A different kind of ABCs

By Carolyn Woo

I recently had the privilege to deliver commencement speeches at a few Catholic universities and colleges. Humbled by the fact that few people remember what their commencement speakers intoned at these ceremonies, I tried to keep the message simple and, hopefully, partially memorable.

This year, I focused on the unforgettable starting points for all of our learning journeys: our ABCs. Do you remember how your mom told you when you started school to pay attention to your teachers? Let me revisit this concept.

To start, the A in the ABCs stands for attentiveness, particularly attentiveness to people. Lost in an environment with a lot of stimuli and tethered to devices that constantly beep for our response, how well do we pay attention to people?

Working on the assumption that we can multitask well, which science has debunked, we sandwich the conversation with a grandparent between snaps, tweets, texts and alerts.

We may be hearing her update on the cancer treatment, but with eyes scanning incoming messages and thoughts wandering about whom we want to hang out with. We may miss the frailty, loneliness and spirit of the person who just said “everything is fine.”

Interactions are the birthplaces of understanding, love, loyalty and intimacy. They call for and deserve what is within each of us to give: undivided attention. And if we cannot pay proper attention to people, how do we pay attention to God? How do we place ourselves in the presence of God?

When we were young, to step into that new school, we had to be brave. So let the B stand for bravery, which we evoke for new scary endeavors. Will I succeed? Will I belong? Will I matter? What if I make a compete fool of myself?

We can only find and shape these answers by doing, trying, learning and getting up. It takes courage to admit that we are not always right, that we can hurt others’ feelings, that we can let people down.

It takes honesty to recognize the burden we place on others and grace to apologize. Be ready to pay for doing the right thing, honoring our integrity and protecting our soul. The good news is that we do not rely on ourselves alone.

It is God’s power that we draw from, God’s bounty that we rely on and the Holy Spirit who helps us become what God intends for each of us.

In the daily echoes of the playground monitor’s urging to play nice, I find the seeds of my C-word: compassion. Playing nice is the drill in our practice to make room for others, to have a sense of others, to know how to be with others.

It is indispensable training for our journey of success. Authentic leadership requires us to advance others to a better place, and we can seldom do that without empathy. People are not machines.

Jesus taught us that the sum of our efforts will be judged by how we treat others, particularly those who cross our paths and lack the essentials of a dignified existence.

Success is therefore not what we accumulate, but what we give away; not how high we climb, but how low we bend to heal those broken down by life; not what we do for our good, but what we do for the common good.

As the ABCs of our childhood have unlocked the world of knowledge for us, may these reframed ABCs give us new capacities for knowing: knowing the other, knowing life and knowing God.

Carolyn Y. Woo is the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services in the United States.

Posted on June 22, 2016, to: