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I had the honor of delivering a message to graduating seniors on their way to some of the most prestigious colleges in the nation, and (surprise, surprise), my topic was on the necessity of pursuing virtue. I reworked Paul’s famous passage on love in his first letter to the church at Corinth to reflect my deep belief that, no matter how successful, well-educated, prosperous, or powerful they may end up, without virtue, all is in vain.

Here is the heart of my message:

1 Corinthians 13: If I have not virtue

If I can speak fluently in world languages (Spanish, Chinese, Latin, French) and have mastered the skills of winning debates, but do not have virtue, I am only another contentious, loud mouth talking head. 

If I can ace (or even pass) my tests, score somewhere between a 28—34 on my ACTs, get 3s,4,s and 5s on my AP exams, but do not have virtue, I am in danger of becoming Joseph Mengele or Bernie Madoff

If I own multiple houses and run Fortune 500 companies and vacation on private islands, but do not have virtue, I am in danger of becoming as decrepit and vicious and vile as Thenardier in Les Miserables, the Monseigneur in Tale of Two Cities, Marmaladov in Crime and Punishment or Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

If I spend my life climbing corporate ladders or chasing the American dream, but do not have virtue, no matter how expensive my wardrobe or expansive my office, I am no better off than Gregor Samsa or Willy Loman.

If I marry a supermodel or the star quarterback and raise children behind gated walls but do not have virtue, I am in grave danger of becoming another number in the rising national divorce rate.

If I give to charities and sit on boards and write checks to help “those people” in “that part of town” but do not pursue virtue, I have done nothing to make the world a more humane place for the voiceless, the marginalized and the oppressed crying out in desperation for my attention

If I spend the most precious, productive years of my life in consumption and accumulation, but do not pursue virtue, I may find that I do come to believe that it is indeed better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven

If I have not done the deep, hard, lonely, painful, sacrificial work of choosing virtue, I am only the best educated, most well-dressed, highest-paid acorn/butterfly, unaware that within me lies the seeds of something larger, grander and more magnificent yet. 

Virtue is a costly business. You much choose to say no to the things everyone else is saying yes to and say yes to those things that everyone else says no to. It is not easy, nor pretty, nor popular. Indeed, virtue is a costly business, but costlier still is a life devoid of meaning, full of absurd repetition, numbed by mindless entertainment, medicated by anything and everything to avoid the reality of our deep sense of angst and anxiety. 

Virtue will cost you everything, but so too will consumption and pleasure and indulgence…only virtue pays back in full human flourishing.

The world does not need another consumer in pursuit of his/her own selfish gratification…the world desperately needs you to pursue virtue!!

If we meet in 10 years, I will not be impressed with your address, your title, your clothes, your car, your degrees or your power…I will only care that you have chosen to give your life to something that matters. That you have pursued meaning and purpose. That you have taken the lumber of your life and built not a tavern but a temple.