By the end of this speech, I am going to make four pledges that in many ways consign the rest of my life to this moment. This is appropriate as this feels like the end of the first book in the trilogy of my life.
First off, countless small thank yous to my mother for planning, organizing, and preparing this party which serves as a perfect epilogue to a book in which you all appear.
I am so grateful to be able to share this moment of celebration and appreciation with all of you and I can neither thank you all enough for coming nor can I equally celebrate your contributions to the person who stands before you.
I hope you all will join me in sending some appreciation to the three people who have endured me the longest, my parents and sister.
This day is as much a celebration of them as it is for me. So I want to take this moment to recognize what they have done for me over this past year in particular and over my 26 years in general. The trajectory of my life changed dramatically 15 months ago and if it were not for the stability and generosity my parents provided, I would have crashed and burned instead of quite literally flying away. Truth be told, I feel as though I can never do enough to show my appreciation for all of the sacrifice, support, and love they have shared with me.
The many “thank you for dinner”s and gestures of appreciation were certainly necessary for me to show my appreciation, but they never once have felt sufficient. I have struggled throughout the time I have lived here to find a gift that would be sufficient to show my appreciation but was dumbfounded and paralyzed. What could it be? What could possibly honor the commitment and sacrifice a parent makes to their child?
My conclusion was that, despite the tangible sacrifices and pains they have endured, that nothing tangible could be returned to them. But I did think of three things I could do. Why three? Well, three is a nice pretty poetic number, so I figured that was as good as place as any to stop thinking.
Number One. I pledge to live a good life. I imagine all parents want their children to be healthy and happy and those absolutely are rabbits I intend to chase for the duration of my life. Through volunteering and the community-building–most notably through Special Olympics– that has bound so many of us here together, I pledge to continue to help spread happiness, health, togetherness, and inclusion to as many as I can. But my parents taught me that in order to live a meaningful life that one must act in service of the reduction of the suffering of others. From my dietary habits to my political philosophy, my parents have instilled in me an ambition and obligation to reduce the suffering of people and animals alike wherever possible. They have also passed on to me a limitless curiosity and an endless generosity that fuel the fire to see others warmed and raised by my efforts.
Number Two. I pledge to love and to look after their daughter, my sister, Keri. Goober, I once said on camera that you have taught me more than any other person and I continue to believe that. I find an excuse to bring you up in practically every conversation. There is nothing I love bragging about more than you. You have the most remarkable ability that, frankly, none of us here can match. Whereas I try every day to show others how to be happy, you are unique in your capability to spread the light that can brighten any soul, mystery, or situation: joy. The difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is internal, even selfish–it is created and contained by an individual and all we can do is tell others how we are happy and hope that they obey and repeat the results. Whereas Joy is special. Joy, by its very nature, is shared and spread like a contagious ray of sunshine. And you, Kerith Lee, are the sun; you are an absolute and constant source of joy in my life–and I do not think it is presumptuous to say–all of our lives. I am so grateful that you are in my life exactly the way you are and I would have it no other way. So I pledge to you and to our parents that I will forever be with you to ensure that you are happy and healthy so that your joy can spread to all who have the pleasure to have you in their life.
Back to the parents for Number Three. I pledge to pass on your lessons to a new generation. Though I cannot promise that the lessons will be passed to genetic or adopted successors, the spirit of your examples will be given everyday to my students, regardless of where I am. I certainly attempted to do so in Chula Vista, Granada Hills, and will continue to do so in China. I will strive every day to learn new ways to ensure that your examples of compassion, service, and enjoyment of life will spread through my own words and actions so that your legacy extends far beyond me.
As the witnesses to the three pledges I made here, I need you to know that you are involved as well. It takes a village to raise a person and all of you are a close approximation to my village. Everyone here has played a role in shaping the person I am and the man I aspire to be. This is an honor I do not take lightly. I view myself as an ambassador of this particular amalgamation of people, an envoy for this community. I aim to make this community–this village–proud.
I have seen members of this community give their time, talents, and treasure to improving the lives of the less fortunate. I have often been a benefactor of your own generosity and friendship. Some of you have either shared or endured the pain and frustration that my depression has wrought; that you are here today is a testament to the power of love that has given me the strength to fight my demons and the ambition to improve myself in every possible way. My depression has caused me to treat others poorly, but all of you have contributed something to my battle towards betterment. It is because of each and all of you that I have been able–time and time again–to climb out of the chasms of mental illness. I wish for everyone to be as fortunate as I am to have a community of support like you.
Now a fair question to ask is if you all are so wonderful, why would I ever want to leave? Because as most of you know, I have always felt a compulsion to leave this hometown. It is has been a lifelong ambition of mine to live in another country. You all know how I am fascinated by other cultures and different ways of living. But so far as I can tell, it is only the obedient who are born into the circumstances in which they most easily thrive. And only the wisest can thrive in any environment in which they find themselves. And as all of you know, I have an inner rebel who makes as many mistakes as has victories, I know I have yet to find the environment in which I feel I can thrive. And, because of my parents’ teachings and your examples, my particular definition of thriving is where I can do the most good for the most number of people.
And if you will allow me to make a public confession, I have always felt undeserving of being part of this community, that due to my personal shortcomings, I was not living up to the ideals and examples of those gathered here. I view this pressure–real or imagined as it may be–as a challenge.
And so, my final pledge of the evening is one I make to all of you. From this adventure in China and throughout the remaining chapter of my life, I pledge to live my life in deep and abiding appreciation to all in this village, to honor the unyielding commitment you all have shown me, and to double the love you all have seen fit to share with me.
I thank you all. I love you all. And in a very real way, I am you all.