We Owls are often pictured wearing glasses. This is to make us look wise. My mom owl once said, “Don’t just look wise. Be wise.” I suppose I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to do that. How that happens isn’t always an easy story to tell.

Take Commencement ceremonies. Athens High, Clements, Ardmore, Tanner all have graduation day. Classmates gather to hear about the sparkling future out there. Your life’s quest has just begun, has “commenced.” You’ve gotten a degree, which means you’ve taken the time to study and pass significant exams, read valuable books, and know how to research and assess facts. But, as one haunting song asks, “Is That All There Is?”

What comes next? Some might say, “Now I go out and make a million bucks. I’ll buy everything I ever wanted!” Good, but that will require more intense study of specialized subjects, say computers or medicine. Most will figure out that to get something of value, you need to pay the price in time, patience, effort and many a sleepless night devoted to becoming a master of your subject. People pay dearly for the services of such skillful masters, be they plumber, physician or musician.

But what if someone wants to take the criminal way to material plenty? They want all the trappings of being a big shot, money, sex and power. Such a seeker after things might look wise, but isn’t. We have long, sad, lines of bitter criminals who thought this way. They are stacked in triple deck cots at Limestone County Correctional Center. Where did they go wrong? Poor people, too often, try to break out of financial traps through crime and get caught. And the rich guy who commits crimes? He believes he can do anything because his money puts him above the law. But consider. A poor man and a rich man share this common thread. They take from others. Teddy Roosevelt said it best, “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.”

If I fluttered onto the graduation field at one of our sports stadiums to give a commencement speech, I’d say simply this. “Young people, I admire you. You are healthy, happy and live in a free country. We are not at war; we are prosperous. My commencement hope is that you discover there is only one goal worth seeking, in your own way, for your entire life. Only one goal matters, only one. Your life’s quest should be to find the truth. To do this, ask yourself, ‘How can I serve others?’ Those others in your life might be your family, your neighborhood, those you encounter every day, or everyone on earth. The others you serve will change as time passes. You might find as you grow older you might serve your country, your faith, or other people who need your professional or personal skills. Your shared service can be great acts of professional skill, a life dedicated to caring, or quiet service behind the scenes, say, making lunch for the homebound. One North Alabamian spent her Mother’s Day personally delivering beautiful sprays of flowers to other mothers she knew. Such kindness will be inspirational forever. Whether you raise an entire persecuted people from oppression, or raise a family of good children, one thing doesn’t change. You’ll continue to find the truth as you serve others. What’s good about service to others is you will never be afraid for the future. You’ll know, whenever you are feeling down, you are on the right path. You’ll know all your effort is worth something because you aren’t in a race against others, but in a great lifetime adventure with them. Oh, and as a wise man said to me, when I tried to pay him for fixing my car which broke down on a lonely country road, “Keep your money. Just keep a good attitude.”

John William Davis is a retired U.S. Army counterintelligence officer, civil servant and linguist. He was commissioned from Washington University in St. Louis in 1975. He entered counterintelligence and served some 37 years. A linguist, Davis learned foreign languages in each country in which he served. His published works include “Rainy Street Stories: Reflections on Secret Wars, Terrorism and Espionage” and “Around the Corner: Reflections on American Wars, Violence, Terrorism and Hope.”

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