Commencement Address 2011: Get Engaged, Get Lost, Get Gratitude
President Lee, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished Faculty, Honored Guests, Family and Friends and, most especially, Graduates of the Class of 2011: Thank you for this invitation; I'm delighted to be with you to celebrate your learning.
As we all know, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing... Perhaps you heard about the 1st grader who learned in Sunday school that God created Eve from Adam's ribs? The next week the boy's mom found him lying on the couch, holding his side and looking really distressed. "What's the matter?" his mom asked, "Do you have a side-ache?" "Yeah," he moaned, very close to tears, "I think I'm having a wife!"
Or the two first-graders, twins, a boy and a girl, who did everything together. Their teacher stopped them one day after school and said, "Y'know, you're growing up now; you shouldn't be sleeping in the same room any more." Neither of them said anything, but later the girl whispered to her brother, "I'm sure glad you didn't tell her about Mom and Dad!"
Let's hear it for Moms and Dads. Raise your hands. Really, I think you are the ones who should walk across the stage to pick up that diploma! Thank you for being you. Thank you for all those years of diaper-changing and homework-helping, of driving to Little League games, of fretting over hormones and prom nights, of dreaming and sacrificing, of nail-biting and penny-pinching, that have proceeded this great day. Graduates, you can be rightly proud of your achievement, but you did not do this alone!
So what is an elder like me, even older than your parents (if such a thing be possible), doing here today? And what could I possibly say that would be pertinent to you, the bright, young, energetic graduates of the Class of 2011? For the past few weeks, this had me pretty worried until I realized that no one ever actually listens to commencement speeches! I could stand here and say Blah, Blah, Blah-in a lively, engaging manner, of course, with appropriate hand gestures-and no one would notice anything amiss.
But you! You are on the verge of greatness! Who knows what you will be in life, what you will achieve, what you will be remembered for? Some day you will look back and marvel at the choices you made, the values that motivated you, the people whose lives you influenced, the ways your life on this earth made a difference to others... Perhaps today is just the first of many times you'll have your "15 min of fame." Let me share the aftermath of my 15 minutes of fame:
Back in 2001 I was able to spend a day with the Dalai Lama. Deeply spiritual. Very moving. The front page of the San Jose Mercury News even carried a full-color picture of the Dalai Lama hugging me and draping a Tibetan prayer shawl over me.... So, the next day I'm at a gas station in San Jose. I am still in my "fog of fame;" after filling the tank I drive off without taking the nozzle out from the car. Horrible screech; in the rear-view mirror I see gas spurting all over. I slam on the brakes, panicky. The gas station attendant, a little guy, is bolting from his booth, shouting at me and waving his arms, "WHAT are you doing?!*?" I'm stammering an apology, digging into my purse, trying to pay for whatever damage I've caused. He suddenly freezes, staring at me, "YOU? It's YOU? you touched the Dalai Lama!" and he's bowing to me, over and over, refusing any money....Turns out he's Tibetan; he'd seen my picture. He feels honored that I've come to his gas station! Such a great blessing!.... So, you never know where your 15 minutes of fame will take you!
OK, here comes the part where I share my 3 pearls of wisdom for the rest of your life.
1. GET ENGAGED.
2. GET LOST.
3. GET GRATITUDE.
Let me explain.
First: Get engaged!
Don't worry, parents, this is not a recommendation for immediate marriage. (Your bank accounts need time to recover from student loans!) No, I'm recommending getting engaged in real life, not in your perfect plans for life.
Why do I say that? Because I wasted much of my young adult years trying to be in control. Utterly competent. Unflappable. Nothing fazed me. I taught high school math, where there was just one, or at most two, correct answers to every question. Life was orderly. I had my agenda and stuck to it. I made lists, daily lists of things to accomplish. And at the end of the day, if I hadn't actually finished any of the things on that list, well, before going to sleep I'd grab my pen and write down the stuff that I had done, just so I could then cross them off and get that peculiarly American satisfaction from being productive! Oh yes, I was programmed for success, even as a nun. On top of everything, but not truly immersed in anything.
It wasn't until I fell, almost by chance, into full-time work with refugees, that my carefully constructed competence began to unravel. At first, it was like falling into Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole. You see, there is nothing orderly about refugees' lives: they're deeply scarred by turmoil and violence and fear; they've lost their homes, their families, their jobs, their status in society, their familiar surroundings, their support systems. And when I moved to a Laotian refugee camp on the banks of the Mekong River, I stepped into their world. I didn't know the Lao language or culture; I couldn't handle the simplest of transactions at the market or figure out what I was eating. I was definitely not in control. Amazingly-by the great grace of God--my neurotic need to be in control slipped away and I became more open to the flow of life, including its messiness. That's when I first realized God comes to us in surprises.
When we are open to all kinds of surprises--to interruptions, to setbacks, to unsettling changes-- as well as to unexpected, happy epiphanies, we meet the living God.
In the first refugee camp where I worked, there was a painfully thin young man who earned money by driving a bicycle rickshaw around the camp. The tropical heat in the dusty camp was intense. My friend Bounchanh earned his spare change the hard way, hunched over the handlebars in the shimmery noon heat, sweat dripping off his face, straining to pull the weight behind him as he maneuvered the camp's rutted clay paths. He'd clang his little bicycle bell and wave whenever he saw me. On good days he would earn a few baht.
One morning I met Bounchanh walking toward the barbed wire fence that formed the perimeter of the camp. In the palm of his hand he was holding a small turtle that he had just purchased from the camp's open market with his hard-earned cash. Supposing that he had finally earned enough to treat himself to some fresh turtle soup, I stopped to congratulate him.
"Bounchanh," I said, "that turtle looks like a good meal."
"Oh, no," he laughed, shaking his head. "I am planning to let it go!"
With that, he reached through the barbed wire as far as he could and set the turtle down outside the camp, where Bounchanh himself was not allowed to go. With a contented expression, he watched it mosey slowly away.
"This turtle never hurt anyone," he explained to me. "I want him to live and be free."
Wow. Bounchanh was barely surviving himself, yet he was totally engaged with life at all levels, concerned about the future and the freedom of a tiny turtle. I was stunned. And left wondering how my actions toward others "set them free" -or not.
So GET ENGAGED! Pay attention to what energizes you, captures your imagination, stretches your heart, and go for it! Pour all your creative juices into it; become really expert at something. Find your passion and run with it.
What I'm recommending, of course, is falling in love. When you are in love, you'll try anything, go anywhere, live beyond what you thought yourself capable of. That's why the first formal step to marriage is called engagement. You are drawn out of yourself, no longer focused on yourself; you feel completely alive. Ultimately, to live a fulfilling, meaningful life, you need to fall in love with God and that will plunge you into life. When we are rooted in and swept up by God's love for us-God's unshakeable, unconditional, merciful love for us, we tap into an immense torrent of energy and possibility and hope. We can face any challenge when we stay in touch with the inner divine spark that makes all things possible. You can cure cancer, or compose symphonies, or erase world hunger. You can stand against injustice, signal hope to the poor, be the catalyst that forges global community. Get engaged!
Second: GET LOST!
Not literally "lost," of course. I mean: decide to move beyond the comfort zone where you know everyone and understand everything, where you feel competent, unthreatened. Choose instead to take some risks, to move toward the edges, to experience strangeness now and then. Make friends with someone from another culture. Try to understand your parent's taste in music. If you're a democrat, take a republican to lunch! Make some space for things NOT on your "to do" list. For example: when I was in high school a favorite teacher suggested that I should take an elective in the arts each year. Because I admired her, I signed up for glee club, for modern dance, and for painting--despite having no discernible talent whatsoever in voice, dance or art. It dragged down my GPA a bit, but opened up a lifelong appreciation for the arts that this diehard math major might never otherwise have discovered.
Go beyond borders. Flirt with "otherness." Especially because that's where you are most likely to meet God--in experiences that are different. In strangers. In surprising encounters. Untold blessings come your way when you do this....
One day in Thailand the elder nun in our little convent on the bank of the Mekong, turned to me casually as we were sharing a meal together, using our fingers to pull steamed sticky rice from a common basket, rolling it into little balls between our fingers and dipping them into fish sauce.
"I have heard," she began politely, "that in America, it is one person, one room; one person, one plate. Is that true?"
Supposing this to be a complimentary reference to America's high standard of living, I smiled and nodded, "Yes, it is for the most part true."
Her questioning gaze faded to puzzlement as she weighed the cultural poverty of my response. Slowly shaking her head, she sighed out loud, "Aaah, but why would anyone want to live like that?"
Why, indeed? Why do I, as an American, choose independence rather than interdependence? Why do I feel that progress means having one of everything for myself, instead of sharing with the world? I couldn't even SEE how I was living until I got temporarily lost in another culture.
For me, GETTING LOST has meant a lifetime spent in refugee camps with displaced people. For you it will be in other ways. The place doesn't matter. Your openness does! God is always popping in and out of our lives, but in hidden ways. God shows up as the gardener to Mary Magdalene, as a traveler on the road to the disciples going to Emmaus, as a fisherman to Peter and James. Here's the catch: God is good at disguises; no one ever recognizes God! Jesus gave us some pretty good clues, promising that we would meet God when we welcomed strangers, especially the poor, because that is where God chooses to hang out.
Opening doors, taking risks, getting lost a bit into what is OTHER than ourselves-that's our best chance of encountering God. Wouldn't it be great to live every minute of every day expecting to meet a blessing just around the corner? We could live with a crazy wonderful sense of expectation: is God right here, in the person sitting next to me? In the clerk at the grocery store? Yes! Even (or perhaps especially) in the very people we tend to ignore or dismiss. God hides there, waiting to be recognized.
On a recent trip to South Sudan, I went to Juba--a hot, dusty, ramshackle town along the Nile River, without paved roads, running water, garbage pick-up, or any of the amenities that make life bearable. It was 6:00 pm, beastly hot, and I was standing on a dirt road outside the Bedouin Bar waiting for a colleague. I was wearing a large floppy straw hat and big sunglasses against the heat and glare. I was drenched in sweat. Occasionally a vehicle would drive by, sending up huge clouds of red dust. After 10 minutes I was caked with dust and sweat. Another car drove past. Thirty yards past me it suddenly braked, shifted into reverse, and backed up next to me. The driver, a large burly African, rolled down the window, leaned out and said, "I KNOW YOU!" Really? I had no idea who he was. "Where would we have met?" "1998. Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. You were there!" [Yes, for 10 days, 12 yrs ago...] "Yes, I was," I said, "but what is your name?" "I'm John!" he said. Oh great, I thought, but then a name jumped out of the distant past: "John Bullen Alier?" "YES!" he said, jumping out of the car and lifting me off the ground in a huge bear hug.
"Oh this is a miracle; this is a miracle: I've been looking for you for 12 years!"
How did you ever recognize me? I'm an old lady now; I'm wearing dark glasses and a big hat; it's 12 yrs later and we're in another country... "Oh I would never forget your kindness or your face." Believe me, this is not a story about my kindness or my face. It's a story about John's engagement with life-his living every day with a kind of holy expectation that he would find a blessing. He's an interpreter now for the UN. He told me that wherever he traveled: down to Nairobi or Kampala, over to Rumbek or Khartoum or Juba or Narus, he was ALWAYS LOOKING for me. He'd ask people he met on the street: do you know Sr. Marilyn? [Of course, no one did.] He knew I lived in America, but he believed that some day he would meet me again. Now, the reason I didn't recognize him? When we'd met in 1998, John had been a 14 yr old boy. We'd spent only 1 hour together in Kakuma Refugee Camp. I'd asked him about his life, how he came to be a refugee, where were his parents, what were his dreams for the future... I had engaged with his life, ever so briefly, allowed myself to get lost in his world, ever so briefly. Life-changing joy ensued for both of us.
The Sufi poet Hafiz sums up this willingness to be lost, to lose oneself, in order to truly engage in life:
I long for You so much
I have even begun to travel
Where I've never been before.
So, go beyond your safety zones! Move across personal borders, cultural borders, geographic borders. Get lost! Live with joyous expectation of what's around the next corner, especially if it surprises or stretches you...
Lastly - GET GRATITUDE
Did you know that it is actually impossible to be grateful and unhappy at the same time? I'm indebted to Bro. David Stendlrast for that insight. Don't take my word for it: try it. Try giving thanks for everything that comes your way-everything: the heartaches as well as the triumphs, the setbacks as well as the successes. The choice is yours: Unhappiness. Gratitude. You pick! Feel free to choose unhappiness (lots of people do), but personally, I recommend gratitude. Here are two short stories about gratitude, both from refugees.
Tenneh is a 43 yr old refugee from West Africa who has never had a single day of formal education. During the civil war in Liberia, she was separated from her husband and all of her children except the youngest, a 6-yr old son. After dodging rebel armies and living months in the bush, she and her son finally made it to a refugee camp. Then one morning, while walking across the camp to school, Tenneh's young son was shot and killed by a random bullet. Tenneh told me she nearly gave up, but she kept on in the hope of some day finding the missing members of her family. Eventually the US gov't selected her for resettlement in America. She was put on a plane, alone, and traveled halfway around the world to begin life over, in a strange new country where she knew no one. That's courage. That's a willingness to get lost!
Tenneh arrived to San Jose, where I was managing the refugee resettlement office for Catholic Charities. The caseworker met her at the airport late at night and drove her to our transitional housing and gave her a backpack of small items and a box of non-perishable food to tide her over until the next day when we would take her shopping. That next morning I went to the transitional house to welcome her. She was sitting on the floor of the living room, beside the box of food. She did not hear me, so I stood at the doorway and watched for a moment as Tenneh slowly lifted a loaf of bread out of the box and held it up to the light from the window, gazing at it and turning it around. She placed it back into the box as gently as if it were a newborn. Then she picked up a can of vegetables, and did the same thing, looking at it with wonder as she twisted it around. She could not read the label; she was simply admiring the can. When she noticed me standing there, she smiled a huge smile and said, "Oh! Plenty food. Plenty food!" I almost cried, because I can assure you I have never been radiant with gratitude for a can of string beans.
Refugees know that everything is a gift. They have lost so much. Just being alive is a gift. Having a friend is a gift. Having a loaf of bread is a gift. Tenneh brims with gratitude, and despite all her losses, she is happy.
The last story is about Jules, a student in Cameroon, W. Africa, who got involved in a student movement protesting the lack of textbooks and competent teachers at his university. The president of Cameroon was not amused; he rounded up all the protesters and threw them in prison. There Jules was tortured, beaten so severely that one leg was crushed and never healed properly. Eventually he escaped to a neighboring country and was later selected by the US gov't for resettlement in Calif. When I met him he was 23, always in pain, limping noticeably, yet he was upbeat all the time. One day I asked, "Jules, don't you hate the people who did this to you?" He seemed surprised by my question. "No," he said, "why would I hate them? They were not their best selves when they did this to me." Not their best selves. Wow. Jules had forgiven his torturers. He was grateful to be alive, grateful to be safe, grateful for the chance to work and perhaps resume his studies to become a biochemist. He's a happy guy. Remember, it is simply not possible to be grateful and unhappy at the same time. The choice is clear. GET GRATITUDE into your life. Practice it. Start today. Be thankful, even for string beans.
So, graduates, wherever you are headed after this wonderful day, choose to get engaged, to get lost, and to get gratitude. These are the secrets to inexplicable, persistent, surprising joy. That is my prayer for you, and our messed-up world is counting on you. Let's meet again in 30 or 40 years, so you can tell me how you got engaged with life, where you found God by a willingness to get lost in what was different from yourself, and when you first noticed that the habit of gratitude had transformed you into a deeply attractive, joyous person.
Again: Congratulations. Blessings abound!
-Sister Marilyn Lacey, RSM