Nearly half a century ago, I graduated from The American University of Beirut and began my career in medicine. From that time to this day it has been a long journey. A journey which was abundant in pain and joy, and was also rich in success and failure. I am not here today to give you advice but I have come to share with you what I have learned from success and failure with the hope that this will illuminate the road ahead of you.
I have learned that knowledge is the power that frees us from slavery and that ignorance is the most extreme and powerful kind of slavery. Thus, do not repeat the popular proverb, “I’m a slave to the one who taught me a letter,” but rather say, “The one who taught me a letter has freed me from my slavery.” No power can break the chains that enslave you like knowledge can. Also I say to you the deeper you delve into knowledge, the closer you get to God. And the closer you get to God, the more you become one and the distances that separate you diminish.
Here in our land, in Lebanon and the Middle East, there are two conflicting cultures struggling to survive and compete: The culture of knowledge of which you are its product and the culture of religious and ideological extremism. While religious extremism freezes man and draws artificial boundaries between him and his fellow man, knowledge comes and eliminates all these boundaries. Sectarianism divides while knowledge unites. Sectarianism pulls you down and makes you smaller while knowledge pushes you up and makes you taller. That is why we must insist on the separation not only between religion and state, but also between religion and education. The Lebanon we want will not rise from its ashes unless we free it from the chains of sectarianism.
I have learned that creativity and excellence are not possible if you do not love your work. Love is the force that converts work from something you do and remains outside of you into something you do and becomes you. "Work is love made visible," said Gibran. Also I dare to say to you, the type of work you do is not as important as how much you fill that work with love and how much you commit yourself to it. I would also like to emphasize to you that love is not just necessary to succeed at work but it is also necessary for a more important kind of success, success in life. If you want to fill your life with meaning, fill it with love. All shadows of Love. Love between you and your family, you and your friends, you and your country, and “When you love,” said Al-Mustafa in “The Prophet”, “you should not say, God is in my heart, but rather, I am in the heart of God ".
I have learned that the road to success always is paved with failure and that you cannot reach success without passing through failure. This is why those who are afraid of failure can never achieve success. Failure is not a sin. The sin is not to learn from it; as failure may be the greatest teacher you ever come to know. However, the largest sin is to blame others for your failure. It has been said “A man can fail many times, but he does not become a failure until he starts to blame others.”
I have learned that money, glamour, authority and fame are major powers. But, the biggest challenge is how you use them and how you tame them so they never work against you, but always remain power for you. Many reached the high peaks but also quickly tumbled to the bottom of the abyss. They tumbled because they were unable to tame success. Success is like riding a very wild horse, if you cannot reign it, you will fall from its back. To avoid tumbling to the bottom, you need to remember that humility is the highest summit you may reach within yourself. Also you need not forget that your success will not be success for you if it is not also success for others.
I have learned that one will not find happiness and contentment unless he is free from his outer rusted shells. Thus I came to tell you that if you don’t free yourselves from your false shells, you would never reach your truth, and those who do not reach their inner truth cannot be the masters of their lives, and hence, they constantly live in a state of psychological distortion and self deception. Thus, I say to you if you do not peel your masks off your faces and you stand naked before the face of God, your quest to achieve happiness will remain a mirage.
This is some of what I have learned, dear graduates, and I put it in your hands hoping it might be useful to you. But tonight I have to confess to you that I am worried about you. I am also concerned about man’s future throughout the world, as man’s greatest attributes are diminishing day after day, and man’s greatest virtues are being crushed by the daunting and harsh progresses of science and technology. I am afraid that a day may come whereby anything that cannot be programmed into a computer will be considered non-existent. This will be an enormous tragedy as the most important things in life cannot be entered into the computer. Love, compassion, affection, kindness, mercifulness, tolerance, pride, magnanimity, dignity and nobility... these are all attributes that define the greatness of the human experience but they clearly remain outside the realm of technology. Already, In the West, they laugh at you when you speak of nobleness, and I will not be surprised if one day our children search the word ‘nobleness’ in the dictionary and do not find it. Dear graduates, I am the son of science and technology and I am a proud student of medical scientific research but I am afraid that a day may come when the mind assassinates the heart and man becomes heartless. For then, life would lose all meaning and darkness would fall upon the world.
Also, I would like to address something which means a lot to me, loyalty. Loyalty to your parents, to your teachers, to those who have helped you and above all loyalty to your country. It is no secret that the Lebanese wars were not the result of our failure to build a strong and sovereign state, as much as they were the result of our lack of loyalty to our country. I want to ask you for forgiveness because our generation failed to build a Lebanon worthy of you. We hope your generation will build a new Lebanon; a Lebanon which is as great as its history and as great as its imposing worldwide presence.
When we look at this Arab Middle East, what do we see? We see deserts of frozen thoughts and political regimes that do not respect the greatness of the individual and do not believe in his freedom. We see the emergence of religious extremism and violence. These so-called “revolutions” of extremism and violence constitute the most significant threat to modern civilization and to man. They are actually revolutions against man and his dignity, as they cripple the mind, crush the individual, and assail God. Tomorrow you must rebel against this reality and change it.
Dear graduates. Go, work, sow the soil and follow your dreams but do not ever forget who you are, where you come from, who your parents are and which land is your homeland. Eight thousand miles away from here, on my desk, in my office in the city of Houston, there is an olive branch from my tree, a bottle of oil from my olive grove and a handful of soil from my home village. This is not only to remind me of where I had come from, but also to remind me of who I am.
Tomorrow, you begin a new chapter in your life and you will be busy with your daily work, but please set aside a few minutes every day to pray to God. Thank Him for all His blessings and ask Him to protect your parents and loved ones from harm. Also for Lebanon, please pray and ask Him to “look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock which Thy right hand planted.”
May the Heavens bless you. As for the Land, our homeland, it calls upon you and asks you, "Abide in my love as I have abided in yours."
May the peace of God be upon you, and may your parents’ prayers be with you.
Speech delivered at the commencement ceremony of the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Byblos, Lebanon on July 1, 2010. Dr. Salem was the commencement speaker and on this occasion LAU bestowed on him an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters. The speech was subsequently published as an editorial on the front page of Annahar daily news paper in Beirut on July 15, 2010.