The Message in Misfortune

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts is receiving justifiable praise for a commencement address he recently gave at his son’s middle school graduation. He provides a lot of thoughts for the young men. But I believe he is speaking to all of us. His message is one that reminds us why we have misfortune in life. He asks us to think about how we react to the misfortune because this is how we are defined. He says:

“From time to time, I hope that you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal, because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I wish that you will be lonely from time-to-time, so that you don’t take friends for granted.”

Value justice. Importance of loyalty. Long-lasting friendship.

I think all of us would agree that these are among the most important traits to have in our lives. All of us wish to experience them. But do we ever think about the fact that they sometimes must come about through the pain of suffering their opposites?  Unfairness. Betrayal. Loneliness. Are we willing to suffer through those painful moments in order to find the joy that comes? No one wants to suffer, but his point magnifies the idea that if we don’t experience some setbacks in life, we take the good things for granted.

The Chief Justice goes on to say this:

“I wish you bad luck, from time-to-time, so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.”

Who of us hasn’t suffered bad luck? The definition of “chance” is that we are not in control. That is, unfortunately, a big part of life. Chief Justice Roberts was sending a message to all of us on that day. We may be going through some tough times. I know a lot of people who are out of work, or are unhappy with work that they have. It is human nature to wonder “why me?”. Perhaps the answer is in this address. Sometimes it is only through pain, or having to live through the opposite of what we really want, that we finally achieve our goals. Maybe the contrast between the “unlucky” or “lonely” or “losing” state and “chance”, “friendship”, and “sportsmanship” serves to sharpen our view.

There is also a strong message for all of us to think outside ourselves for a moment. I really love this line from his speech, “understand . . . the failure of others is not completely deserved either”. We lose sight sometimes that bad things happen to good people. Some people have a cloud over their head, seeming to go from one pitfall to another. It is easy to categorize them in many ways, when perhaps the word “chance” is simply the answer. We also take our own good luck for granted some days. As he says, do we always “deserve” good fortune? The hubris it takes to believe we “deserve” good fortune might be blinding us to the reality of life. Plus, we might actually take good fortune for granted.

“whether you benefit from them or not, (your success) will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes”

We can’t explain, or quickly fix, misfortunes. Maybe it makes sense to look back at a tough time in your life and see how you grew from that event. It was probably very painful at the time, but hopefully you are a better person now. If you are out of a job today, I hope Justice Roberts’ words help you find some strength to push forward.

One last thought. Sometimes, our service to others is the way forward. We can all help others, sometimes in ways that seem small at the time but can actually be big in the end. Even if we choose our service in a simple way as Justice Roberts notes – by smiling and greeting everyone we meet along the way, no matter what their station in life. Who knows the impact that might have on the other person that day? After all, as he says, “the worst thing is you will become known as the (person) who smiles and says hello”. Now wouldn’t that be a great tag line to have on your LinkedIn profile?

If you want to listen to the speech, it is here


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