The Day Mahatma Gandhi Threw His Sandal Off a Train

Matthew Bedford via
Matthew Bedford via

Last year, I featured excerpts from several college commencement speeches. This year, I’m focusing on one. It’s a speech by a U.S. senator from my home state, Cory Booker of New Jersey, given to the graduating class at the University of Pennsylvania last month. Booker is an excellent storyteller and he kicked off his speech with a fascinating anecdote about Mahatma Gandhi that I’ll paraphrase below.

Mahatma Gandhi had a busy schedule and was often rushing from place to place. One day he was literally running late for a train. He ran down the tracks as the train was leaving the station and leapt into the third-class section that he normally travelled in. People were there to grab him and help him aboard, but as they did one of his sandals fell off. Everybody watched with disappointment as the train pulled away. Gandhi had lost a sandal. 

Before anyone could react, Gandhi reached down quickly, grabbed his other sandal and threw it out the train door onto the tracks. People were curious as to why he had done this and asked, “Mahatma, why would you throw your other sandal out there?” He was both confused and bemused by the question and answered, “I threw the other sandal because whoever finds that first sandal, wouldn’t it be nice if they found the other one as well?”

This is an example of what Booker calls “creative compassion”, an ability to find ways to help others that might not be quite so obvious. It’s part of his belief that if we use our imagination, we all have ways to make a difference in the everyday lives of those we encounter. To illustrate this point, here are five key points from Booker’s speech that encapsulate his main message.

  • How we live our days, is how we live our lives. And as we’re chasing after our destinations, our goals and our dreams, it’s actually the small things we do every single day that define us.
  • The biggest thing you can do in a given day is really just a small act of kindness, of decency, of love, an exhibition of moral imagination, or creative compassion. Do we miss opportunities every single day with just the people around us?
  • Our real power is not necessarily to change the world, but to make a world of change to the people we encounter every day, a smile, a kind word, finding a way to throw a sandal onto the track—that is the power we have today and every day.
  • Life is not about celebrity, it’s about significance; life is not about popularity, it’s about purpose.
  • In the words of Desmond Tutu, “Do a little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good, put together, that overwhelm the world.”

Booker closed his speech by talking about one of his mentors, a public housing advocate named Frank Johnson. Johnson spent decades helping those in need in his home city of Newark, New Jersey, and by the end of his life he was totally blind. When Booker would encounter Frank, they would exchange a greeting: “I see you. I love you.” He worked this expression into his parting words to the class of 2017:

You’re going to go out for the big challenges, the big fights. I see you, I love you. You’re going to have tough days, you’re going to fall, you’re going to fail but I see you and I love you. May your vision and your love not just change the world but make a world of change for everyone that you can. God bless you.

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