Alex DiBlasi ’23
American political icon John Kerry has consistently inspired generations with his optimistic vision for the future. From his military days to his time in public office, his decades of service to this country are unparalleled. I had the honor to sit with Secretary Kerry and discuss topics such as overcoming adversity, civic engagement, and globalism.
Whether it is in the classroom, the sports fields, or college acceptances, a big hurdle for students is overcoming adversity. As you have held many positions in your illustrious lifetime, what was your most challenging moment and how did you overcome it?
“I honestly can’t pick one moment. It’s just impossible to pick one moment. But, I’ve often said that a lot of what I learned in high school really prepared me for dealing with adversity. I mean, you learn adversity; you fail an exam, or you don’t do as well as you wanted. Or you get knocked out on a playing field playing lacrosse or whatever it is, you lose a big game you care about. You learn how to take the knocks of life. You lose a friend at school. Whatever it is, I found that prepared me for a lot of different things. A lot of it is just character and school builds character.
I clearly had moments of adversity when I fought in the war in Vietnam. I had moments of adversity in politics when I was being attacked with a group with what was the original fake news – lies about my life. I lost a race running for President of the United States. That’s not fun. But, you learn that you always have to pick yourself up and go on. I’ve watched people get diverted by adversity and just lose their lives. I basically decided a long time ago I’m never going to let that happen. You pick yourself up, you dust yourself off, and off you go! There’ve been plenty of moments when things didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to and that’s just life.”
A couple of years ago you said, “Teach and serve and heal and give back – that is what makes life worthwhile.” In an era where an unprecedented number of college graduates are flocking to Wall Street for jobs, how would you sway young adults towards the non-profit sector?
“Well, if somebody is hell-bent to go live a life that’s just all about making money, you’re probably not going to be able to dissuade them. But, they learn very quickly that it’s a pretty hollow, empty way to exist. I’ve met an awful lot of people who started out on Wall Street, and within a few years they’re off doing something where they’re earning a minuscule amount of money, but they’re involved with people and they’re making a difference in their community. They love it and their life is fulfilled.
I hope I get a chance to talk with graduates about the kinds of choices that we face and the kinds of problems we are looking at and what happens if we don’t get involved in the world around us, rather than just deciding “I’m going to take care of myself.” I’m going to have five houses, an airplane, a lot of fast cars. Off I go and that’s life. It’s pretty hard to dissuade somebody if that’s where they’re going, but it’s the emptiest life in the world. It will not help us survive and deal with the problems that we face.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it, as long as you do it mindful and are engaged. But unfortunately, I have just met too many people who never get turned on to being involved in the public sector, public community.”
Through all your years in public service, you have always had the world community in mind. Do you think your time at St. Paul’s shaped your position on a global society and if so, how?
“Well, I’m convinced it influenced to some degree. Obviously I was already living abroad. My father was in the Foreign Service and my mother was born abroad, in Paris. The stories of World War II impacted me significantly as a young person, and I was always very conscious of conflict, of global clashes, tension, disruption, and of war. But also, my parents instilled in me just a sense of giving back, or responsibility to the community around you. So, I grew up with that, and St. Paul’s added to it and grew it to a large measure, but that’s not where it began. It really began with my parents, in our family and family ethic.”
What do you think the most challenging issues facing young Americans will be in the next decade, and how should they prepare for them?
“I think this sounds foreboding and maybe a little grandiose, but it’s called survival. I mean, climate change can alter life on this planet in ways that none of us can imagine. It can create conflicts. It can create huge shifts in food production. There’s just a huge level of challenges. 51 percent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the oceans. The oceans are increasingly threatened by pollution, by overfishing, and by acidification, and we don’t even understand the full implications of the acidification component.
So, we are playing Russian roulette with the ecosystem and with our lives. Add to that North Korea, nuclear weapons, AIDS, Ebola, trends boundary diseases that can move around the world, extremism, and cyber warfare as other challenges that we face. There’s big agenda in front of people which they need to begin to deal with.
Now, I’m confident we can solve those problems. The benefit of a good education, the benefit of getting folks on the right track, is that it gives you the sense of responsibility and the discipline to be able to begin to solve some of those problems. We’re solving a lot of problems, even as we’re sitting here citing some big problems. I feel confident about the future because I think human ingenuity and the fundamental creative urges of all human beings is to develop their independence, have their freedom, be safe and secure, and be able to take care of their families. We have organized ourselves pretty effectively around those things here in the United States. We have strong institutions notwithstanding the problems of Congress and other things today. I have faith in those institutions, and I think ultimately we will work through a lot of these difficulties.”
“To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity.” –Douglas Adams