Commentary for Rockford, IL Home Schoolers 19 May 2002
by Dr. John A. Howard
This commencement talk comprises material drawn from
the text of Detoxifying
Years ago, I believe it was not long after the Soviet Communists
had scared the daylights out of America by installing some nuclear
missiles in Cuba, an exceedingly popular star of show business named
Bob Hope gave a college commencement address. He began, "Members
of the graduating class, I have thought and thought about what I
should say to you as you go out into a troubled and dangerous world.
And then it came to me. My advice to you is, Just don't go!"
As one considers the horrible attacks of last September and the
ferment of terrorist threats, there is a temptation to offer you the
same advice, but that won't do. Rather it is important in such times
to remind ourselves that throughout history severe problems --
disease, drought, famine, hurricanes, volcanoes, harsh and brutal
governments, terrible working conditions or military conflict--have
imposed difficult and fearful circumstances on most people. The
challenge is always to prepare new generations to stand up to whatever
tribulations they encounter.
I want to tell you about an Austrian doctor named Viktor Frankl who
was imprisoned in one of Hitler's Nazi concentration camps. The
prisoners were subjected to unbelievable extremes of privation and
persecution. They had inadequate clothing and housing and almost no
food. They were forced to live in filth and were given no medical
care. The guards were cruel and treated the prisoners like animals.
Dr. Frankl did what little he could for the sick and dying. Over a
period of time, his physician's habit of observing the health of the
people around him led to an astonishing discovery. The people who kept
their strength and sanity the longest were not the ones who by brute
force or clever tricks obtained extra food, but rather those who tried
to be helpful to the other prisoners and shared with them what little
they had. Their physical and mental condition seemed to be
strengthened by their friendliness, their compassion, and their
primary attentions devoted to something other than themselves.
At first, Dr. Frankl found this hard to believe, but as the months
went by, his observation was thoroughly confirmed. It was clear to him
that no matter how wretched and hopeless a living situation may be,
the individual always may choose how he will respond to that
situation, and if the response is one of trying to make life better
for others, that effort re-enforces the individual's psychological and
physical health. From this discovery Dr. Frankl developed a whole new
school of psychiatry. Freud's psychiatric system involved a doctor who
tried to figure out how the patient had become troubled and confused.
By contrast, Frankl's concern was what will the patient, himself, do
In this Age of Aquarius when so much of the television programming,
the movies, the popular music and the literature is celebrating the
do-your-own-thing life-style, it is difficult to persuade some young
people that a life of service to others is a wise and beneficial
choice, but the home-schooled students of America are all blessed with
parents who make very substantial sacrifices to provide their
education. Those parents are wonderful living examples for their
children of serving and giving and helping.
Beyond the example of your parents, there is one other source of
re-enforcement I wish to mention. Many years ago, I became acquainted
with an elderly scientist who, although he had been retired for some
time, had one of the liveliest and best informed minds I had ever
encountered. He also had a cheerfulness and a serenity that marked him
as an extraordinary human being. I asked him how he managed to stay so
calm and upbeat in a world that seemed so confused and battered. He
replied that it was his friends who sustained his good spirits, and
with a gesture, he indicated that those good friends were all the
books he had assembled there in his study.
"You know, John," he said, "from time to time I have
come across a book or an article or a quotation which spoke very
directly to me in a positive way, an analysis or a poem which had an
inspirational or reassuring influence, or which powerfully phrased
some little bit of wisdom. These I have kept and ranged on the shelves
according to the particular tonic they offered me much as the
pharmacist organizes his remedies on shelves according to the illness
they treat. There is no piece of news so distressing, no personal
failure or loss so discouraging, no occasion of success so inflating
but what I have here half a dozen literary medications to set it
What that wise gentleman was saying is that the great literature of
the world inspires and elevates and gives hope to the reader. It
should not be just a one-time thing to read a great book or a splendid
poem and set it aside checking off on your list of the must-reads the
ones you have finished, like putting beads on a chain. The truly
important works you read are, like the Bible, worthy of rereading and
pondering from time to time.
I want to conclude with five brief quotations, which provide tonic
for the soul.
The first one is by Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure
Island, Kidnapped and A Child's Garden of Verses. You may know because
of tuberculosis, his health was frail most of his life.
Whether any particular day shall bring to you more of happiness or
suffering is largely beyond your power to determine. Whether each day
of your life shall give happiness or suffering rests with you.
The next one is by the poet, naturalist and philosopher, Henry
Of course, it is the spirit in which you do a thing which makes it
interesting, whether it is sweeping a room, or pulling turnips.
Here is one by Mary Lyon who founded and was president of Mt.
Holyoke, the first women's college in the United States. Throughout
her career, service to others was a recurrent theme in her writings.
Character, like embroidery, is made stitch by stitch.
This one is by James M. Barrie, the novelist and playwright who
wrote Peter Pan, The Admirable Chrichton and Dear Brutus.
Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from
You will have noticed that all of these authors were among the most
famous and highly regarded thinkers and writers of the 19th Century.
Today there is a pitiful shortage of prominent authors, educators and
philosophers who lead us in the paths of wisdom and benevolence, but
there are plenty of such authors from the past. I urge you to become
friends with them and keep their best writings available for use when
The last quotation needs a different kind of introduction.
Fifty-eight years ago this month, I was about to graduate from a
two-year program of schooling. I was one of 176,000 troops waiting on
the southern coast of England to take part in the invasion of Normandy
in World War II. You can imagine the pressures and tensions as we
faced the channel crossing into a storm of gunfire from Hitler's
coastal defenses. My generation had been well prepared for our task.
We were blessed to have grown up in a society that was religious and
family oriented and accustomed in our daily living to be friendly,
helpful and honorable and to reading literature that was inspirational
and uplifting. Of course, we were fearful of what was to come but it
was not an incapacitating fear. For most people, the primary reaction
was a determination to do as well as we could all the things we had
been trained to do as soldiers.
My mother, Edith Howard, was a lifelong reader of great literature.
This final quotation is from a letter she tucked into my pocket as I
left to go into the army.
None of us knows what is in store for us in this life, but one
thing is certain, if we live according to the highest ideals of our
faith and our traditions, we will have used well the time allotted to
May God bless you as you move on into the next stage of your life.