Our Happiness is Linked to Each other’s Happiness, Commencement Address to Trine University

The following remarks were prepared and updated for delivery:

President Brooks, Trustees, Faculty, Guests, and most importantly, graduates: Thank you for inviting me to be here with you today.

Let me start off by acknowledging something we all know to be true, but few people in my position will admit: There are a LOT of bad commencement addresses. In fact, there are more ways to screw up a graduation speech than there are ways to get it right.

So, I asked my oldest daughter, who is starting to realize Dad is not that cool, what are the key do’s and don’ts. She said whatever I did, DO NOT dab.

I can guarantee you I won’t do that, because I’m not even totally sure I know what that is.

A few of my younger staff members who are recent grads told me, “Just keep it short.”

I think I can do that.

Another one suggested that maybe I should give some practical advice, like what to do at a job interview.

I told him, “How should I know? My last job interview lasted 18 months. I had to drive 40,000 miles and we ran TV commercials.” Is that helpful advice?

For the last two years — 18 months on the campaign, and now several months as Senator — I’ve been driving all over the state of Indiana. Every county. Hundreds of cities and towns. Overall, driving all over the state is not very glamorous. But there are a couple of benefits.

One benefit, for example, is that I can tell you with pretty good precision where every Taco Bell is located in the state of Indiana. Of course, this being a college town you guys have a choice: one right over there off the interstate, and one up here on 127 across from the Hopps and Schnapps.

And sometimes, when you’re lucky, you come across a beautiful sight that reminds you why you truly love America: the Taco Bell with a KFC under one roof.

But the other good thing about being on the road so much is that you have a lot of time to think. Me being a policy nerd, I like to read and think a lot about how the things we do in Washington affect real people. But I also have the chance to think about the bigger picture.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a simple concept called the “common good”. In fact, just last week I spoke on the floor of the Senate for the first time, and I used the opportunity to let them know I will be the type of Senator who keeps the common good at the front of my mind.

I think this topic is not just appropriate for us public officials to think about but also for you graduates. You will be leaving this institution today where it’s easy to think about the collective student body, and you’ll be entering a world that rewards people who act in their own self-interest.

Our tendency to act in our own self-interest is apparent in everything from the workplace — where people will often step over one another to get ahead — to social media, where we get genuinely upset when our post didn’t get as much attention as we thought.

“Only three likes? That tweet was brilliant!”

So I’d like to spend my time before you today lobbying you to be a part of a generation that venerates the common good.

You won’t be the first Hoosiers to do so. (And, by the way, you’ve spent four years or so here getting a degree, you’re a Hoosier now whether you like it or not.) I can think of two Hoosiers that exemplify the principle of working for the common good that I believe our founding fathers envisioned.

Governor Ed Whitcomb was the 43rd Governor of Indiana. A hero from World War II, he twice escaped Japanese capture making it to safety by swimming through shark infested waters all night. Whitcomb pursued the common good in the midst of a rift in his own Republican Party. He successfully led Indiana in improving its highways, mental health services, and creating our state’s Higher Education Commission. He bucked his own party frequently to do what he thought was right for Hoosiers. Governor Whitcomb has been described as Indiana’s most amazing Governor. He passed away this past year and in tribute Republicans and Democrats acknowledged that he represented all Hoosiers well.

Coach John Wooden was born and raised in Indiana and coached basketball here as well before heading to UCLA where he became one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time. Wooden understood that working together as a team was better than working as individuals. Wooden acknowledged this principle in saying ““Ten field horses couldn’t pull an empty baby carriage if they worked independently of each other.” He also said “if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, you need a team.”

As a Senator, these two legendary leaders remind me that I wasn’t elected to work for myself or my party, but instead for the common good of the American people. And these Hoosier legends ought to remind you, Class of 2017, that while there is nothing wrong with pursuing individual success, there is a world outside our own that needs attention as well.

Your charge is simple, but it won’t be easy: for your generation to thrive, you must do your part to breathe life back into the notion of the “common good”.

The common good:

I know from personal experience that any young boy or girl who grows up in Indiana already has a keen sense of the thing. And if you grew up in a place like I did:

You were raised in a place where neighbor cared for neighbor. This is the common good in practice.

You lived among people of character who made others’ concerns their personal concerns. This is the common good.

You benefited from the selfless contributions of Americans who invested their own time, their own attention, their own resources into helping their fellow Americans. This is the common good.

You came to know rank-and-file citizens who quietly took the initiative to care for the forgotten Hoosiers who needed a hand up. This is the common good…

I know this outline of the common good would fully satisfy most rank-and-file Hoosiers, but in our personal relationships — just like our politics –sometimes we resist even the most self-evident truths if they’re not sanctioned by some now-departed philosopher who talked about it generations ago. Thus, forgive me as I must demonstrate that what works in practice also works in theory. . . .

I’ll borrow from eighteenth century political theorist and English statesman Edmund Burke, for he brightly illuminated this notion of a common good.

Burke argued the common good requires individual cooperation and compromise.

He noted that individuals are not simply a compendium of human wants, and individual happiness is not realized by merely by satisfying such wants. Rather, our own happiness is linked to one another’s happiness.

Let me give you an example: in the midst of my U.S. Senate campaign, a tornado struck Kokomo, Indiana, a few hours south of here. I went to meet with the emergency management teams and view the damage. What I didn’t expect — although maybe I should have — was seeing dozens of neighbors who called off work to help other neighbors clear brush, or to deliver meals.

Those good Samaritans would’ve been just as well served individually by going to work and earning their paycheck, and saving those vacation days for a real vacation. Instead, they realized that their own happiness is linked to their neighbor’s happiness.

Another, more light-hearted example came at a fair in Evansville. At this particular event, the popular food is the cow brain sandwich.

Now…my own personal happiness was linked to not eating the cow brain sandwich. But I had dozens of locals surrounding me who wanted to see what this political candidate would be willing to do to gain their trust. And, realizing my happiness was linked to their happiness, I ate the cow brain sandwich.

And then I found a Taco Bell on the way home.

If our individual happiness is linked to one another’s happiness, then each of us has a purpose in life to preserve for the living and future generations a social order which is conducive to a happy life for all. Indeed, as college graduates and our nation’s future leaders, it is your duty to help preserve this social order.

In the Marine Corps, I learned something about what duty means in practice.

Marine leaders of every rank teach through the power of their example that every Marine has a duty to serve a cause greater than themselves. Marines learn to venerate sacrifice for the greater good.

Graduates, I understand that most of you will not be entering the Marine Corps. You will be issued a laptop, not a rifle. But, like the Marines, you should be joining teams and working to advance common missions.

Earlier I spoke of a former Republican Governor of Indiana, Ed Whitcomb, but Indiana had another Whitcomb who was Governor, James Whitcomb, a democrat, who also went on to serve in the Senate before passing…He also made his mark as governor saving the state from insolvency, establishing institutions for the physically and mentally disabled and advancing the first system of free public education. But even more impressive is his dedication to those who fought from Indiana in the Mexican-American war. With Indiana’s budget broke and its credit in shambles, Whitcomb took out personal loans to purchase arms and send Indiana’s militia to defend our country. Two Whitcombs who served our state and nation for the common good.

Isn’t that a great model for us here today.

Graduates of the Class of 2017: serve; advance the common good; and make others happy while pursuing your own happiness.

Thank you, congratulations and God bless you.