A Non-Cynic’s Guide to Life

Some thoughts for the class of 2012.


Editor’s Note: A few months ago, Joe Cilio, a 2010 Graduate of the Haverford School, was invited back to his alma mater to give a talk to some of the students there. Joe—who’s now studying drama at NYU—had some interesting things to say. In fact, what he said was so interesting—and so well said—that when a copy of his speech got passed along to us, we decided more people ought to read it. So here, in just a slightly altered form, is what Joe had to say to his Haverford brethren. It’s worth hearing.

Hello, everyone. It is an honor to be back at Haverford and have an opportunity to speak with you today.

This morning I am speaking to a room filled with brilliant scientists, award-winning teachers, and veterans of war. So naturally I, a 20-year-old sophomore in art school, will be speaking to you today about character.

Was everybody else you guys know booked? I’m sure you could have dragged someone up here for a day. I can see from my podium at least 40 individuals with deep, rich experiences to share that could really change a young man’s life. Dr. Ehrhart could have gotten up here and sneezed. Mr. Cloran, what were you thinking? Shame on you, sir!

But all jokes aside … I have missed you guys.

I was asked to speak today about how the values instilled in me at Haverford have mattered in the outside world. “Respect, honesty and courage” are not put on the walls to increase admissions. They are words to live by.

I will not be speaking today about how respect, honesty and courage will get you better jobs, or make you more likable in college, or increase your marketability. I will not use these words to push an agenda of ambition or status or power. This talk is not about using values to “get ahead” in the real world.

This talk is about why we should be decent human beings and what is stopping us from doing so.

When you enter this school, you immediately are greeted by the “in the arena” quote of Theodore­ Roosevelt. And because of it, we all can get on the field or get onstage covered in sweat and fight our seeming demons and win or lose, and we will be applauded for our effort. As Haverford students, you guys do this every day.

But we are applauded far less and learn a lot more in the arena of love, an arena that is far more frightening than “the big game” or “the big deal” or “the big idea.”

So what is love? I like Jonathan Franzen’s definition: “Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.”

Maybe that’s why we so seldom throw ourselves into that arena of love: It is terrifying to show our true selves to others, our true feelings and bodies and emotions. It’s much easier to wave our accomplishments around in people’s faces. But in love, you don’t come out with your enemy’s heart in your hand; you come with your own heart in your hand. That is a dangerous position to be in, and it takes respect, honesty, courage and bottomless empathy.

That is the arena I want to jump into today.

Since I am not a public speaker or professional teacher or psychiatrist, I will not try to teach you something, but will share some things with you that you are at liberty to take or not to take. Think of me as mediating a large community-awareness meeting, and hopefully we will spark some ideas in the community and abroad.