Washinton & Jefferson Baccalaureate Address
We must begin by giving thanks for the support of your families through these years. We give thanks for the years you graduates have spent here, for what you have learned and the myriad new experiences you have had, for the relationships you have built with other students and faculty and staff. If this community has done its work, you are leaving here much changed – transformed, even. Life is about ongoing transformation, from its very beginnings, through the rapid growth of childhood, maturing into the fine young adults you are, and, God willing, for decades beyond. A sage once said that the day we stop learning – and being transformed – is the day we begin to die. This may be the last opportunity you’ll have for a long time to be a free-range learner.
That doesn’t mean you have to stop, but you will have to be intentional. At the end of 9th grade my Latin teacher gave me a Greek grammar because I’d asked if he would teach me. It took me 15 years to get around to pursuing it, but he inscribed a message that helped keep that dream alive: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Learning and exploring are key to transformation – of ourselves and of the world around us. Focusing our attention and energy begins that process, whether it is the toddler who wants to taste every object within his reach or the polymath who wants to taste the world with her mind.
Where will you turn your attention? What will you live for, and what will you seek to transform? That vision, urge, lure, or passion is your unique gift. It should begin to answer those ancient questions about why we’re here, our reason for living, and the meaning of existence. Will you – literally or metaphorically – climb Himalayan peaks, descend into ocean trenches, plumb the depths of cellular mysteries, pursue an end to HIV, end poverty, or solve an ancient mathematical conundrum? Your wonder and curiosity are already shaping your adventure. What lies urgently before you, what is calling to you out of the misty future, what’s luring you toward greater being?
There are myriad worthy answers to those questions, and it is our life’s task to find answers that meld our inner leadings and the gifts of our created nature. There are also other ancient answers that can soon prove deadly. Discerning the difference is quite literally vital. We can go after riches or control or leisure as ends in themselves, but we are likely to discover that those ends only end in using others as instruments and commodities, and ultimately destroy our own humanity. If we choose adventures that draw in others to build stronger and more fruitful communities, we will find life expanded in the process. Our task is to give ourselves away – when we do, we will find that we receive more than we have given.
We discover the meaning of our lives in a variety of ways. Alexander Papaderos was a child in Crete during WWII, and by the age of 10 was working with the Resistance. One day a German motorcycle crashed in front of his house. After the soldier was taken away, the boy found a piece of the broken side mirror and put it in his pocket. He kept playing with it, and discovered that he could reflect sunlight into holes and under rocks to expunge the shadows. As he grew up, he began to understand that shining light in dark places was the passion that drove him and gave meaning to his life. The institutions he founded and the relationships he built focused on peace-making between peoples and nations (Greece, Crete, and Germany), helping human beings find right relationships with the earth (agricultural reform, spirituality and ecology), and teaching those skills to young people.
The passions that drive our lives come in an amazing diversity of forms. The creative and life-giving ones are almost always turned outward to serve others. The reading we heard from Luke reflects the driving passion of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s his mission statement – ‘I came to bring good news and encourage the poor, to set prisoners free, and heal the blind,’ he says, ‘and to share God’s dream for us all.’ He claimed this ancient dream that Hebrew prophets had been announcing for centuries – a dream for a healed world where people live together in peace because there is justice. In that interdependent community no one goes hungry, people live out their full lives without violence and war, children play freely in the streets, there’s no need for prisons or reason to steal, because every person has the basic necessities of life and enough left over for feasting and celebration. It’s a passionate vision of earthly justice, where human beings live in right relationship with one another and the earth.
Passion has two faces, both stemming from its root meaning of suffering. The more familiar one is about the fierce energy that drives us toward one another, sometimes aided and abetted by hormones! Most of us have experienced that kind of passion, where suffering has most to do with separation from our heart’s desire. Passion is the deep yearning rooted in human need for connection, meaning, and relationship. Our lives are incomplete if we exist in isolation; infants waste away without human contact; and prisoners subjected to solitary confinement begin to suffer emotional trauma and mental illness. Isolation quite literally dehumanizes, for we are made for relationship. The constructive passions that drive our lives draw on that energy to build deeper connections and stronger communities.
The other side of passion speaks to the cost of relationship. Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, tortured, and executed by the Roman Empire for the dream he espoused, and encouraging people to change the injustice around them. He was promoting a revolutionary turnaround, though not a violent one. The painful and deadly response to his leadership is called his Passion. That kind of opposition and imposed suffering comes to many with deeply held dreams, for the cost of achieving a vision always involves transformation. Something must die or be lost in order for the new to grow.
Find your passion, and keep exploring, for the dream you have now may not be as full or abundant as the version you will see down the road. Be open to those changes, even if they are profoundly painful. Deeper meaning and significance come with growth and transformation, which usually requires some dying. When I was launching into the world as you are, I was bound for graduate school in oceanography. Eight years later, I had a Ph.D. and a post-doctoral fellowship. By the time it ended, there were almost no jobs or research funds in my field. For several years, it seemed the dream was lost. But other people helped reflect light into the darkness of that loss, and eventually I found the dream transformed – to a different sort of fishing and exploring – and discovered that what I’d learned could be useful in new contexts. Passions may seem to die, but their energy can be transmuted if we’re patient – i.e., willing to suffer.
Keep exploring and examining your interior life and the life of the world around you. What is life-giving, and where are you being drawn? Follow that, and let go of the idea that the road will always run straight for a lifetime. Be prepared for detours and new discoveries.
Keep tuning your passion to sing with the dreams of others. Let go of any sense that achievement or success depend on you alone, for we are all in this together. When one human being flourishes, we are all uplifted; when one suffers, we are all diminished.
Shine your light into the shadows, and live to serve that greater whole. Do your part for justice, however large or small a part you think it is, and dream of a world where all humanity and all creation live together in peace. Passion for that vision will get you into trouble, but it is most definitely the right kind of trouble. Nothing else is truly worthy of our lives, and there will be no true joy without that passion. We’re meant to spend ourselves, and be a bit reckless about it. Be of good courage, lean on your friends, and celebrate with joy when passion calls. Live with passion – and rejoice. That is what it means to be fully alive!