When we came to Exeter five weeks ago, we came with different hopes, dreams, and experiences. But something we all have in common is a desire to improve the communities and cultures that help define who we are. Those familiar with Exeter may be reminded of the concept of “non sibi”, or the importance of striving to benefit others. Yet equally important are the principles of “knowledge and goodness”, and how they determine the nature of our experiences here—and for the rest of our lives.
We live in a time when each person has unprecedented potential to make an impact, whether positive or negative, in their community and society as a whole. Yet it is also a time when ruthlessness and selfishness are often seen as the only way to be successful, and having genuine compassion or refusing to take advantage of others are signs of weakness. Unfortunately, I have found that even within an environment like Exeter which specifically promotes both knowledge and goodness, the desire to distinguish oneself in the former sometimes triumphs over any consideration of the latter.
The way each of us perceives others depends on countless factors. But one particular factor stands out: the presence—or absence—of goodness. Most of us do not consciously think about it, nor does it seem relevant in our everyday interactions. Yet everyone knows someone in his or her life who, equipped with knowledge but devoid of goodness, has caused immeasurable harm and pain. It is precisely this lack of compassion, combined with exceptional ability, which through history has defined humanity’s greatest adversaries.
But making an impact is not something reserved only for those considered “exceptional” among us—nor were any of them able to single-handedly change the world. Instead, through countless words and actions, all of us are constantly making a fundamental decision: whether to do what is right, or do what is easy. We condemn, fear, and hate others for the unspeakable acts they commit, but ultimately, we will be the ones who prevent or allow those actions—and none of us can escape the consequences.
So far, I have described a reality that many of us already acknowledge. But when confronted about why we choose not to stand up for others, many of us find it easy to claim that because others are unwilling to change, our individual efforts would make no difference in the long run. This is a dilemma to which there is no absolute answer. But I will say that humanity has never benefited from accepting so-called “reality”, and though the problems of the world seem far away, the vast majority of us will later sacrifice more to overcome the consequences of not taking a stand against them now.
Even more than ability or knowledge, it is the presence or absence of goodness that truly decides the fate of humanity. In the past, countless individuals, cultures, and entire societies have made the mistake of failing to stand up against malicious people and ideologies, leaving others to fight against the consequences. We are all a product of that struggle, which continues today in our increasingly troubled world, and as the next generation we define the trajectory and nature of that struggle.
If you have learned nothing else from Exeter, I challenge you to go with a greater appreciation of goodness and its necessity for progress. To embrace it will always require sacrifices, and there will always be those unwilling to make them. But to truly be leaders, rather than letting the reality define who we are, we must strive to define our own realities—and in the process, decide whether we will use our knowledge for goodness or malice, and whether we benefit or detract from the well-being of humanity.