Black Hills State University
Spring 2012 commencement address given by Dr. Hess

Dr. Jim Hess delivering the 163rd commencement addressCommencement Address delivered on May 5, 2012 to the graduating class at Black Hills State University by Dr. Jim Hess.

I appreciate having the opportunity to share some thoughts with you on such a milestone day in your life. Some of my friends on the faculty have been more than hinting that I shouldn’t be long winded so I promise to keep this brief. 

Still, I would like for you to seriously contemplate the thoughts I am sharing today for I believe they can make a difference in your life.

When I was a child of about 10 years old, I found myself walking down the main street of Belle Fourche with my grandmother. I was walking on the inside next to the building and she was walking near the curb. At one point she gently takes me by the neck and guides me to the outside.

When I asked why she did that, she explained that a gentleman always walks on the outside and lets the lady be on the inside.
“Why?” I asked.

She explained that in the old days the streets weren’t always paved and when wagons or early cards would go by they would splash you. So the man’s job was to protect the lady so she wouldn’t get wet or muddy.

I was shocked and said, “Why would I want to do that?” 

Her reply to that and many other questions through the years was “When you get older you will understand how that pays off for you!” 

I have to tell you that at the time I was very skeptical...but I did come to realize how right she was.

So today I want to talk to you about something I believe you will eventually learn anyway but if you realize it now, your life will be much more rewarding for you.

Life will go by very fast and before you know it your children will be grown and your grandkids will age before your eyes and along the journey you will wonder from time to time “What is the key to having a good life”? 

As a Clinical Psychologist who has practiced for many years and as a Psychology Professor for the past 35 years I have been asked this question so many times.

And now in the waning years of my career, I’ve come to realize the answer was there all along and it is deceptively simple. 

The answer to the question of “What is the key to having a good life?” is to make sure you Make A Difference in the lives of others. 

My grandmother who lived to be 94 always said to make sure you give more than you take and if you do that you will leave the world a better place than you found it. And your life will be so much richer if you realize this. 

When I was young I didn’t really understand what she meant. But I do now and I realize she was so right. 

By MAKING A DIFFERENCE in the lives of others, you discover you made a difference in your own life!

Think about it! The people who take more than they give, end up living unhappy, empty lives as they constantly demand more from others and constantly seek ways to escape from themselves. And because they take instead of giving, they never find happiness.

The people who give more of themselves than they take will tell you they are living happy, fulfilling lives. Oh sure, they have the same frustrations and irritations that comes from living in a modern stressful world, yet they still find happiness and fulfillment on a daily basis.

A few weeks ago the lottery reached hundreds of millions of dollars. When you listen to people talk about winning the lottery, they almost all say “If I win I will give part of it to this charity or that.” But there are so few winners and they don’t realize that giving money isn’t the only way of Making A Difference. 

Don’t make the mistake of thinking my message today is simply about money. While giving money to worthwhile causes is a good thing, it isn’t the only way to Make A Difference and it isn’t even the most important way to Make A Difference!

Most importantly, Make A Difference by giving of yourself. Remember, there are many poor people who make a positive difference to others around them and they live happy lives. And there are some rich people who take more than they give and they always seem to want more and they live an empty unfulfilling existence. Money alone did not buy them happiness!

Some of my most treasured childhood memories involve going camping and fishing with my Uncle, my Dad, and my cousin. Have you ever been out camping on a summer night and just after you shut out the light you hear that sound? That high pitched far away buzz that gets closer and closer. And then you realize there is a small insignificant mosquito in the tent with you. Oh, you try to ignore it at first but eventually that mosquito made you turn the light back on to try to find it. That mosquito wasn’t insignificant after all.

So don’t make the mistake of dismissing what I’m telling you by thinking “What difference can I make in a world of over 7 Billion people? After all I’m just one insignificant person.” We all can make a significant difference often in very small ways.

Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and she has dedicated her life to Making A Difference in the lives of children. She once stated:

“We must not, --- in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, --- ignore the small daily differences we can make --- which, over time, --- add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.”

A few years ago when I was still in private practice, I walked out of my office with a client and saw that I had a stranger sitting in my waiting room and he didn’t have a scheduled appointment. He clearly was in great emotional pain.

I brought him into my office and as we began to talk he shared that he had left his Rapid City office earlier in the day and had driven up into the Hills with the intention of shooting himself.

When I inquired as to what kept him from carrying out his plan, he began to cry and told me that as he left his office building an older lady opened the door for him, smiled and said something about what a wonderful day it was.

Now people say such things all the time but he said that he couldn't get her words out of his head and maybe she knew something he didn’t and maybe there was something worth living for.

After sitting in the woods for a while with a loaded gun in his lap, he drove to Spearfish, found my name under Psychologists in the phone book and decided to get help finding the answer as to why he should stay alive.

A total stranger, uttering a few simple words Made A Difference. I didn't save his life that day – she did and she never knew it. That man is still alive today because of a simple act of kindness.

So you see, the little things do count! Make A Difference by doing the little things. The next time you go on a picnic up in the Hills, pick up your trash and the trash left by some selfish person before you.

And when you go to Safeway or Walmart and some lazy person has left their shopping cart blocking a parking space, take it into the building with you – after all, you are walking that way anyway.

Make it part of your life plan to Make A Difference every day and never overlook the little things that you can do that may change a life. So many of these actions won’t cost you a dime!

Think what a difference all of us here today could make if we each made a commitment to do at least three things a day to Make A Difference. Just a few minutes of time could enrich the lives of those around us and enrich our lives in the process.

A few years ago on Swarm Day, I was scheduled to drive my 1931 Model A Ford in the parade and carry a dignitary in the rumble seat. My six year old grandson was going to ride up front with me and he was very excited to be in a parade instead of just watching it as a spectator. Unfortunately, the dignitary was sick that morning so I was told we wouldn't be needed to drive in the parade after all.

President Schallenkamp was busy getting people ready for the parade and yet she observed the disappointment on my grandson’s face and told me not to leave. She walked away and a few minutes later she re - appeared with a sign to put on my car that said FUTURE YELLOW JACKET and she told me to drive Zach in the parade. So he climbed in the rumble seat and waved at the crowd as we drove along the parade route.

Zach is almost eleven now and to this day he says he will be coming to Black Hills State University as a student because the President said he was a Future Yellow Jacket. A small act of kindness and consideration can have a major impact in Making A Difference. President Schallenkamp transformed his life that day.

Think of the people in your life who have had the biggest influence on you. Was it one enormous thing they did or many small acts of kindness that made the biggest difference?

Benjamin Franklin once said “The noblest question in the world is, “What good may I do in it?”

With that said, there is one final thought I’d like to share with you today.

It occurs to me that what makes this country so great is not its rich and famously important men and women, standing alone trying to do the impossible.

Our country is great because of its many people from all walks of life, who regardless of their age, or race, or financial situation or personal history have come to understand the importance of Making A Difference –

Not for their own personal honor – but for the honor of improving the human condition --- and knowing in the end, that their existence did Make A Difference and along the way they found happiness in the process!

So here is your charge – go out and find happiness on a daily basis by making a difference in the lives of others.

And when someone asks how you could possibly be so happy in such a difficult world with all its problems, teach them your secret.

Teach them to Make A Difference!