Baccalaureate Address

Carolyn Y. Woo

Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo, President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services
Wake Forest University
May 19, 2013

Thank you very much for this opportunity to be with you. I first want to thank Dr. Hatch, Ms. Hatch, for where I am today. Nathan was the provost at Notre Dame who insisted that I join the school when I had no plan to do so. It was extremely persuasive and because of him I started a journey that allowed me to explicitly marry faith with my professional work. The business school at Notre Dame was after one mission and only one mission — the integration of faith and excellence.

Those two parts must always go together. So it is a privilege to be here today at another university where this mission is integral. I know that Wake Forest — where first of all you are known as “Work Forest,” which is a tremendous reputation to have — but it also a university that never forgets where all of our blessings first come from. This is so important as you go into the world.

There will be a lot of challenges facing you but it always important to believe that you don’t face those alone. The work that we do at Catholic Relief Services is very complicated, very complex. So for example right now, we are dealing with the issues of Syrian refugees, the plight of Christians in Syria. You can be overwhelmed by that work, but it is important to remember that while we bring our efforts and our commitment to that work, in the end it is really God’s work and God multiplies our work.

Today is the feast of Pentecost. It is a good time to remember that the holy spirit is always with us, and in fact, He said when two or three are gathered in his name — and we have thousands here — He is present. So in your life, as you go forward, never underestimate yourself, first of all, but definitely do not underestimate the power of God. So today, I am here with you. Commencement means a lot to me. I do not think I have ever missed a commencement as an academic. It is a time when all good things converge.

As I look at you, there is so much talent, there is so much potential, but you have also demonstrated the discipline of hard work. You’ve also made achievements. It is the beginning of another part of your journey while you close this part — and it is a part that was well done. But most important is the love and sacrifices which have brought you here today — your parents, grandparents, godparents, friends, relatives, aunts and also your classmates, who also play a very important role in your success.

Both my father and his sister have passed away, and in their treasures, the boxes of treasures, they were holding on to my commencement program. So just for you to have a sense of how special this day is, all these programs which our guests are clutching, they will go in the treasure boxes. So, so good to be a part of this.

Today, the topic of my talk is “Grace in a Competitive World.” There is no question we live in a highly competitive world. There are rankings all around us. There are rankings of everything — not just schools, but hospitals, municipal systems, projects, products and so on. And I’m sure in your life you have experienced many competitions — just competing for a place at Wake Forest, competing for financial aid, competing for honors, competing for a job, competing for graduate school. It just doesn’t seem to end.

And in fact, it starts really early, even in our extracurricular activities. Look, we know whether we are a starter on the team or not. We get a sense of whether the position we play is important or less important. We keep track of the amount of playing time we have. So even when we are toddlers or young kids, even for play and for fun, there is a sense that someone is keeping score.

I just want to say, first of all, that there is a proper place for competition. So, I think many of you were in sports. My older son is with me. He signed up for the basketball team in high school, and every morning we have to get up really early, which is a discipline to get out of the house by 5:30. Along the way, we learn that we have to get our homework done in advance. There are certain skills and drills that you have to do, and along the way you learn and you achieve something and you’re able to develop a set of capabilities.

So competition has its proper place in our personal life, and it’s also very important in the economy. An economy that does not have competition has monopoly and is a system whereby merit cannot play a role. It will depend on who you know and to whom you were born in a system where there is not competition.

My point, though, is not competition, per se, but how we incorporate competition into all aspects of our lives, whether it is necessary or appropriate. I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m looking for a parking spot, I’m alway eyeing who else is competing for that spot. I do not, for example, look for another spot. I just look for whether I have a competitor for the spot. In Chicago, whenever I’m driving, I don’t like it. When I signal to change lanes, everybody speeds up, like they’re not going to give in.

I think that sometimes with students, when you are unhappy with something and you need to complain, you want to go to the highest level. You write a letter to the president, and now worse, we write something on the internet, so everyone can see how unhappy we were with a service that was not rendered. We’re just merciless in that way.

I remember one time I was going to a funeral at the basilica at Notre Dame, and it was for the Murphy family. There were ushers there, and when I showed up, I don’t think I looked like a Murphy, so the usher said, “You cannot get in there,” meaning he thought I was a tourist. Instead of explaining my purpose, I said, “I’m the dean of the business school.” Now that’s totally irrelevant. All I had to say was that I was there for the Murphy funeral.

So we live in a society where there’s a sense of sort of pecking order, a sense of win-lose. We’re so used to win-loss columns in sports. We have a sense of who is the winner. And the worst thing is that if you’re not the winner, you have won nothing. There is a sense of the winner takes all. There’s a sense of zero-sum game, that someone’s gain must be my loss, a mentality that is born of scarcity.

Even when we win, we can’t enjoy it for long because all we worry about is losing again. Who is the person who will replace me as the winner? If we get a promotion, with that type of attitude, we have just gained a tougher group of competitors. And so we are always looking behind to see who is going to take our place.

Think about what that does to our self-worth, that we basically equate ourselves with external achievements, with honors, with awards, with trophies, with pecking orders. Think about what that does to our friendships, to our relationships, when we always have to have a sense of where we are and a greater sense of happiness if people are behind us or are lesser than us.

So as we go about with this type of mentality, can we really make a place for the other? Can we allow other people to take credit? Can we rejoice when something good happens to others? Or do we feel like we have just lost and become diminished because something good has happened to others?

We also know, in today’s world, to get the work done, we have to collaborate. There’s no work that can be done by one person. And collaboration requires a tremendous of team ability. Think about the popular phrase “social networking.” OK, so social and networking is about other people. We talk about friending, but we also have frenemies, which is just a terrible concept. We talk about virtual teams, the commons, the global village. All of these remind us that we live in a mutually interdependent world, that we’re made to be social beings and we’re meant to interact and depend on each other.

I know that team building is a multi-billion dollar industry. It helps us learn how to work with other people. But is that really enough to create a sense of bondedness, a sense of empathy, a sense of capacity for other people? Parker Palmer, who is just a wonderful theologian and writer, says: “Relational trust is built on the movements of the heart, such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.”

At my own commencement, I remember a speaker — his name was Steven Fuller, and he was the vice president of HR at General Motors. At one point, he talked about charisma. Everybody say the word charisma and think about what qualities come to your mind. Well, Steven Fuller said: “Charisma is the ability to take people as you find them, to like them for what they are and to not despise them for what they are not.” In other words, the capacity to accept and celebrate other people.

I just want to say, I have learned a trick in my work. I go to a lot of social events — lunches and dinners. And I generally, in the early days, dreaded them. I would change name cards so I would get to sit with my friends. Somewhere along the line, I decided that was a very immature thing to do, and that in my job as an administrator, I need to be a host and I need to be able to attend to the people who are assigned to me, rather than change placecards to go join my friends.

So I learned to enjoy these dinners and lunches by learning how to ask questions. I decided that people have very interesting lives and if I am just willing to listen to their lives, I will have a very enjoyable time. So I start by asking questions: Where do you come from? Why did you choose this major? Why did you make a change in your career? How did you meet your wife? What do you like to do in your spare time? And so on and so forth. … I have limitless questions. And afterwards, the person would say, “That Carolyn Woo, she is really bright.” And I just want to say. I didn’t say one word that was intelligent. I just asked a lot of questions, and in that process, I celebrated that person who probably felt as equally uncomfortable as I as was.

But the process of making room for other people, having the capacity for other people, really allowing people to really enjoy who they are and feel a sense of their own worth, that it is of interest to somebody else, this capacity for other people is what I call grace. Grace with a small g is about friendliness, is about hospitality, consideration, courtesy, helpfulness and so on. Grace with a big G is what God gave us when he made us in his image, when he loved us into life. That is the grace that is part of who we are.

I just want to say that grace allows us to do at least two things. One is to allow us to have a different picture of ourselves. We no longer look at ourselves by our own scorecards or by where we are relative to other people, but we look at ourselves in relationship to God and as a person who is created by God with God-given gifts.

I am going to tell a story that I don’t know if Nathan remembers. We were in China together; we were in a museum, the museum where they have all the clay soldiers. And they had an exhibit and a box of different artifacts that were made by the people for this tomb, and in this exhibit in this box was a carriage that was made, and the carriage was so fine that you could even see the hair on the horse. I turned to Nathan and said, “This is amazing, you know, that they could do this, 3,000 years ago without good tools.” And Nathan said, “These are God-given gifts,” and I have never forgotten that our gifts are really God-given gifts, and they are quite amazing.

And because of these God-given gifts, C.S Lewis therefore said there is no mere mortal, the mere just does not describe us. We are all unique and very gifted. There is no mere mortal and that’s why St. Catherine of Siena said we are the hands and feet of Christ on this Earth. And so the way that we need to look at ourselves is a way from even from our achievements but definitely from the relative positioning of where we are.

The second thing that it allows us to do to is to forgive. I think in life there are injuries. Some small and trivial, some big. Some unintentional, but some intentional. But I think forgiving is possible if we draw on God’s grace. John Piper, actually a very noted Baptist theologian, said grace is not simply leniency when we have sinned, grace is the enabling gift of God not to sin; grace is power, not just pardon. It is really not drawing on the power of God to transcend what is small with us as humans, but rather what is grand about us as the creatures of God.

St. Benedict, when he created the Benedictine Order, he decided that three times a day, the monks would need to get together to say the “Our Father” because he believed that they would be so irritated with each other that they would need to come back together for prayer. Now remember, these monks don’t even talk to each other, they just work side-by-side but that is enough to create irritation. Saint Thérèse of Lisieu you may have heard, a little flower, she died very young, she was determined to dedicate herself to God, but every day she wrote in her diary she wrote about the irritation she felt about all the little things that those sisters did that got on her nerves, and she made it a point in her prayer life to ask for forgiveness for those irritations.

In a picture of the prodigal son, painted by Rembrandt, the father was reaching out to the son with his arms but his eyes were closed. It was as if he was blind. The purpose of the picture was to show that he was reaching out to his son with his heart. He sees with his heart not with his eyes.

I remember a story; it was one of these Chinese stories, attributed to Buddha. It says that Buddha had been mediating a long time in a forest. He was sitting there in peace. He had been in mediation for weeks and along came a solider. It was a soldier who was flushed with victory. He had just won major battles. He was handsome and mighty. He found the Buddha to be in his way. He looked at the Buddha and said, “Buddha, you are in my way.” And Buddha opened his eyes and said, “Where are you going?” And he said, “I am just home from a victory and you are in my way and you look like a pig.” And Buddha looked at him and said, “And you look like God to me.” And that is because he had been thinking about God for so long that when he looked out he could see God even in this very rude solider.

A week ago, I heard the Dalai Lama speak. I remember one of the things he didn’t say at the talk but one of the things he had said in one of his books. He said do not let a small injury ruin a friendship. I have seen small forgiving because in the work we do in the countries we work in these people have been at war with each other. So unless they can make room for each other and work again they won’t be able to move forward. One of my last, most recent visits was to Cambodia. And there you can imagine they suffered the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime, where a quarter of the population was killed. So as I was talking to the people, they acknowledged there are still Pol Pot senior officers in the government. But it is fine. They need to make a place for these officers because otherwise, if these officers stayed on the outside, they could never have peace.

I know a couple, Peter and Linda Beal, who lost their daughter, Amy Beal in South Africa. The night before she was to return to the United States, because she had a fellowship to go to Stanford, she went to the black township where she worked and she was attacked and killed. It was in a time of apartheid where there was a lot of anger and rage. The people who killed her did not know who she was, but she was killed. The parents made a point of forgiving. They founded a foundation in South Africa, where they allow youth to have opportunities. They created bakeries so there could be jobs, so the bakeries could produce bread for the schools, so that the children would have proper nutrition. They created a music studio and actually the people who killed their daughter made their first CD in that music studio. So we know that grace allows us to understand who we are and to celebrate who we are and at the same time to forgive others.

As I close, I just want to share a few quotes with you. Martin Luther wrote that “faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.” So hundreds of years ago, there was Martin Luther who talked about grace.

Dorothy Day, who was the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, who is now being considered for the first stage of sainthood, her last project that she could not finish was a book. It was entitled, “All Is Grace.” And to her, it meant all things work together for good for those who love God.

Karl Rahner, another major theologian of the last century, before he died, he joyfully and energetically proclaimed, all is grace. The very last line in the New Testament is “May grace be with you.”

So as we go forward, it is important to remember that grace is in our DNA, even though we cannot find it under a microscope. I think God’s grace infuses nature and humans because we are all made by him. It is the essential currency for how we engage each other because we are not just parties in a transaction but we are family. We are here together not by chance but by design. We are supposed to be here for each other as we embark on a journey of the greatest discovery, and that is the discovery of God, and we are going to find God through each other.

And so as we go, I think it is important to remember that grace is there for the asking. So ask for it. And act from it. It only takes two minutes of stopping. Ask for grace, act from it. And the last line I would like to share in the commencement is a quote from the UN secretary general Daj Hammarskjöld, who wrote: for all that has been, thank you, for all that is to come, yes. God bless you. Thank you very much.