A couple years after I graduated from college, I was living in an apartment in Chicago with four friends, one of whom was this Kuwaiti guy named Hassan, and when the U.S. invaded Iraq, Hassan lost touch with his family, who lived on the border, for six weeks. He responded to this stress by watching cable news coverage of the war 24 hours a day. So the only way to hang out with Hassan was to sit on the couch with him, and so one day we were watching the news and the anchor was like, "We're getting new footage from the city of Baghdad," and a camera panned across a house that had a huge hole in one wall covered by a piece of plywood. On the plywood was Arabic graffiti scrawled in black spraypaint, and as the news anchor talked about the anger on the Arab street or whatever, Hassan started laughing for the first time in several weeks.
"What's so funny?" I asked him.
"The graffiti," he said.
"What's funny about it?"
"It says, Happy Birthday, Sir, Despite the Circumstances."
For the rest of your life, you are going to have a choice about how to read graffiti in a language you do not know, and you will have a choice about how to read the actions and intonations of the people you meet. I would encourage you as often as possible to consider the Happy Birthday Sir Despite the Circumstances possibility, the possibility that the lives and experiences of others are as complex and unpredictable as your own, that other people—be they family or strangers, near or far—are not simply one thing or the other—not simply good or evil or wise or ignorant—but that they like you contain multitudes, to borrow a phrase from the great Walt Whitman.
The rest of author John Green's wise and wonderful commencement speech to the 2013 graduates of Butler University can be found here.