thereafter. No one told me that was part of the deal, but nonetheless, I felt good in my conviction.
Then I came here as a 5-foot-zero Third Former and sat right over there. I never sang a hymn, never said a prayer, and never said “amen.” For four years. Arms folded. And proud of it.
My mother said to me at my St. Paul’s graduation, “Matthew, please keep an open heart.” And when I graduated from college she gave me a book by Karen Armstrong called A History of God and said, “Please keep an open heart”.
I said “I might” - no promises - but wasn’t ruling it out. I didn’t open the book.
Several years later, I meet the love of my life, Brooke, and she was raised religious: Catholic. Long story short we want to get married. She wants to do so in a church. I still wasn’t ready to open my heart in that way, but I finally did open the book. That led to my reading G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers – and to walking down the aisle of a Catholic cathedral to get married.
And when our son was baptized 11 years ago I took the leap myself and was baptized at age 36. Since I was a grown up I got to pick my own godparents. And for my godmother I picked my mother, who is serving in that role at this very moment right over there. Thank you, Mom.
So, it’s been a long time since I’ve been back in this chapel. But it has not been a long time since I’ve been surrounded by bright Sixth Formers. That’s because in my three and a half years as ambassador in the U.K., I visited nearly 200 high schools and facilitated workshops with more than 20,000 British sixth formers.
This wasn’t something ambassadors had traditionally done at that scale, but I wanted to experiment with new ways of engaging with young people for two reasons.
First was because public opinion polling said there was only one European country where young people held a lower opinion of the United States than their parents and grandparents: The United Kingdom. Now, technically, I was the youngest ambassador the U.S. has ever sent to the U.K. But I knew then what you all know now, which is I am old. One way you know you are old is that you refer to young people as, “young people.”
The second reason was because of some good advice I got.
Before I became an ambassador for the first time, to Sweden, I had the chance to meet with newly elected President Obama in the Oval Office. We sat down on that couch and chair by the fireplace you see on TV and I was a bit nervous.
I really only had one question, so I blurted it out: “Mr. President, what advice do you have for me as a first-time diplomat?”
He sat back looked up at the ceiling, and said, “Well, Matthew, Listen...”
I thought to myself, “Yes, I was planning to that’s why I have come up all this way from Kentucky.” And I had my pen out ready to write down his pearls of wisdom.
But that was all he said. I was slow on the uptake. There was a long awkward pause. He wasn’t saying “listen to all my great advice.” His advice was, “Listen. Listen.
I knew I didn’t want to talk at these sixth formers – lecture them about foreign policy. I am the son of a therapist and the husband of an art therapist.
So I did it more like group art therapy (I didn’t call it that in case that creeped them out).
I gave them each a blank index card and a U.S. Embassy pencil and asked them to draw a picture of something that frustrates, concerns, or confuses them about the United States and what we are up to. We spent 45 minutes discussing those. Almost always at the top of the list were guns, racism, police brutality. Not topics, it’s worth noting, that we normally associate with foreign policy.
And then I asked them to flip the card over and to write down something they like or gives them hope or inspires them about the United States. The top answers were diversity, freedom, American dream, and food.
My favorite part of each workshop was a moment that lasted only a split second. I would tell them the Obama “listen” story and then say, “And there is no group of people more important to listen to than all of you today, because, no pressure, you are the future leaders and decision makers of the United Kingdom.”
At 98 percent of the schools there would be the same reaction – most, by the way, were state schools and many were in low income areas. I would pick one person to look at when I said this line and they would always look behind them like “who, me?” and then look to their friend on their left and on the right and then he or she and the whole row and the whole room would sit just a tiny bit taller and say with their eyes, “yeah, okay, maybe me. I might be.”
Except for when I went to Eton or Harrow or the kind of private school on which our St. Paul’s School modelled itself – then it was different.
I would say that same line about being a future leader and look at one young person but they didn’t look behind or to the side or have any hint of “who me?” they just looked me right back in the eye as if to say, “well-spotted, sir.”
The fancy word for that is entitlement.
I remember a few too many speeches given to me here in this chapel as a teenager where the message was: to whom much is given, much is expected.
It troubled me. Not every student’s story then, or now, is the same. Some have been given everything. Some have struggled hard to get here. Some who seem to have it all, struggle just the same. Some, as we have seen recently, have been victimized in ways that remained hidden.
It felt a little presumptuous.
And practically speaking, it’s not the most effective way to inspire a teenager if your message is, essentially: “You’re welcome. You owe us. Now do something big.”
It would be a very natural reaction – upon hearing that message over and over – to try to put a mask over our actual feelings – pride, fear, insecurity --whatever they might be – and try to project confidence and self-assuredness. It might look a lot like those “well-spotted” students.
So, as you prepare to move on from St. Paul’s, I think it serves us all – whether we are in the pews or up here in the pulpit; whether we are in the first or the second half of life – to free ourselves from this cycle and to dispense with the language and body language of entitlement.
Let’s instead go to the opposite end of the spectrum – to engagement. I think that’s a more
useful approach for your road ahead.
Engagement is the terrain of the diplomat, a place that requires us to be outward facing and open.
Diplomacy with a capital D is a job, but the lower-case version is what we all must learn to do as we navigate and negotiate toward better relationships and careers.
My role model for engagement – for this diplomatic way of thinking and feeling and seeing and doing – is someone who also sat in these front rows as a student and in those back rows as a teacher before moving a few miles down the road as a three-time Governor of New Hampshire. And onto his final job as the U.S. ambassador to the U.K.
He’s Ambassador John Gilbert Winant, Form of 1908. The words we heard earlier are from a speech he gave and are written on his gravestone just a few hundred yards from here. His name might be familiar to you from the foreign policy society here that bears his name. And for the record: I attended, cumulatively over my four years here, a grand total of zero Winant Society gatherings – a fact I was forced to fess up to my boss Secretary John Kerry who, it turns out, founded the Society when he went here.
Winant was not your usual political type. He was not smooth. He was shy by disposition and he had a stutter.
He took risky jobs. He was a Republican and accepted the job of running FDR’s – a Democratic president’s -– new Social Security Administration – a bit like a Republican in our time raising their hand to run Obamacare.
When World War II broke out and the Nazis were advancing across Europe and bombing was starting in London and America had not yet joined the fight, FDR’s then-ambassador to the U.K. Joe Kennedy (JFK’s dad) said out loud and on the record, “There’s no sense in our getting in [the war]. We’d just be holding the bag.” The British, he said, are a “lost cause.”
So FDR recalled Kennedy and sent Winant, who said Britain’s cause is our cause. He was met on arrival at the train station by the king himself – not normal protocol I assure you, it hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened since – and immediately made his position clear.
He said, “There is no place I’d rather be at this time than in England.”
He refused to live in the fancy house. In fact, he walked the streets of London during the blitz helping pick up the rubble and asking people – air raid wardens, firemen, rescue workers, the women and men in the shelters – what he could do to help.
“Doing the day’s work day by day,” the epitaph reads. “Doing a little, adding a little. Broadening our bases.”
He wrote and called daily back to Washington – urging FDR and his team to join the British people in standing up to Hitler. And it worked. He went from being one of the few remaining Americans when he arrived in London, to ushering three million American troops through the U.K. and into mainland Europe until the war was won.  
Soon after the war, he became exhausted and sick. Today, we would know better what it was. Maybe PTSD, depression, or both. He took his own life -- an act that at that time compromised his legacy to such a degree that his heroics were nearly forgotten before the historian Lynn Olson retold his story in her wonderful book Citizens of London. Even our community of St. Paul’s wouldn’t accept his remains until 20 years after his death.
I kept his epitaph over my desk at the embassy as a daily reminder of how to avoid entitlement and pursue engagement.
Winant’s service wasn’t done in the spirit of giving back something – he too had been “given much.” It was done in the spirit of giving himself.
That was the thing he could give that nobody else could.
It required exposing all his vulnerabilities – his halting speech, his insecurity, and his faith. It meant exposing his weirdness and peculiarities.
It was not safe. It was a risk.
Karen Armstrong, whom I mentioned earlier as the author of my belatedly opened book from my mother, would call this compassion. And one thing she says about it is that compassion is always fundamentally un-comfortable.
You are venturing out into that in-between space. You’ve left the comfort of your folded arms, your walls of conviction. And you are not yet in the warm embrace of acceptance by someone else or something else. You are in a conditional place.
This is where all those things that Winant cherished live: the “things of the spirit” as he called them: hope and faith and charity and vision. You do not know what will happen. You only know what might happen.
That may sound familiar – might feel familiar – to many of you right now.
Many of you are being asked about “what’s next?” And you are certainly asking that of yourselves.
This is the time of year when old people like me ask young people like you: “What are you going to major in? What do you want to do after college? How are you going to make the most of the years ahead?”
It’s tempting to put on that self-assured face and give people the answer you think they want.
But inside you might be thinking, “I might…” I might study economics. I might work for a while. I might learn the guitar and be in a band. Maybe this feels a bit awkward.
But I want to reassure you: Saying “I might” is all right.
In fact, “I might” can be powerful. And I can tell you that it even works for presidents.
Some of you may remember a speech that President Obama gave two years ago in Charleston, South Carolina. He was giving the eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, a pastor who was murdered in his church, along with eight of his congregation, by a white supremacist.
It was the one that went viral on the Internet because the president sang "Amazing Grace."
That part hadn’t been in his speech. It wasn’t planned, or rehearsed. But he sang anyway and many people in America and around the world were deeply moved.
A few days later, the story behind that moment came out.
The president is flying into Charleston on the helicopter sitting between his wife Michelle and his top adviser when he looked up from studying his speech and says apropos of nothing…
“I might sing.”
They look at him confused, “What?”
“I might sing during my speech.”
They both give him the same look and the same answer: “Don’t sing. Please. Whatever you do, don’t sing.”
“Well, I might not sing,” the president says, “but I think if I sing, the church will sing with me. We’ll see how it feels.”
So the president gives his speech.
He reflects on what the church had done in the wake of the tragedy. And he wonders aloud about what our country might do in response.
He mentions that the victims’ families have miraculously forgiven the killer.
He talks about grace: that with it, anything is possible.
He says: “Amazing grace...Amazing grace.”
And then he pauses, for a really long time.
Thirteen seconds — which may not sound like a long time but in a speech it’s an eternity.
In fact, let’s try it. Here’s 13 seconds……see?
And then the president starts to sing a few bars of "Amazing Grace."
(Don’t worry Mom & Charles, I’m not going to sing.)
And someone calls out, “Sing it Mr. President” and starts to sing along. And just as the president had hoped, more people slowly but surely begin to sing-along until the whole congregation is singing.
It is a wonderful moment. A powerful moment.
And think about it for a second: There are three kinds of people, three roles, in the story: There’s the singer. The skeptic. And the one who sings-along.
I expect that all of you will find yourself playing each of these roles at some point in the coming months and years.
There’ll be times when you’ll be the singer. The one who takes a leap of faith. Who asks friends and family for advice and then has to trust themselves and take on the responsibility of leadership. It’s a tough place to be. Out there, up at the front, with everyone watching you. But it’s from these leaps of faith that progress comes.
Then there’ll be the times when you’re the skeptic. And that’s good too. We all need a trusted friend or confidant, who adds a note of caution. As the skeptic, it’s your job to listen, to ask others to consider their options and other points of view. And like Mrs. Obama and the trusted advisor, have the graciousness to admit it when you got it wrong.
And finally, there will be those times when you are the one who decides to sing along. When you hear that pause from a friend or a stranger - someone you can tell is thinking “I might sing”- and you encourage them. You will add your voice to theirs and help them see themselves as leaders – help them sit up a little bit taller.
All three play an important role. The singer, the skeptic, those who sing-along, all work together to make those big steps in life possible.
And what sets it all in motion is having the courage to say “I might.”
So, when you look at your parents, grandparents, or godparents and all those who have helped you get where you are today and you say, “I might,” say it with a sense of excitement.
Say it as if you’d say, “I might sing!”
Because after you've listened to the skeptics and you are about to, as Winant says, “stride forward into the unknown,” you can know that there will be a choir behind you to lift your voice even higher.
You'll be ready to sing your song with all your…might.

Form of 2017: Congratulations! And thank you for having me.