Matt Simpson '04
President Gearan, Dean Baer, Faculty, Staff, and most importantly, Honor Society Members and Award Recipients.
It is a great pleasure to be here with you today. Returning to HWS on this very auspicious occasion to speak with you is a humbling experience. I have been fortunate, since my time in Geneva, to see a great many things, but there are few sights more welcoming and close to my heart than this chapel and this campus.
In my work on Darfur and related travels, I have seen great joy and great sorrow – the absolute best of who we are and the absolute worst. And for every step of my journey I have been guided by my time here at HWS, the lessons I learned, and the people I met. I have sought, as President Gearan very kindly put it last night, a life of consequence. One that would leave the world better in some, albeit small, meaningful way.
While it is up to each of us to find our own meaning, and define our own success, I thought I would share with you portions of a poem that has helped me through difficult times and find meaning in my life. The poem is by Rudyard Kipling and is titled “If”:
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And - which is more - you’ll be a Man, my son!
Many lessons and virtues can be derived from this poem, but I’d like to focus on three that I believe each Hobart man possesses and is obligated to develop. Those virtues are: individuality, purpose, and perseverance.
First, individuality - “If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” While this certainly speaks to the virtue of maintaining your composure and self-confidence, I find what resonates most with me is the notion that we are each individuals, blessed with the powers of logic, reason and conscience. Do not fall into line. Do not allow the thoughts or beliefs of others to dictate to you how you will, or will not, lead your life. Think for yourself and find your own way - forge your own path. The world has enough followers. Hobart statesmen are leaders. As Chaplain Adams said last night, Hobart is a place where we celebrate our differences. Find out what it is that makes you different, and embrace it.
The second virtue, purpose – “If you can make one heap of all your winnings, and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss.” As a unique individual, who can think and decide for himself, your purpose in life should not be the accumulation of material possessions, but giving to the world something that cannot be taken away. Think about that for a minute. What is it that you have to offer the world? What does your individuality uniquely qualify you to do? Whatever it is … make that your purpose in life. Relentlessly pursue it. I guarantee you will derive more satisfaction from it than any paycheck, any car, or any luxury in life.
Finally, perseverance – “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you.” As Cliff so eloquently spoke last night, life is hard. You will get knocked down. You will lose at some point. You will look up and wonder how things could get any worse. But once you have embraced your individuality and identified and pursued your purpose, you will find within you the inherent strength to persevere. You will be buoyed by the knowledge that you have something unique to offer this world, and the strength of purpose that will let nothing get in your way. Others may doubt you, may try to get in your way, but the strength is within you to stay the course and contribute your value to the world.
Now Dean Baer has asked me to relate my message to my time at HWS, and my experiences since leaving Geneva. Hobart for me, like many of you, was a time to learn about myself and in some cases about what I can, and cannot do. For instance, I cannot sing. Without tequila I cannot dance. Blood makes me woozy and I have never really understood anything Einstein or Freud wrote. But that’s Okay. I love logic. I can negotiate. My brain seems to work best in a crisis and under pressure. I understand and excel in the corporate world, and I have a passion for post conflict stabilization and development. I could go toe-to-toe with Paul Passavant – and lose – but get in a shot or two. I could survive JoBeth Merten’s Economics of Sports, even after learning that it was not going to be about the price of a beer at Yankee Stadium. Combine those skills, and that’s what makes me different. That is my individuality.
More importantly, and this is something that Hobart emphasizes through an interdisciplinary education, what makes us different is not a single trait, but the totality of who we are. We are not one-dimensional beings … each of us has multiple skills and strengths – several ways we can add value to the world. For those seniors about to graduate, now is an ideal time to pause for a moment, look back on the past four years, and ask yourself what it is that you have enjoyed the most about your time at HWS, and why. I would suggest that the answer to that question will help you identify what it is that makes you different, and what it is that you are uniquely qualified to do.
Now for purpose. I admit, I struggle with this one. As someone who spends time in both the corporate and developing worlds, I am well aware of the temptations that exist in the former and the struggles of those who live in the latter. I have seen excess of the highest level and have known poverty and financial hardship. As President Gearan mentioned, I had the pleasure of being the lead lawyer to the Darfuris negotiating a peace agreement with the Government of Sudan. And in my time living with the Darfurians, I got to know some of the poorest people in the world, with the richest hearts. There was one point in the negotiations last year when we were negotiating the return of IDPs and refugees back to their homes in Darfur. Ultimately we were successful in getting them a return package that would help them out a bit as they settled back home. After the meeting was over, one of the women, who didn’t speak any English, came up to me with a translator, and asked how the talks had gone. I told her they went well, and that we had won a return package that included seeds for each family to help them restart their farms. As the translator relayed my response, the woman’s eyes welled up and she gave me a hug so full of gratitude that I could not bear to let go. A $10 package of seeds meant the world to her because it gave her the means to provide for her family and their future. When you see true gratitude like that, the material rewards that so many people focus on, mean less and less, and you find your purpose.
Finally, perseverance. As Kipling said: “if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you” … this is truly a difficult task. Self doubt is one of the most parasitic faults a man can have. It feeds off all your insecurities and makes you question everything you once held as true. For me, there was no greater test of my trust in myself than the day I met the devil. At one point in the negotiations, we were in Qatar so that one of my clients, the Darfurian rebel groups, could sign a ceasefire with the Government of Sudan. A big signing ceremony was held to celebrate this ceasefire, and in attendance, in addition to about 8 other heads of state, was President Omar Al Bashir – the President of Sudan. Without question, Bashir is one of the nastiest people to walk the face of the earth. He is personally responsible for many of the atrocities in Sudan, and he is the first ever sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide. On Thursday, he declared war against his neighbor South Sudan, vowing to rid that country of the “insects” in their government. Truly a horrible guy.
So, we are in this fancy ballroom in the Sheraton hotel, and at the end of the big ceremony, with lots of press and lots of fanfare, President Bashir exited the room. He walked right past me. Within feet. I literally could have reached out and touched him.
Now here is the dilemma. You have one of the world’s most wanted walk within feet of you. What do you do? How do you react?
I know some in the human rights community that, without question, would have chanted, and booed, and gotten themselves quickly thrown out. I know one former marine sniper that would have used his skills to end President Bashir, right then and there. But those people are not me. I am an individual, and what might have been the right response for them, would not have been the right response for me. I know what makes me unique is my ability to negotiate and draft lasting and sustainable agreements. That is my true value.
So what did I do? Nothing. He walked by me, and probably never even noticed me.
And here is where the perseverance comes in. To trust yourself when others doubt you. In hindsight, I frequently ask myself whether I did the right thing. I’m sure many of you today are thinking the same thing. How many people have died in Sudan over the past two years since our encounter? How many of those deaths are the direct result of orders issued by President Bashir? How many of those people would still be alive today if I had made a scene and attracted media attention, or tackled him and taken him out? I don’t know. But in that split second, I reaffirmed in my own mind what makes me unique, and refused to take a path that was not my own.
That test will continue for the rest of my life. I will need to maintain the faith and the confidence to persevere – to work even harder at what it is I do best, so that when I tell this story 50 years from now, I can speak of many opportunities gained, and not of one opportunity lost.
I sat exactly where you are, eight years ago. I know the pride and ambition you are feeling today and the desire to change the world. Bolster that pride. Channel that desire. Each of you will continue to be tested, both here at Hobart, and once you leave, during your next adventure. And when things look tough, embrace your individuality, reaffirm your purpose, and persevere. And recognize that as Statesmen, you are surrounded by a network of faculty, administration, and alumni, that are here to help every step of the way. Never hesitate to rely on any of us and each other. The sense of community that exists here on campus extends well beyond Geneva-city limits, and each of you are an important part of that community. And just as each of us in the alumni network has an obligation to you, the current students, each of you has an obligation to the alumni and future students, to maximize the value of the Hobart degree and experience.
It is my sincerest hope that my words today have, to some small extent, helped you recognize all that you have to offer the world. Seek out your individuality, identify your purpose, and persevere to achieve it. If you do, as Kipling said, “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it …” .
Thank you again for this truly wonderful opportunity, and for your kind attention. Thank you.
Matt Simpson '04
April 21, 2012