Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Giving Fraternity

Congratulations to those graduating this year! You deserve to celebrate and reflect upon your achievements. I also invite you to understand that in regards to fraternity, it ain’t over. Not by a long shot.

The other night, my son Jack pulled Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree off his shelf. In this tale, a young boy develops a relationship with a large tree, climbing her, playing in her branches, incorporating her into his imaginary stories, and simply resting beside her large trunk. The tree loved the little boy and the boy loved the tree.

As the boy grew, his use for his beloved tree changed. Life circumstances drew him away from the tree, which saddened her. She would wait anxiously for his return, and through the book, we see him come back to her at pivotal times in his life. As a young man, he tells the tree that he needs money. She tells him that she has no money, but he can harvest her apples and sell them, which he does. Later, he returns as a middle-aged man, and tells her that he wants a house. She has no house to give, but encourages him to take her branches to build a house. He does. He comes back to her as an older man, with a desire to go far away from home – to sail somewhere free from problems. She offers her trunk so that he may build a boat, and he takes it. What’s left of the tree is a stump, still firmly rooted in the ground.

Each step along the way, when the boy would return and request more and more from the tree, she was excited to give him what he needed. Each time the boy would take something, the book tells us: “and the tree was happy.”

Many more years pass, and the boy returns as a very old man. The tree is excited to see him, but tells him that she has nothing left to provide – no apples, no branches, and no trunk. All she is, she tells him, is just a stump. The man tells her that he is too old to need anything but a place to rest his weary bones. The tree tells him that a stump is good for resting, and encourages him to come rest on her. He does.

And the tree was happy.

Consider this story as you prepare to leave your undergraduate years. These last few years in the fraternity or sorority were like the years the tree first spent with the little boy. The fraternity was excited to have you. It wanted you to use it for play, to learn critical lessons, to build the story of your life. Likewise, you loved and needed the fraternity. It’s “fruit” were the relationships you built with your brothers and sisters – relationships that became your family. It’s “branches” were the moments it gave you so that you could experience the carpe diem of college life. The “trunk” served as the memories that stay sturdy and strong as the rest of life moves on. The fraternity became a part of your life, and you, a part of hers.

So now you are an alum. Like the boy in the story, you’ll likely return to the fraternity or sorority for different needs as your life pivots and changes. You may ask her for things – and she will graciously give them to you. A fraternity is a selfless giver – always wanting her members to be happy and fulfilled. And we gladly take. We take her fruit, her branches, and her trunk. They help us navigate this crazy, awful, beautiful life. In return, we give her the joy of seeing her members live lives of significance. She doesn’t ask for anything else. But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give her more. We can become the “giving tree” for her.

As an alum, you can give the fraternity the gift of mentorship. You can be a guide and a resource for new members. You can also give the fraternity the gift of your presence by attending national events, serving as an advisor, and contributing as an alumni leader. You can give the fraternity your treasure, donating to educational foundations and house corporations. You can do all of these things, and the fraternity will be better because of them.

But there is a gift even greater. There is a part of the fraternity that we haven’t yet discussed. In The Giving Tree, it’s the stump. It’s the part that is always there even after the rest is taken. It’s our Ritual. Our values. Our codes. Our oaths. Our declarations to be better men and women by living the core values of our fraternities. It was the greatest gift the fraternity gave you, and will continue to give you every day of your life.

And the greatest gift you can give her in return is to live her ritual every day. When you do, you honor her. When you don’t, you slight her.

Remember that your undergraduate years are only the beginning – and not the end. Your fraternity gave you a guide for how to live life to its fullest. When the many twists, turns, and bumps of life come your way, remember this gift. She will be there in the good times and the bad. She can help you build a marriage, raise a family, advance a career, and enhance the world. All you need to provide is integrity – a willingness to stay true to her teachings.

If you do, then your story may read like this:

After many years, the boy returned to the fraternity. She was so excited to see him that she could barely speak. The boy looked at the fraternity and spoke with conviction.
"I return today to thank you and tell you about the life you prepared me for. You gave so much to me, and I've tried to repay those gifts by living your values."

He continued. "You gave me the confidence to make hard decisions, and through my life I tried to always do what was right. You taught me the power of responsibility, and I was always true in my words and actions. Leadership is another gift you gave me, and because of you, I’ve always stepped forward when needed. You also gave me a chance to serve my fellow man, and I assure you that I haven’t stopped.”
“I stand more proudly because of you. I am kinder to others because you asked me to be. And I am rarely alone thanks to the extended family you helped me find. You gave me all of this, and more.”

“But I’m not sure that I have anything left to give,” the fraternity replied.

“All I want is a chance to read your Ritual once again.” said the boy.

“Then come, rest for a while, and read.” said the fraternity. “There are even more lessons to learn. You are not yet finished with this life; not yet finished giving."

After a while, as the boy set to leave, the fraternity spoke. “You honor me by giving," she said. Never stop sharing your unique gifts and my unique teachings with this world. Give. Give. Give.”

And the boy did.

And the fraternity was happy.