Thursday, December 9, 2010

Doris McCarthy's Inspiration

Doris McCarthy

In 2001, Doris McCarthy was invited to give the Convocation Address at the University of Toronto's graduation ceremonies, where she received an honourary Doctorate of Law degree. A good friend of Doris's and mine, the portrait artist, Judy Finch attended the ceremony and sent me a copy of Doris's speech.  I love Doris's simple, wise advice. I remember her being interviewed on CBC radio one summer when she was 89.  She said, with her characteristic enthusiasm, "Every decade is better than the last.  I can't wait to be 90!"

"Mr. President, Mr. Chancellor, Members of the Faculty, happy Graduates and all your proud parents and friends who have come to celebrate this landmark occasion, welcome, and thank you for the opportunity I have been given to tell you something that neither your professors nor your parents have had a chance to learn, but that I know because I am old, older than any of them.

This is the wonderful secret I want to share with you.  Life gets better and better with every year that passes.  Don't be afraid of old age.  It has the gifts that are even better than youth.  To earn those gifts, start now.  And I mean today, this minute.  Be aware of who you are, where you are, and why.  Look around at this Convocation Hall, designed many years ago to be perfect for this very occasion.  Think about the person beside you who has also experienced the disciplines, the new insights, the anxieties and the laughter that have filled your university years.  Love that person even if a stranger.  Remember the bonds that tie you to your friends and family sitting in the visitor's section, and be thankful that it is all coming together at last.  Realize this moment.  Savour it.  Like every other moment in your life, past or future it is unique.  No two moments, even this evening are exactly the same.  You are living now, always now!  Rejoice in it.  Know that you are alive and that you are free, free to choose who you are and who you will become.  You have not always been so free.  Your parents made decisions for you once.  But you are now adults, making your own choices.
One choice most of you are faced with is how you are going to eat and pay the rent in the immediate future.  Let me encourage you to do the thing you love doing.  What do you do now in your free time, just for the fun of it? What brings you joy?
If you love what you do, you will do it very well, and someone who needs that done, will notice how well you do it and want to pay you to do it.  Maybe not very much at first.  Maybe very well.  But far more important than the money is the satisfaction you get in the work itself.  Remember, it is loving your work that is important, not comfort, not security, not public acclaim, but happiness.  If every day you are aware of what you are doing and know that you have chosen it because you love it, that is a good life.
If you cannot love the path you have chosen, leave it and start again.  There is no disgrace in learning by experience.  But to merely endure your work for the sake of money or status, or peer pressure or for any other reason is to squander the most precious treasure of all, your very life.  Do you enjoy studying?  How about research?  Are you happiest when you are making something, a cake, a party, a patio or bookshelf?  All the world needs food and lodging.  Are you good with small children?  Perhaps teaching is for you.  Would you rather spend your time with animals, big or little?  Is dancing the thing you really long for?  Go for it.

Don't, I beg you, settle for a job for the sake of the money or supposed status in it.  Never just endure your work.  Of course, sometimes there will be drudgery.  Embrace it and know that you accept it for the sake of the work itself.  On your knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, be thankful for a kitchen, for being able to laugh when you spilled the gravy, for water that comes out of the tap and is already warm, for the person who will come home to a cleaner kitchen even if he or she won't notice.

If you are up a ladder cleaning out the eaves, enjoy the joke when you find apples and acorns that some squirrel has stored there.  Relish the sun if it's shining or the challenge of the wind if it is trying to blow you off the ladder.  How good to have a house that you can call home and be alive to care for it.

Be aware of now.  Teach your friend or your partner to be aware of it too.  Create a ritual that lets you share that appreciation of the moment.  It might be to join hands as you light the candles on the dinner table and say thank you for the day, for the others at the table, for the weather whatever it is, and say it in your own language and differently every time so that it is really awareness of that unique now. Cataloging the special pleasures of today will make you forget its disappointments.  Enjoyment will soon become a habit and every day will be a gift.  Start now, and you will know blessing.  This blessing is my gift to you on your graduation day.

In closing I offer you the ritual I learned at camp when I was about your age or younger.  We used to join hands in a big circle every morning and say it together.

Doris then had everyone stand, hold hands and recite this salutation after her.

Salutation of the Dawn

Listen to the salutation of the dawn.
Look to this day. For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
This bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendour of beauty.
For yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day.
Such is the salutation of the dawn."


  1. I loved reading this!! what a wise woman. And the words at the end are familiar to me--it's an old Sanskrit verse, and part of every Unitarian Universalist church service that I attended for many years...these words continue to be an important meditation for me. "Today, well lived..." who can aim for more than that?