Citing the fact that their education can be a preparation for success, even greatness, Elder D. Todd Christofferson counseled BYU's 2,513 graduates at commencement exercises Aug. 16 to aspire to greatness, all the while considering what "true greatness" really means.
Elder Christofferson of the Presidency of the Seventy said, "We may think of self-sacrificing heroes who have alleviated suffering and lifted others out of despair.
"Some have ennobled life itself with the greatness of their art, their acting, their writing, or their thought. Still others find greatness in the invention or creation of something that changes the world. I hope that many of you will indeed perform such great deeds, whether widely heralded or not."
Yet, he said, these are all examples of what should be considered "secondary greatness." Quoting President Joseph F. Smith, Elder Christofferson defined true greatness as "(doing) well those things which God ordained to be the common lot of all mankind."
Striving to be successful mothers and fathers supersedes the value of being a successful general or statesman, he declared.
"You may readily call to mind persons who have achieved notoriety, but whose life lacked greatness in the fundamentals and was empty, even tragic, as a consequence," he said.
Elder Christofferson shared the example of his grandfather Helge Swenson, who came to America from Sweden at age 11. During much of his youth he worked for and boarded with neighboring farmers since his family was too poor to keep all the children at home. He made his way through life with hard work and eventually raised a family by farming and as a Utah County Agricultural Inspector.
"He was a great man in my eyes because he was a man of integrity, hard work, and deep spirituality, full of love for others and beloved by all. I loved to be around him and aspired to be like him," said Elder Christofferson.
He then recalled a time when his grandfather, while accompanying him to BYU for his first year, commented that had he had educational opportunities like these in his life, he was sure he could really "have amounted to something." Elder Christofferson said the comment surprised him since, in his mind, he hoped someday to amount to something by coming close to his grandfather's level of attainment.
"I am convinced," said Elder Christofferson, "that with his native talent and strong work ethic, he would have been relatively famous and well compensated in life had he been blessed with the same opportunities that I and most of you enjoy.
"Even so, he would not have been a greater man, and his true greatness would still have been rooted in the same qualities of character he already possessed and in the steady discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ that marked his life to the end," he said.
Elder Christofferson shared other examples of what it means to be great by next quoting 1994's BYU commencement speaker Professor John Q. Wilson of UCLA.
Professor Wilson told students that a speech about rising to the highest challenge and pursuing the impossible dream would be "too easy and too empty."
"The easiest thing to do," Professor Wilson is quoted as saying, "is to support great causes, sign stirring petitions, endorse grand philosophies. The hardest thing to do and it's getting harder all the time is to be a good husband or wife, a strong father or mother, an honorable friend and neighbor. The truly good deeds are the small, everyday actions of ordinary life."
Finally, Elder Christofferson shared the story of the "Four Knows."
He related a conversation he had with a Chinese official while working for the Family and Church History Department. The official told a story about one of his ancestors who had served as an officer in one of the Chinese dynasties. The officer was approached for a favor and was offered a bribe. The man offering the bribe argued, "No one will know." The officer replied, "I will know; you will; the earth will know; heaven will know."
The account of his integrity has been honored and passed down through each of the family's generations.
Speaking of the Chinese official's ancestor, Elder Christofferson said, "He may have had notoriety in his own time anciently, but that man's true greatness lies in how his life has influenced his descendants ever since."
In closing, he quoted President Howard W. Hunter as saying, "True greatness is never a result of a chance occurrence or a one-time effort or achievement. It requires a multitude of correct decisions for the everyday choices between good and evil."
The number of degrees conferred during summer commencement ceremonies was up from 2,300 in 2006.
The majority of graduates, 29.7 percent, came from the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences. With regards to gender, slightly more than half (50.5%) were male, with 26.4 being the average age for all graduates.
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