Words That Can Make the Difference

By Dr. Jehan Sadat
Condensed from the Philippine Star

This is a commencement address delivered at the University of Maryland and reprinted in the column of Mrs. Arabella H. Driscoll of the Philippine Star. Mrs. Sadat was the wife of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt.

I will never forget the first thing I learned from Anwar Sadat, because it may have been the most important thing he ever taught me. It was many years ago, so long ago in fact, that it was before he was even my husband. It was when he was to meet my mother for the very first time.

You must understand that I was born of a mixed marriage - my mother was English and my father was Egyptian. And like many other English women of that time, my mother, who was a teacher all her life, worshipped Winston Churchill, whom she believed to be the greatest living English statesman.

You may not remember that from 1882 until 1952, Egypt was, for all intents and purposes, a British colony, controlled by British interests.

And so that first meeting between my mother and the man who was to become my husband went smoothly enough, until my mother got around to asking Anwar, "So, what do you think about Winston Churchill?" My husband did not pause for a moment. "Madame," he said, "I think he is a thief."

Well, as you can imagine, that was about the end of the meeting, and it was nearly the end of the marriage. I was distraught. Several days later, I called Anwar and asked him why - why did he have to tell my mother what he really thought about Churchill. Why couldn't he just have lied? Anwar said to me, "I will never lie in that way. I will never pretend to feelings and loyalties that are against all I believe."

That day I learned something, not just about my husband, but about what was important - what was truly important - in life.

Beware of common sense. For you see, any one with common sense would have told my husband, you can't say that Winston Churchill is a thief and still expect to marry this young girl that you love. But he said, yes I can - I can speak the truth as I understand it and still win the respect and admiration, even of those who disagree. He said yes I can - and he did.

Now it is nearly 16 years since the Camp David accords, and today we are seeing the Palestinians and the Israelis at last in pursuit of peace. Many people around Arafat said, you cannot make peace with the Israelis. But he said yes I can go to Jerusalem, and he did.

And in 1978, when my husband and the Israeli prime minister were here in Maryland, at Camp David, trying to find a way to make a permanent and lasting peace, many advisors and people around Prime Minister Begin said you cannot agree to this treaty. But Prime Minister Begin said, "Yes, I can make peace with those who were once our enemies." And he did.

And two years ago, when Israel and the PLO first began to talk to one another, there were many, many voices on both sides that said, you cannot do this, you cannot talk to our enemies, to those we hate. But Arafat and Rabin said, yes we can talk, we can begin to learn to live together.

And for decades in South Africa, many voices spoke to Nelson Mandela, saying, you cannot hope to have free and fair elections or share power with the whites, we must rise up and kill them all. But Mandela said, yes we can bring about change, we can end apartheid by the ballot, not the bullet. And he has.

So much common sense said all these things were impossible. So many facts and figures and statistics said it could never be so. Do not trust the common sense that says differences are irreconcilable and peace is impossible. When your heart and your spirit and your soul tell you there is a better way, listen to them. There is. It has been said that we live in an age awash in knowledge, but bereft of wisdom. Perhaps this is so.

The computer that sits on your desk today can hold more information than the fabled library of Alexandria, the greatest repository of knowledge in the ancient world. But surely we cannot believe that someone who simply buys a computer thereby gains the wisdom of Socrates, the sagacity of Maimonides, the insight of Al-Kindi.

All the knowledge you have worked so hard to gather does not necessarily make you wise. Knowledge and wisdom are separate and distinct; never confuse the two. Knowledge can be had by any fool; wisdom comes only to those humble enough to be willing to admit all that they do not know.

Knowledge tells us anything can be had for a price. Wisdom teaches us that if the price is loss of honesty, integrity and self-respect, then the thing may not be worth having.

Knowledge tells us that we must first learn to love ourselves, before we can learn to love others. Wisdom tells us that self-love can easily turn into a lifetime occupation, and only by giving to others do we eventually receive ourselves.

Knowledge tells us that power and military forces are indisputable, and that he with the most guns and the biggest armies must invariably win. Wisdom teaches us that all the guns and armies of the world cannot stop an individual with an idea whose time has come.

And so my friends, as you go through life, let this be a warning to you. From this day forth you will meet many knowledgeable people. They will tell you that it's impossible, that it can't be done. Do not believe them if your heart tells you otherwise.

I invite you to remember a story from my own culture, a story so right, and true and correct that it has become a maxim here in your own land: If the prophet cannot go to the mountain, then the mountain will go to the prophet. There is a way. There is always a way for love, dignity, honor and peace.

My husband knew that peace was the way, and he decided that if peace would not come to him, then he would go to peace. Many around him said that it could not be done, and both he and I knew from the beginning that he might pay a terrible price for what he did. But he knew as well, that he had to do it.

And now, 16 years later, the peace that my husband gave his life for is still here, and those who said, for so long and so loud, that it cannot be done, that it was impossible, those names have faded into obscurity.

My dear fellow students in life, my respected colleagues in learning (for let me be the first to address you so):

Each of you, in the lives that now stretch out before you, will face a similar moment of truth. It may not be as big, or as public, or involve the destiny of nations or fate of millions. But it will be no less important.

Earlier, I said there were just three words I wished to tell you today. Those three words that can change the world. Those three words are: yes, I can.

All the knowledge in the world may tell you otherwise. There will be those who doubt, those who say it cannot be done, those who may even threaten to kill you if you dare to attempt it. But never forget those three words: yes, I can. They are immensely powerful. They will bring you to the mountain to you.

My mother would be immensely happy this afternoon, because I will leave you with the words of her hero, Sir Winston Churchill. "Courage is the greatest virtue, for without the courage of your convictions, all the other virtues are meaningless."

And my mother would be immensely proud this afternoon, not just for me, but of my husband as well, a man who had the courage in his life to say, "Yes, I can."