September 7, 2010
Good morning everyone.
Congratulations to the members of the class of 2011, the class of 2012, the class of 2013, and the brand new class of 2014, welcome to the 2010-2011 academic year at MHC. It is an honor for me to teach here, and to offer remarks on behalf of faculty to a group of students so privileged and so wise to study at this pioneering place.
Once again, I would like to say ‘welcome’ to President (and Commissioner) Lynn Pasquerella, who brings a lot of grace and genuine kindness and creative energy on her return to MHC. A quality I most admire about her is her passion for the game of baseball. It is a passion I share.
I have a dear friend whose lifelong intellectual passion is utopia, utopian thought, utopian or communal experiments in various times and places. When I told him in a recent conversation that I was asked to speak at the opening convocation he asked whether I had begun to think about what I wanted to say. Think? Yes. Write? No. I asked him what he thought was appropriate for an occasion such as this.
He said, “Why not talk about disappointment?”
I answered, “Ah. So they won’t ever ask me to speak again, right? This is Convocation, not Graduation. Students aren’t leaving tomorrow in search of jobs that don’t exist. Why disappointment?”
He said, “Because at this time of year, especially for those who are transitioning from home and high school to college, there is so much talk about (capital p) Promise, about beginning and beginning again, and taking the next big steps toward living out one’s dreams, or escaping one’s nightmares. It is a time when there is lots of talk about new selves, new families, new talents, new courage, new confidence, new resolve to put your best self forward, to be trusting and discerning, to listen more and talk less (or talk more and continue to listen as much), or to name your desires and pursue them, make new friends, new orientations about self and world, new newness.
The tendency at a time like this is to launch, full speed, into the seen and unseen worlds of ideas, experiments, expressions. Students look at the curriculum and see what appears to be ANSWERS to the world’s problems, or big fat missing pieces to what’s been puzzling them.
The tendency at a time like this is to imagine there are no limits to individual human imagination and accomplishment; the tendency is to suppose that if there ever is a moment when a break with the past is possible, it is now. The enthusiasm, the neophyte excitement of joining a distinguished tradition of MH women, who quietly and determinedly go about doing wonderful work in the world, this energy encourages a tendency to feel that anything is possible.
The tendency or mood at the beginning of the college years, at the beginning of an academic year, is as though we are already inhabitants of Promised Lands, Utopias, Communal Experiments. Perfect speech, perfect relationships, finally.
Given this tendency, my friend continued, someone should offer a word or two about the inevitable disappointment that comes when we slowly begin to realize that no matter how high we leap, what counts is how sure-footed we are when we come back down. Someone, he thought, should stand against the tide, with both feet calmly on the ground, and spotlight the specter of inevitable disappointment that comes with living in human community, that comes with all the lonely hours of toil trying to improve circumstances for ourselves and our brothers and sisters and failing to do so, sometimes even making matters worse. That seems like a message no one else will give at Convocation if I’m write about what a Convocation is.”
“No one else? You think?” I said. “I guess I’ll have to mention it then.” (And then our conversation moved away from the topic of Convocation…)
My friend has a point.……but I think when rather than talk about the fact of looming disappointment, inevitable as it is, I want to talk about how I learned to respond to the arrival of disappointments. In short, when I was in college I encountered the idea and the practice of responsibility to, using the language of the time, the ultimate concerns of my life. I learned that it was my responsibility to know my own name, what it meant, its place in our world.
One of my mentors, Howard Thurman, was a man born in 1900 in Daytona, Florida and who, after graduating from Morehouse College, entered into Christian ministry. After a decade as Dean of the Marsh Chapel, Boston University, and long before forms of racial segregation in the United States was outlawed by Brown in the 1950s and President Johnson in the 1960s, Thurman left Boston University and moved to San Francisco where he founded—in the mid 1940s—one of the first interracial, interdenominational, multicultural and multiethnic Christian congregations in our country. Thurman authored many books, and as an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr, persuaded Dr. King that Mahatma Gandhi’s practice of nonviolence as a social protest tactic, and to a greater extent as a philosophy, was more consistent with Christian teaching, and would be more effective in the struggle for civil and human rights for the dispossessed in this country. Many either don’t know or have forgotten that Dr. King turned to nonviolence; Thurman was one of those who at a critical juncture argued to King that Americans citizens were (and continue to be, I might add) one of the most heavily armed civilian populations anywhere in the world. To build an authentic democratic community was not possible, Thurman believed, through violence or the threat of violence.
Thurman was also committed to the notion that human improvement happened one-by-one, from the inside out. Fellowship Church under Thurman had a ministry focused on the inward journey. He visited Morehouse almost annually, and he would, at the end of a day of lectures on campus and around the city, sit in the lounge of Thurman Hall and answer students’ questions. If there was a theme that he came back to again and again in those dorm sessions that ran into late evening with Thurman, and into late night after he left, it was that the history of your life, is the only judgment that is passed on your life. He believed that nothing else is relevant, ultimately, and so what you thought of yourself and how you were going about fulfilling your assignment or realizing your dreams—what you made of your choices and the circumstances around you—that’s what you had to answer for. Not the professor’s grade. Not your class rank. Not your resume or rolodex of cell phone numbers. Not even the number of friends you can claim on facebook. All these are signs along the journey, and part of the ordinary assessments we make of our lives. They are markers of the fabric of our lives. But Thurman believed that our ability to reconcile our inner and outer selves to some sense of meaning, wholeness, purpose and fulfillment was a central aim of human striving. The daily work of reconciliation is what he referred to in his insistence that the history of your life is the only judgment that is passed on your life.
Gandhi offered a similar point when asked by a reporter what his central message was. Gandhi said, “Tell them my life is my message.” To send a card is nice. To send flowers even better. Giving a good speech can be inspiring. Adopting policies that expand real human capabilities is good. Holding peace talks can be reassuring. Not spending a lifetime—or a moment—in jail, prison is a good thing. But I think both persons argued that if we don’t speak to each other through or in terms of an integrity in our lives, how will we ever know that human community is possible under this sun?
It was liberating for me to hear this message when I was young because hearing it helped me to escape all the expectations of others, and to throw off the burdens of representation associated with various group affiliations. Hearing this message allowed me to understand human freedom on the inside, and that even if I ended up in prison, a strange human freedom was still available to me.
I didn’t become self-centered, arrogant, irresponsible and unaccountable. Hardly. Rather, I found enough space in my life to figure out what contributions I could make. I felt like I had been told simply to “go, and learn. Find out what your assignment is. Fulfill it.” In beginning my journey of learning in the way I did, I developed a posture of life-long learning that was comfortable for me.
I found other mentors along the way. One became my dearest friend, and though he no longer lives, his influence on my life continues to inspire and sustain me. This friend was also a fan of Howard Thurman, and we travelled together on the inward journey.
The work of your life, then, must be of primary importance to you. These years of practice and preparation are vital years. You are preparing to join a distinguished and proud tradition of MHC women who have served and continue to serve the cause of justice and human improvement in many ways, many places.
You may be surprised to know that for many faculty, the mentoring relationship is one of the most rewarding connections we develop in our professional lives. It is not uncommon to hear a colleague talk about one of her/his students and what they’re doing, although I have to admit that as I age, there’s more than a little uneasiness. Just yesterday a friend and colleague remarked that one of my first year advisees was the daughter of one of his honors thesis students.
I said, “Ouch.”
He said, “Imagine how I feel buddy.”
To meet a young person in the thick of our work, identify a shared interest or value, or encourage a new curiosity, and then see that initial conversation grow into substantial intellectual or artistic work, or to see it propel a student toward a deeper understanding of and appreciation for her own big questions, and to have that student say, one day, “you helped me….” That’s the kind of experience that withstands the tests of time and fading memory. Knowing that you’ve played a constructive role in helping someone along their journey is very satisfying.
Classes begin tomorrow. If you have the courage to grow, to stand before your strengths and your weaknesses and cultivate them, we have the resources and commitment to assist you. We don’t have all the resources available at Hogwarts. We’ll demand a lot more sweat equity. Make your life your message when you come to class tomorrow, and every day thereafter.
And finally, don’t forget the long procession of MHC women who came before and will come after you. While it is our turn to stand in the service of learning, may the words of those who came before us echo throughout these walls, and give us a strong purpose, especially in the hour of disappointment:
“We died, but you who live must do a harder thing than dying is, for you must think…think…We are the ghosts who will drive you on your way.” [paraphrasing Thurman, A Strange Freedom, 233.] Amen.