The 40th anniversary of Howard Thurman’s Spelman College commencement speech.
There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself and if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born…
You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls…
There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself and sometimes there is so much traffic going on in your minds, so many different kinds of signals, so many vast impulses floating through your organism that go back thousands of generations, long before you were even a thought in the mind of creation, and you are buffeted by these, and in the midst of all of this you have got to find out what your name is. Who are you? How does the sound of the genuine come through to you…
The sound of the genuine is flowing through you. Don’t be deceived and thrown off by all the noises that are a part even of your dreams, your ambitions, so that you don’t hear the sound of the genuine in you, because that is the only true guide that you will ever have, and if you don’t have that you don’t have a thing.
You may be famous. You may be whatever the other ideals are which are a part of this generation, but you know you don’t have the foggiest notion of who you are, where you are going, what you want. Cultivate the discipline of listening to the sound of the genuine in yourself
Now there is something in everybody that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in other people. And it is so easy to say that anybody who looks like him or her, anybody who acts as this person acts, can’t hear any sound of the genuine. I must wait and listen for the sound of the genuine in you. I must wait. For if I cannot hear it, then in my scheme of things, you are not even present. And everybody wants to feel that everybody else knows that she is there.
I have a blind friend who just became blind after she was a grown woman. I asked her: “What is the greatest disaster that your blindness has brought to you?” She said, “When I go places where there are people, I have a feeling that nobody knows that I’m here. I can’t see any recognition, I can’t see… and if nobody knows that I’m here, it’s hard for me to know where I am.”
There is something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in your mother, in your father, in the people you can’t stand, and if you had the power you would wipe them out. But instinctively you know that if you wipe them out, you go with them. So you fight for your own life by finding some way to get along with them without killing them.
There is something in you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in other people. And if you can’t hear it, then you are reduced by that much. If I were to ask you what is the thing that you desire most in life this afternoon, you would say a lot of things off the top of your head, most of which you wouldn’t believe but you would think that you were saying the things that I thought you ought to think that you should say.
But I think that if you were stripped to whatever there is in you that is literal and irreducible, and you tried to answer that question, the answer may be something like this: I want to feel that I am thoroughly and completely understood so that now and then I can take my guard down and look out around me and not feel that I will be destroyed with my defenses down. I want to feel completely vulnerable, completely naked, completely exposed and absolutely secure.
This is what you look for in your children when you have them, this is what you look for in your husband if you get one. That I can run the risk of radical exposure and know that the eye that beholds my vulnerability will not step on me. That I can feel secure in my awareness of the active presence of my own idiom in me.
So as I live my life then, this is what I am trying to fulfill. It doesn’t matter whether I become a doctor, lawyer, housewife. I’m secure because I hear the sound of the genuine in myself and having learned to listen to that, I can become quiet enough, still enough, to hear the sound of the genuine in you.
Now if I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you, it is possible for me to go down in me and come up in you. So that when I look at myself through your eyes having made that pilgrimage, I see in me what you see in me and the wall that separates and divides will disappear and we will become one because the sound of the genuine makes the same music.