Good morning graduates and good morning to everyone here to support them.
Those who know me best use a single word to describe me—Dancer. But don’t let my graceful frame and delicate personality fool you; I once struggled with dance.
I could blame my mother who trundled me off to a children’s theatre class that ignored my obvious Nutcracker potential — directing me to flop on the floor with the other 4-6 year olds and “sizzle like bacon”.
I could blame my high school choir director who wrote only four words on my swing choir audition form, “Nice voice, awkward dancer.”
I could certainly have been defeated by shortsighted theatre directors or jealous vocal instructors, but I was determined to use the obstacles they hurled in my path to propel me forward.
That’s how I came to enroll in an undergraduate Social Dance course. Under the watchful gaze of our dance instructor/volleyball coach, Marge, seventeen women and three men twirled around the basketball court every Tuesday and Thursday. Each dance—the tango, the waltz, the fox trot, the hustle—was new, but I persevered and when we reached the final cha-cha of the semester, Marge glided to center court, gathered us close and declared, “I am proud of all of you – you couldn’t all expect to have the natural talent of Patty, but you did your best”. I had had finally received the recognition I deserved.
I share this painful struggle with you so you can recall it when a struggle in your life threatens to overwhelm you. Many of you have overcome significant challenges to get to this graduation day. If your facebook posts are any indication, those challenges are often best expressed through the lyrics of Lady Gaga or Rebecca Black.
One of the many benefits of getting older is realizing that rather than thwarting us, struggle often forms us. I have, on occasion, had an advisee ask me to indicate which of the offered courses are easiest. I am sure none of those advisees are here today—oops—there you are. My response must have sounded like a platitude, “Isn’t that the goal of education, to challenge yourself?”
Ecologist and Marine Conservationist, Carl Safina contends, “Living things need something to push off of. Each of us needs challenges to give us the right shape. The heavenly weightlessness of space weakens the bones of astronauts … to achieve and maintain strength we need to conquer forces that tend to hold us down.”
It is tempting to avoid struggle or grief or ambiguity, but humans were meant to push off. Brain research indicates that our minds develop when we engage struggle.
When I first read theologian Joan Chittister’s sentiments about struggle, I couldn’t make sense of them. She wrote, “You have nothing to offer until you have been broken.” And then I lost my father suddenly when I was 23 years old. Once the crushing grief had passed — I realized I had been broken, but I had something to offer those who were grieving. I had hope for a life after grief.
Many years later a friend of mine lost her husband and I didn’t have the words to comfort her, so I asked my mom how she dealt with the loss of my father. She said, “At first people ask you how you are and you say, ‘I’m okay’ and what you mean is I got out of bed, I cooked a meal, I’m okay. Then one day they ask how you are and you say ‘I’m okay’ and you mean it—you really are okay. It happens all of the sudden after a long time.” My mother was broken when my father died, but she used that struggle to propel herself forward—to earn a bachelors degree and two masters degrees and to offer comfort to friends who are only now experiencing a loss she experienced much too young.
Some of you may be familiar with an NPR segment that used to run every Friday morning called, This I Believe. One of the contributors was Jimmy Liao, the son of Taiwanese immigrants who worked double shifts in a Chinese restaurant to build a life for their children. From the time Jimmy was two years old he and his father would go fishing on Sundays. That time with his father was full of adventure and laughter. But Jimmy’s father had a violent side and would often fly into uncontrolled fits of rage and hit him. As a result, Jimmy was racked with insecurities, but he maintained his love of fishing and studied fish in graduate school. He was studying how fish swim in turbulent water and discovered that rather than struggling against the current they surf on the surface of the water using the current to propel them forward.
Jimmy writes: “I believe I can get around the obstacles in my life not by fighting them, but by yielding to them and pushing off from them. It is what Taoists call Wu Wei, literally: to go with the flow. Now I could take the energy of my father’s violence and move through it, to surge past that turbulence. I could let my father be himself without giving up on myself. This is different from forgiveness. It’s the way I choose to define the events in my life — by my response to them.”
That is what struggle can do for us. Propel us to new understanding or new opportunities or deeper compassion. We are different on the other side of struggle. The world becomes less certain, but once we are “broken” we are able to engage others more authentically.
Of course it is not enough to endure struggle with the hope that we will emerge wiser. We need to engage struggle in a way that allows us to recognize the moments of grace that keep us from retreating until the storm passes.
In recent weeks, for example, the seniors have been a little tense. This is completely understandable, but what words do you think your friends would use to describe your behavior for the past month?
Many of you know that my sister Mary robbed me of the Ivy Day crown when we graduated college. As first runner up I got neither the crown of ivy nor the magnificent corduroy robe.
Am I a hero because I have finally forgiven her? Perhaps. But I have certainly come to a place where I can appreciate her wisdom. One of the things my sister has, on occasion, asked me is, “Who will you be in the middle of the struggle?”
Anyone can be compassionate and open when everything is going smoothly, but who are we when the job is not a dream or the diagnosis is frightening or the relationship is complicated?
Who will you be in the middle of the struggle? What do you need to do to lift your head above the chaos of the moment to witness the suffering of others and reach out with compassion?
Playwright and filmmaker, Howard Zinn, wrote: ”To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness… If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act… And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future.”
I like this senior class and I have been honored to serve as your class sponsor. I claim 14 of you from my LAS classes, 30 of you from the Communication Studies capstone course, 70 of you from my interpersonal communication and public speaking classes and I claim the rest of you because you have served this community generously in your time at NWU.
Despite the theme of my talk, I am confident your lives will be touched with struggle and filled with grace. But I hope each struggle brings you closer to the person you imagine you might be and those who love you know you will be. Surge past the turbulence and harness the energy to act.
My dancing career peaked that cold winter day on the basketball court. Since my dance partner was my best friend Katrina, I learned how to follow and lead. There are no more dance worlds for me to conquer. But I have tried to take the lessons learned on that dance floor to engage all the struggles in my life. I encourage you to do the same. When things seem darkest just imagine me triumphantly cha-cha-ing while the snow whips outside on a cold Western Nebraska night.
Embrace what is next—the successes and the struggles.
Congratulations class of 2011!