UC Berkeley News
Commencement 2006

UC Berkeley Web Feature

University Medalist Lane Rettig exhorts his peers "to live loudly and fiercely ... apathy is not a choice"

This is the prepared text of the address given by University Medalist Lane Rettig at Commencement Convocation 2006.

I would like to extend my own message of congratulations to all of my fellow graduates, with whom I have struggled, learned, and grown these past five years.

When I arrived in Berkeley, the world was a different place.  Three weeks into my first semester, everything changed.  Early on that Tuesday morning in September 2001, I watched my home, the city where I was born and raised, come tumbling down before my eyes.  It was a terrifying way to start college.

A couple of years later, I had another terrifying experience when I visited Hiroshima, Japan, and witnessed firsthand the results of the terror and destruction wrought upon its people by my own country.  I met a number of atomic bomb survivors, including an elderly couple who recounted to me the events of that day, August 6, 1945.  When I told the man that I was an American, he smiled at me and told me he was glad that I had come to Hiroshima, to learn the truth of what had happened.  He told me that it was my duty to make sure it never happened again.

This speech is dedicated to the people who lost their lives in Hiroshima, and, in the words of a former University Medalist, "to the 3,000 souls whose heinous deaths on September 11th were penetrating indications of an even more heinous foreign policy."  This speech is dedicated to all of the people throughout history who have needlessly lost their lives as a result of ignorance, selfishness and greed on the part of their fellow man.  Yasuraka ni nemutte kudasai.  May your souls rest in peace.

It is the duty of those of us who have been blessed with life to go on living, but not just to live quietly.  It is our duty to live loudly and fiercely, to prevent the human events and decisions which caused Hiroshima, Cambodia, September 11th, and Iraq, and which continue to threaten millions of innocent souls around the world.  It is equally our duty to recognize our failings in helping those who have so much less than we do.  To graduate from a great university such as ours and fail to gain compassion for your fellow man would be a great failure indeed.

Getting an education is about gaining the tools we need to succeed in life.  The greatest tool that I've gained from my time here is perspective, the desire to learn from people different from myself and to attempt to see the world through their eyes.  The greatest lesson I've learned is that, in this democracy, apathy is not a choice.  To choose to remain silent in the face of the atrocities being committed in the name of this country — in all of our names — is to condone those acts.  Indifference kills more people than bombs do.  If you don't believe me, ask the people of Rwanda.

Our time at Berkeley has given us the knowledge we need to change the world — not through violence, but intelligently, peacefully.  When confronted by adversity, we have two options: we can choose to react out of ignorance, fear, and hate.  Or we can choose the path of understanding and compassion.  Understanding is clearly the more difficult choice, but the world of the 21st century will not be built through the war and destruction of the previous century.

I ask of you always to choose the second path, to try to understand, even in the face of great adversity, this beautiful multicolored world.  I ask of you to try to see things from the eyes of your fellow man, rather than through your television set.  I ask of you to go out and see the world, not just on television and in magazines, not just from tourist hotels and fancy restaurants, but from the ground, through the eyes of the real people who lead real lives just like we do.

I know that I've asked a lot of you, but I have just one more request: for tolerance, generosity, and compassion.  Have pride in our great country, but recognize that we're not alone in the world.  I think one of my computer science professors, Brian Harvey, put it best when he said that loving your country "doesn't mean that you have to be contemptuous of the rest of the world.  Don't think that terrorism is OK if it's committed by U.S. soldiers, that extremist Islam is any worse than extremist Christianity."  And never forget that this great country was founded and built by immigrants.

I've never forgotten what the man I met in Hiroshima told me: "It's your duty to make sure that it never happens again."  I intend to do that.  But I can't do it alone.

Thank you.