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University of California, Berkeley Commencement Convocation: University Medalist Address by Shayna Parekh
17 May 2002

This speech is dedicated to the 800,000 human beings who lost their lives one sordid summer in Rwanda; to the 3,000 souls whose heinous deaths on September 11th were penetrating indications of an even more heinous foreign policy; to the 1,000 human beings, Hindu, Muslim and otherwise, who have recently perished at ignorant hands; and to the many, many millions more, who have suffered, and who will continue to suffer and die because, quite simply, the rest of us have failed to understand.

I mention such things not as a burden; rather as a challenge—to you, my fellow classmates, of the incredible and awing class of 2002. That challenge is to try, try to understand.

I tell you this, not as advice. I am in no position to be giving out any kind of advice. Instead, I ask it of you as a favor: to try and understand. And I will try to do the same.

What does this mean? We may never know the absolute desperation of a prostitute working in rural India or the physical suffering of a California migrant farm worker from Mexico; we may never know of the challenges faced by that HIV-infected homeless man in San Francisco, or the hardships faced by that woman who lives in People’s Park across from the church. Where we stand depends upon where we sit—and because we will never, perhaps, fill those shoes, we will never see those views completely. Truth will always be partial.

And yet, with our incomplete views, we will be asked to draw a conclusion. We will be asked to vote, to march, to write, to talk—we, as human beings will be asked to judge. It is inevitable. With our half-understandings, we will be asked to create some kind of whole-truth.

And this is violent. The deception of complete understanding is violent. It leads to the pain in Rwanda, the U.S., India, the world—your world.

My challenge to you, to us all, is to try to understand. Try to understand the position of that person, the views of that culture, the actions of that group. Try to see it how they see it, feel it how they feel it, smell it how they smell it. So that when you must make that decision—that subtly political judgment—you will at least understand, more fully, why you judged the way that you judged. More informed judgments, more complete truths and maybe a little less pain. I ask that favor of you

And, as it turns out, Berkeley is absolutely perfect for that—for fostering that ability to try to understand from all points of view. Just yesterday, I was walking along Bancroft with a friend of mine; a woman jumped out from the side of Eshleman. "Shut up!" she yelled at us, randomly, loudly, seriously. Her dress and her possessions gave her the appearance of being, perhaps, a homeless woman. The friend and I looked at her, surprised at first, and then the reality of our surroundings sunk in and we continued to walk. Two minutes later, we were at the RSF- the school gym, where we were introduced, by a friend, to one of Berkeley’s many Nobel laureates, who, it turns out, was pumping iron.

Absolutely incredible, I thought. Where else in the world- where else in the world- will you have such an opportunity? In the span of five minutes, we encountered a homeless person and a Nobel laureate. In our backyard, this magical place of Berkeley, there are these two people who share lives like night and day; two people whose stories are equally as incredible; and the best thing about all of this? Berkeley is somehow able to bring them together for us. And we can be selfish about it. We can pick their brains. We can ask for their stories. We can try to understand it from their shoes.

May I ask another favor of you?

There’s an old Chinese proverb that states—it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. We’ve all had our trying experiences at this place; some more than others. But, true to our motto, let there be light. We see darkness all around us. I don’t have to explain. But as Christ once taught, "To whom much is given, much is expected." We’ve all heard the statistics about the incredibly small percentage of people in the world who get to attend college; who even get an education at that. I have seen the eyes of many of the ones who may never get this opportunity.

The world expects much from you. The people of the world expect much from you. Abdul’l Baha once said "Use your knowledge always for the benefit of others." Use your knowledge to light the candle to defeat the darkness that you will encounter.

But all of this reminds me of something that Marianne Williamson once said. "Our deepest fear," she wrote, "is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you NOT to be? Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are born to manifest the glory of the spirit that is within us, and as we let our own light shine, we actually, unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Berkeley has given us the fuel; the world has provided us with darkness. Your job, your responsibility, is to try to understand, and let your own light shine.

And in that spirit, I leave with you with the words of a famous, eccentric Indian author named Arundhati Roy.

Arundhati was with a friend, and they were discussing the subject of dreams. "The only dream worth having," Roy explained, "is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you are dead." "What exactly does that mean?" asked the friend.

So Roy wrote it down for her on a napkin, and I leave you with those final words:
To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate was is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.

Jai Jinendra. Thank you all.

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