Johnson: ‘The Heart is the Essence of Our Being’

May 16, 2005

Sheila Crump Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and owner of Salamander Farm in Middleburg, Va, delivered the keynote address at Mary Baldwin University’s 163rd Commencement ceremony May 15. The following is the text of her speech:

I want to begin with heartfelt thanks to all of the graduating students, parents, faculty and administration for inviting me to join you at such an important moment in your lives. It is a privilege to have been asked to speak, and I am grateful to all the members of the graduating class of 2005 as well as the faculty, staff and administration. I particularly want to thank President Fox. I know she is extremely dedicated to providing every student of Mary Baldwin all that they need for success in life, and so I recognize this not only as an wonderful opportunity to speak but also an amazing honor to address some of this nation’s best and brightest minds.

Shelia Crump Johnson, Commencement speakerI have taken this responsibility of addressing you very seriously. From all the many topics and issues that we face in the world today I felt the most appropriate address would be to simply speak from my heart to yours. I have learned in life that the heart is the essence of our being and it is my sincere hope that my remarks today will strengthen your hearts during this exciting time of transition in your lives.

In the various languages that evolved from Latin there is a direct line from the words for heart, such as “corazon” to such English words as “core” and “courage”. Courage is what comes from the core of our being and allows us to live our lives fulfilling dreams and purposes. I don’t know all the answers to the many questions that you might be having about the road ahead of you. But I do know from experience that you have to trust yourself and your vision in all that you do. I know that our spirits are the most powerful forces on this planet, and by nurturing and trusting our “selves” we can overcome all the obstacles that stand in our way during the course of our lifetimes.

For the past several years I have been working to build a dream. My most recent project, Salamander Resort and Spa, is a vision that I hope will become a regional, national and international destination. It will have ultra luxurious guest rooms, marvelous dining experiences, a world-class spa, horseback riding and high-end conference facilities. I am so excited about this project and feel like it will not only be a dream come true, but also an asset to the community of Middleburg,Virginia. Middleburg is a small town in Loudoun County, Virginia that has been my home for 10 years. I’ve come to love the community and am confident that the project I am working on will help the town grow in a positive direction. Unfortunately, my ideas to help the town are not shared by some of my neighbors. There are questions about how the plans for the resort will affect the town’s water and I am working with the town to find the best solution.

As the debate continues, the criticisms have become increasingly personal. Where my supporters have called me a catalyst for positive growth in the community, some of my critics have likened me to a pest. Bumper stickers have also been printed and placed on cars in town that read “Don’t B.E.T. Middleburg.” Comments have become blatantly racial, and are not only directed at myself, but my family as well. Even my children have been threatened by local environmentalists who oppose the construction of the Salamander Resort and Spa.

It has truly been one of the most difficult times in my life. But I’ve learned through my career that regardless of where you go and what you do, you are always going to have critics. I have gained a working knowledge of adversity, and have learned to appreciate moments where my inner strength is tested. These moments have allowed me to strengthen my character, and adversity has become like pumping iron for the soul. Over the years I’ve developed not only a thicker skin but a more resilient and stronger spirit. I’ve learned that if it’s your passion, you have to follow your dreams. Otherwise, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.

I recount this most recent story to tell you that adversity will present itself throughout your life. Although I graduated from the University of Illinois 20 years ago, I am still experiencing adversity while pursuing my dreams. But I wouldn’t change any of my life’s experiences for anything the world –even the tough times. Life has provided me a tremendous education. I’ve learned so much and I feel stronger than ever.

Be confident in your vision and never lose sight of what is truly important. Always remember that an extraordinary life will never fit in a shopping cart. As a consumer society we are continually told that bigger and better things will bring fulfillment to our lives. However, when it is all said and done it is people’s possessions that possess them. There is an old gospel song that goes, “ ? they got what they wanted, but they lost what they had.” Use your finances to realize a greater vision and, whatever path you take, do not lose your dream to the pursuit of obtaining the next big thing. Your success in life should not be based on your financial status or who you know. Success in life should never be based on how many people you had to step on to the climb the corporate ladder, or you may realize after you’ve reached your goal you’re still not satisfied and want more.

As young people, you have spent your time at college developing your mind and putting yourself in a position to reach for success. I am here to tell you that your definition of success should be vast. It should have enough depth and dimension to include not only high salaries and prized possessions but good character as well. And in pursuit of success, however you define it, your connection to your own heart cannot be taken for granted. It must be believed in, it must be nurtured and constantly consulted each time the story of your life involves a tough problem to tackle or a painful choice to make because in this life, you cannot ask for a better guide.

Be confident in your vision and never forget your legacy. Not only the legacy you will leave behind, but also the legacy that you are coming from. Recognize those heroes among the familiar people in your own lives. Think about family members, friends, neighbors, teachers and coaches who have been a positive force for your spirit. Remember those people who are critical to your makeup, and the qualities within each of them that you admire. As we go through life we must perpetuate those attributes bestowed on us and serve as positive role models for the next generation. I am sure that each and every parent here today is proud of you in all your achievements. To see you wonderful young people getting ready to embark on another chapter of your lives is exciting. Graduates, your parents have given you two great gifts – strength and courage. Have the confidence that you will now go forward to do your best, utilizing WHAT they have given you, and what this college has given you, mixed with the strength of personality and your own spirit.

As you take this next step in your life, be confident in yourself and gather all of your courage. Always live up to the highest sense of purpose within you, and have the courage to challenge established ideas, including your own. Never assume it will be an easy road, and be ready to accept defeats without giving up or losing your vision, and caring about people. Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world. You must learn to face your challenges in life head on, and not allow anything or anyone distract you from your goal. There will be times when you will have some difficulties in your life, and things will seem a little fuzzy, but don’t give up and run from it. Face it head on, and do not allow anything or anyone distract you from your goal. There will be times when you will have some difficulties in your life, and things will seem a little unsettling, but don’t give up and run from it. Imagine the eagle and know that EVERY challenge will become a great victory.

In Don Miguel Ruiz’s Book The Four Agreements I’ve found important values to live by:

  1. Be impeccable with your word. Always speak with integrity. Say only what you mean.
  2. Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. They are responsible for their own actions.
  3. Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and express what you really want.
  4. Always do your best.

I want each and every one of you to embrace life and explore all it has to offer. Take responsibility for your own life, and don’t let anyone control your spirit. Learn to be resilient so that you are able to deal with life’s disappointments no matter how large or small. Feel free to live well, and draw on the love of those around you, and learn to give back.

Never in the history of this great country have we needed creative people more than we do today. We have problems that need creative solutions. We need new ideas, innovation and rigorous intellectual exchanges. We must understand the responsibility and the insurmountable work that lies ahead once you leave this great institution. It is up to you, and other graduates across this great nation, to somehow make it all work. Everyone here, professors and parents have the confidence in you that you can do all these things. Have faith – faith looks back and draws courage. Have hope – hope looks ahead and keeps desire alive.

Remember that your spirit is made of a remarkable material -capable of incredible strength and resiliency. The jury is still out on how you will continue into this next phase of your life. But as you persevere – promise yourselves that you will never lose sight of your passion, your vision or who you are. Because when it is all said and done no one, no one, can build your dream but you. Discover your brilliance and passion in life. Follow your heart, and everyday say to yourself, “I know who I am?.”

To read more about Sheila Crump Johnson, use this link to an Mary Baldwin News story about her: