Speech by Kathleen Lynch to UCC Autumn Conferring Ceremony 25th October 2017
25 October 2017
Spokesperson on Mental Health and Disability
I want to begin by thanking you for the invitation to be here today, and by saying how honoured I was to have been asked. I see a lot of proud and happy faces in this audience and that is as it should be.
I suspect I might also see a few relieved faces too! I know if I don’t say it now, I’ll forget to say it later, so let me immediately congratulate the parents and families of today’s graduates. It’s not easy being a student, especially as the pressure builds up towards the end. But it’s definitely not easy being the parent of a student. You’re the ones who’ve helped to carry the financial stresses involved, and a lot of the time you’re the ones who’ve had to deal with the emotional stresses too.
There’s been encouragement, cajoling, patience, pleading tolerance, anxiety – but the pride I know you’re feeling today has made all that worthwhile. As the people behind the success of an honours degree, you deserve a lot of congratulations, and maybe even a round of applause from the graduates you’re accompanying here today.
But perhaps you won’t mind if I speak directly to the people whose achievements we’re here to honour, the graduates themselves. It was Martin Luther King who said we are prone to judge success by the size of our egos, the index of our salaries or the quality of the houses we live in. By that measure, he said, not everyone can be famous or rich. But, he added, everybody can be great because greatness is determined by service. King said many times that great leaders are measured by the extent to which they are willing to serve.
Martin Luther King wasn’t perfect, but in the values he sought to share, in the risks he took, in his total commitment to non-violence, in the campaigns he led and the way he died, he proved the essential truth of one of the things he believed most strongly and said most often. Darkness can’t drive out darkness, only light can. Hate can’t drive out hate, only love can.
It’s because I’ve always been inspired by Martin Luther King’s approach to leadership that I consider it a great honour to have been asked to address you today. In your different disciplines, and in the work you have put in to get to this point, you have all chosen to lead by serving.
I hope you all build great and rewarding careers, but I doubt if any of you are setting out to become rich and famous. Instead you are embarking on careers that will help to shape lives, transform lives, and in some cases save lives.
I think that says an awful lot about you, and about the kind of people you are. You couldn’t, I think, have made the academic choices you’ve made, and picked out the careers you’re preparing yourselves for, without being people for whom ideals matter. You’re in this because you want to make a difference in your lives and in the world around you.
But of course, the disciplines you’ve been studying – early years and childhood, applied psychology, and criminality – are reasonably diverse. In trying to figure out whether there is anything that binds them together, I went and looked up the course overview for each of your degrees.
The first thing that fascinated me was the photograph that accompanies each description on the UCC website. Applied psychologists, it appears, are all happy smiling women. The Early Years programme is illustrated by a group of young women, all looking happy too (I wondered were they the same women?) sitting on the grass just outside where we are now.
The Criminology programme, however, has a picture of a young man, taken from the back. And he is in handcuffs. So it seems, judging by the pictures anyway, that two of your programmes were designed to be happy experiences, the other one maybe not so much.
But the programme descriptions gave me a much better clue. Those of you who have been studying criminology have, I hope, acquired a deeper insight into human diversity in complex societies, and a textured view of our propensity to err, conflict, blame and punish. The Applied psychology degree covers history to neuroscience, culture to biology, from children to the elderly. The Early Years programme offers a broad range of perspectives on childhood, the child in society, child development, early years care and education, and child health.
The more I thought about the one thing that your three disciplines might have in common, the more I kept thinking about that young man in the handcuffs. Let me try to explain what I mean.
Every single day in Ireland, around 200 children are born. That’s 200 separate occasions of joy, of potential, of happiness and a bright future. It’s 200 lives ready to be shaped for the better, ready to get the benefit of a really good start, ready to grow into the citizens who will build strong economies, who will in their turn shape the next generation, who will leave a lasting imprint on their country. It’s 200 new beginnings worth celebrating.
And most of them will go on to do all the things we hope for them. Most will have happy, well-nourished childhoods. Most will flourish in school, fall in love in their teens and get their hearts broken, recover from that and go on to become working adults who are shaping the world around them for the better.
But every day in Ireland, we also populate our prisons with the people we neglected twenty years ago. Of those 200 hundred born today, perhaps two will end up in prison, and two more will be in trouble with the law for a lot of their young lives. Some will never learn to read, some will struggle with disability, some will go through periods in their lives when they hurt themselves or those around them. Some will dream of suicide, some will carry it out.
Of the 200 hundred born today, around 18 will be born into poverty. Some of those will live in families that are dysfunctional in a variety of ways, and some will live in neighbourhoods that are characterised by chronic disadvantage.
Poverty isn’t a barrier to progress. But the child born into poverty can have a mountain to climb. When poverty goes hand in hand with stresses and strains within the family, and with a neighbourhood that doesn’t encourage growth and development, that mountain can seem like Everest.
And nobody ever sets out to climb Everest without the help of a Sherpa, someone who knows the terrain, who can breathe the thinner air, who is willing to help carry the burden.
That’s where you come in. You can be the Sherpas if you choose to be. If some of the 200 children born today are likely to get lost, you can help find them. If some of them need support to make sure they have the start that every child needs, you will be involved in filling those gaps. If some of them are trapped in a world that is dangerous and damaging, you will help us to figure out what we can do to make it better.
That’s because of the choices you’ve made, the insights you’ve gained, and the kind of people you are. You are, I hope, very proud of where you’ve got to so far. You will be even prouder when you have used the skills you’ve acquired to make a real difference in the lives of others.
I don’t have the academic distinctions you have, and you might therefore think it impertinent of me to finish by offering you one small piece of advice. You wouldn’t be the first people to think I was capable of a bit of impertinence, but that never stopped me before.
What I want to say comes from my own strong belief that the most important characteristic any of us can have is resilience. It’s never going to be possible, no matter what discipline you work in, to remove all the adversity from people’s lives. Instead it’s going to be your job from time to time, and maybe more often than you think, to help people to build the capacity to deal with adversity. In short, to help people to build their own resilience.
It’s not something you can teach. There’s no pill you can prescribe for it. But my experience tells me one thing above all – the young person who is respected for who he or she is will always be able to cope with more.
So my advice is to carry that word in your heart – respect. If you go through the rest of your lives respecting the people you work alongside, the people you are working with, and the people you are working for, not only will you make a profound difference to them, but they will never forget you.
That’s the end of my impertinence. All I need to do now, because I know there are celebrations that you need to get on with, is to congratulate each and every one of you on your achievement in getting to this day, and to wish you all the rewarding and fulfilling future you each deserve.