‘Fall forward’

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‘Fall forward’

Chae Byung-gun

The author is an international, diplomatic and security news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
 
 
Denzel Washington, 67, is a well-known Hollywood movie star. On May 16, 2011, he delivered an emotional commencement speech at the at the University of Pennsylvania. The 20-minute address evoked an occasional burst of laughter from the audience at the Ivy League university in Philadelphia. His speech was full of inspiration and motivation for the young graduates.
 
“If you don’t fail, you’re not even trying,” he said. “My wife told me this great expression. To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did.”
 
A commencement speech mostly made by successful pioneers in America, offers colorful — and insightful — pieces of advice deeply rooted in the speakers’ personal experiences to help college graduates navigate a tough world outside. The core message Washington delivered to Penn graduates at the time was “Fall Forward” — even if you fall in the journey — without fearing and frustrating over failures.
 
There was a time in Korea, when the young generation were frustrated by finding jobs and getting marriedm, could help ease their distress with the healing mantra — “It’s not your fault!” A decade has passed since then, yet young people still face an even higher wall and a tougher reality.
 
Washington’s commencement address can offer some guidance to the struggling young generation in Korea, as it demands courage and resilience in an uphill battle against the challenges ahead. “You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it,” he said. “The point is every graduate here today has the training and the talent to succeed. But do you have the guts to fail?”
 
Hollywood actor Denzel Washington. [AP/YONHAP]

Hollywood actor Denzel Washington. [AP/YONHAP]

It could be naïve to praise or beatify an orator after just listening to his or her speech. A professional ghostwriter may have written the text of Washington’s speech at Penn. And yet, his address carries great significance if you take into account the harsh environments a black American has had to face through his career.
 
Skin color still plays a part in determining people’s socio-economic position in American society. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BMS), U.S. jobless rate for the third quarter of this year stood at 5.2 percent. But the figure for black Americans was 8.4 percent, while the number for white Americans was only 4.6 percent. If you narrow the scope to young Americans aged between 20 and 24, the unemployment rate was 8.8 percent. But the figure for black Americans in the same age group soared to 14.3 percent, while the number for white Americans plunged to 7.4 percent.
 
Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the plight of black Americans more closely. In its 2021 survey, 58 percent of all white households had both parents and only 6 percent had single parents. In black American households, however, 33 percent had both parents while 19 percent had single parents. Life expectancy is no different. In 2020, average Americans’ life expectancy was 77.3 years, but black Americans’ life expectancy was only 71.8 years. Black American male life expectancy is lower, at 68 years — even lower than North Korean males’ life expectancy at 68.4 years. Such data are abundant.
 
To the underprivileged group of people in the U.S., the American society is a tough place to survive, not to mention succeed. In an interview, Washington said that if you add the prison terms of his old friends, it would reach approximately 40 years. The street did not leave them alone, he said.
 
The agony of young people should be consoled, but consolation alone cannot change reality. Only when you put that consolation into action, can you change the reality you face.
 
“I found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Nothing … When you leave the friendly confines of Philly, never be discouraged, never hold back, give everything you got. And when you fall throughout life, and maybe even tonight after a few many glasses of champagne, remember this: Fall forward. Congratulations,” said Washington.
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