How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Stay engaged and keep up the good fight until the very end

At 68, I still have a few items left on my bucket list. Assuming my physical and mental health does not dramatically deteriorate over the next few years, I have a shot at accomplishing all of them, except one: delivering a college commencement speech.

I consider the commencement address a rare opportunity to share special knowledge the speaker has gained. Since it seems unlikely I will receive that invitation, I am offering it here to readers of all ages.

A while back, I read the essay "My Own Life," by Dr. Oliver Sacks, the well-known author and visionary professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, in which he detailed his thoughts upon learning that he had terminal cancer. Sacks wrote, "I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers."

Sacks will be long and deeply remembered by many he has touched through his writings, teaching and presentations. Pondering his long and storied career, I realized the lasting effect he had on others is echoed in the concluding words of the prayer "We Remember" that is delivered at gravesite ceremonies when Jewish grave markers are unveiled:

"When we have decisions that are difficult to make, we remember them.

"When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.

"As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them."

As a non-religious person, these words resonate with me because I believe my legacy will be in the memories of those I leave behind. If I remain in the hearts of others, I will live on.

As much as I appreciated his remarks on love and his poignant farewell, an aspect of Sacks' comments troubled me. It was the desire he expressed in his waning days to detach and focus internally rather than externally. He wrote, "I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at 'NewsHour' every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming. This is not indifference but detachment – I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about inequality, but those are no longer my business; they belong to the future."

Sacks reflects that although he continues to care about these issues, he is OK with the realization that their resolution will come from those who come after him and he is confident the next generation will be up to the task. He wrote, "I feel the future is in good hands."

Here's what I say: Detachment is not an option.

When I hear folks talk about their desire to die peacefully during a restful sleep, I understand their wish to avoid suffering and wrenching pain. But the best possible ending for me would be a massive heart attack while I am jousting with someone verbally or while writing about some evil or injustice that infuriates me. I hope I never willingly detach from listening to and getting upset over the repeated and frightful horrors that have become too commonplace in our world today. Perhaps this is because, unlike Sacks, I'm not as confident about the next generation's ability to address the world's problems or simply because I believe the absolute key to a life well lived is a life in which we are obsessed with learning about, confronting and fighting forces that inflict their will on others or constrain others from being all they are capable of being.

I don't want to turn my head away from watching the barbarism of the Islamic State group and Boko Haram, the inhumanity perpetrated by both sides in the Middle East, the pain inflicted by a society that will not stem the tide of ever-escalating gun violence, the tamping down of the American dream by ever-widening income inequality and the demonizing of public employees by our governor. Turning away would mean giving up and giving in, which are not options.

My commencement message would be to resist detachment, at all stages of life, with the same vehemence as the speaker in Dylan Thomas' indomitable poem, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," who tells us to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." To me, a good life is one spent debating, kicking, screaming, writing – doing whatever we can to thwart injustice and unfairness. To paraphrase the last line of T.S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men," I hope each person leaves with a bang, not with a whimper. And I hope that we heed the words of Dag Hammarskjöld: "Never, for the sake of peace and quiet, deny your own experience or convictions."