Below and on the following page are the primary addresses given at the University's 1996 Baccalaureate Service held Monday, May 20, in Irvine Auditorium.
A Baccalaureate, by definition, is a farewell sermon to a graduating class. Coming as I do from an African heritage, I would rather like to think of it as a "rite of passage." Passage not only from one status in life to another, but passage from one context of life to another. Passage from the largely, though not entirely theoretical and logicladen environment of academia into the complex, politic mainstream of our culture and society where theory comes hard up against practicality and pragmatism and where often it is in conflict with the basic human concept of hope.
Much of our society is filled with a sense of sentiment and nostalgia. Many long to recall and celebrate the past. But as many call for a return to some real or imagined "good old days," let us be mindful of the admonition found in James Russell Lowell's familiar poem: "New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upward, still and onward; who would keep abreast of truth." And if, indeed, your years of study here are to take on real meaning, you must keep abreast of the truth of our times and the reality into which you are moving.
We know this is a time of crises, a time of transition, a time of disease. Our cities and the institutions of the city are in disarray, discontinuity and despair and there are few voices to speak the reproving love for the city expressed by the Prophet Jeremiah: "Seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."
For many this is a time of hopelessness and despair. Signs of hopelessness are all around us. They can be found in thousands of day-to-day situations which many of us encounter in our cities, suburbs and rural communities as well including grim unemployment statistics, violence in the streets and in our homes, and the specter of the continuing AIDS epidemic, to cite but a few.
Moreover, the proliferation of movements for change and respect have tended to create a very confusing picture of conflicting rights, interests and limits of individual freedom and communal responsibility. This can be seen in many arenas such as special education, welfare reform, the rights of gay and lesbian employees, domestic partner benefits and the like. While all of these struggles are important to the persons affected, and in most instances worthy of concern by the society in general, the cumulative effect has been to diminish society's capacity to be inclusive and to diminish its resources to respond significantly. The resulting backlash has created a "me first" attitude and has fueled a renewed social Darwinism among those who would remove the state from providing any rights or resources to any special interest group. The net result has been a loss of any sense of common wealth and a loss of consensus regarding priorities of need and response.
The continuing national debate on health care and welfare reform as opposed to rights of children, looms large before us this year. Homelessness has became institutionalized, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened, thirty (30) percent of all children born today are to single mothers, and, indeed, the second fastest growing industry after health care is the prison/security profession.
Meanwhile, race relations, an they have been commonly understood in this society, have been complicated by the increasing diversity of language and ethnic groups vying for respect and inclusion. At the same time the highest unemployment rates continue to be among Afri-canAmericans. This economic reality, when coupled with the deterioration of many of our urban centers and the rising concern surrounding gang violence and Black on Black crime causes many to wonder whether the Black community is not worse off today than in 1964 when Dr. King received his Nobel prize.
Such is the picture as we are poised on the brink of the 21st century. We seem set upon a course of disaster and destruction and there are few soul cheering rays of the sun of rationality. It would seem to be a time of hopelessness.
Yet it is when the signs of hope are least likely that we must hope more. We are called to hope in a time of hopelessness. Moreover, we are called upon to act on that hope and to use our resources, both material and human, to use our gifts and abilities, intellectual, spiritual and physical, to turn the tide of dismay into an audacious river of promise.
What are some signs that hope can breathe again in the land? Signs of hope may well begin with the sense that we are called to be and to do more than that to which we may have initially aspired. Some sense an incompleteness in their lives, an alienation, a recognition that old ways of doing things no longer work or no longer give meaning or provide fulfillment. Even though well clothed, well fed, well housed, well educated and surrounded by others who enjoy the same status and the same amenities, there remains an emptiness, a hunger, a thirst, a longing after something elsewhat that something else is may not always be clear at first.
But it is this new awareness, this beginning recognition that "time makes ancient good uncouth" that can give us a new sense of the interdependent nature of our relationship to others who are less well clothed, less well fed, less well housed, less well educated (if at all) and surrounded by others who suffer the same lack of status and amenities. And it is on this new sense we are called to act. It is then we must seize the time and embrace a new dimension in our livesthe opportunity for service to and on behalf of others.
Hope can be found among those in organized religion and in the society who have come to recognize that we must unhinge the prevailing idea and the popular idolatry that the American dream and religious teaching are synonymous. For, in truth, that dream is nightmare to some and hallucination or fantasy for others.
Our religious traditions, at best, try very hard to make life better, while the people cry that life needs to be changed, transformed. Religions related to a culture of power seek to lessen the burdens of the poor while the poor desire full release from poverty. Making the penal system more humane may seem to be a worthwhile and spiritually oriented goal, but the prisoner longs for release from captivityall of the captivities that have brought about the physical one. Those whose religion is the status quo want to minister to the helpless, but the helpless long to be self-sufficient.
Hope can be found among intelligent, sensitive and responsible persons such as yourselves, who are being asked and who are willing to join a struggle in progress. Persons willing to join the struggle where it is on the side of the poor and the oppressed; willing to stand alongside of them as advocates and to work with those who want your help, but not your subjugation or domination. Hope can be found when people, like yourselves, moving into positions of influence recognize the interconnectedness of world economics, the superconsumption of the world's nonrenewable resources and the poverty that stalks the land. Given this total world sense they are resolved to think globally and act locally, where they live.
Together with those who cry for justice, you are particularly prepared, peculiarly able to help root out the modern manifestations of the seven deadly sins. In their 20th century form they are reflected in: Politics without principles; business without morality; science without humanity; pleasure without conscience; wealth without work; privilege without responsibility; and worship without sacrifice.
And indeed this rooting out can begin to happen. One of the great thinkers of our age, C. A. Hall, tells us: "Sow a thought and you reap an act; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny."
Events of human history have made for dire and hopeless times indeed. Yet people have been sustained through such perilous periods. But more than sustained, they have been moved and empowered to act.
How, then do we begin to make some meaningful intervention in the cycle of despair. I believe that we must begin to move in some new and radically different directions if we are to see anything approaching significant change. This may be our last chance to participate in redeeming the time.
Together we must find ways to remove some of the obstacles that block our path to growth as a mature nation and as responsible and responsive citizens of the world.
There are, for example, many fragmented efforts going on in our communities today in the areas of economic justice and health and human services that do not bear much in the way of cohesiveness or relationship to one another. Yet they are related. Such efforts are, at best, small bandaids on a cancerous sore that is eating away at the body politic. They also have spawned service industries, if you will, that in turn, feed on the cancer.
The more unrelated, uncoordinated and independent stopgap measures individuals and organizations of the society undertake alone, the less we will call the total society into account for the causes of the social ills we seek to address. As necessary as these stopgap measures are to relieve immediate and crisis situations, until we undertake some planned, intentional and realistic joint effort, we are engaging in an exercise about as effective, in the long-run, as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
What is needed are some intentional major partnerships between institutions of our society secular and religious, public and privatethat address the needs of the whole human being and the good of the whole human family. These partnership arrangements must be based on common sense, common concerns and common denominators that bring the nation together in common cause.
These must be partnerships that tackle basic problems affecting us all, because as the late Reggae singer Bob Marley put it: "When it rains, it doesn't rain on one man's house." Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. once cogently observed: "We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Old divisions between institutions of our society public and private, secular and religious, yes, even Church and statemust fade because no single institution, no matter how well intentioned, can go it alone today. No one sector should be asked to bear a disproportionate burden or to assume the responsibility for which another has the resources and the expertise. Nor, by the same token, should any one sector profit at the expense of those whose needs must be served.
We all must look to the future with hope. This means embracing the paradox of our existence and the total human situation. It also means embracing and articulating an idealism which carries us into a future, yet unborn, not only with hope, but at the same time with a realism born of the memory of past and present failures of our dreams.
I would urge you to go from this place as sowers. Sow at least a thought if not an act. Better yet, sow the act and the habit of being sensitive and responsive to the needs and aspirations of those locked in the struggle for liberation from all of their captivities. Search out the forces for good that do exist. Join them and sow, that you and others may reap the destiny of hope in a time of hopelessness.
I know President Rodin will offer her own prayer for you. In closing, I offer one you may wish to claim as your own:
President Rodin's Remarks at the Baccalaureate Service, May 20, 1996
This service is a time to reflect upon the challenges and opportunities that await you. Some of the challenges are great, indeed.
We live in an age when the temptations to withdraw, to postpone, to defer, and to avoid are understandably great.
Daily, we witness a level of incivility and sometimes violence that pushes us to become hardened, indifferent, isolated. Last January, the Washington Post reported that we are becoming a nation of suspicious strangers. Not only have we lost confidence in our government and our institutions, but more and more, we mistrust each other.
In every generation since the 1950s this mistrust has grown. Today, nearly two out of three Americans believe that most people cannot be trusted. Thirty years ago, a majority believed the opposite. No wonder that the evocative title "Bowling Alone" has become a metaphor for our age. This is a mistake.
My friend and former colleague, Yale computer scientist David Gelernter, learned this the hard way. Gelernter lost two fingers and some of his vision and hearing to one of the Unabomber's explosive devices.
"Getting seriously hurt and pulling through has a salutary effect on the clarity with which a person looks at his own life," Gelernter says. "In my case, I've shaken the tendency to assume I'd eventually get around to the important stuff. As the Talmud asks, what if there never is an eventually?"
Individuals, like David Gelernter, who survive life-threatening events or come through some great personal crisis often describe a deepened sense of the importance of the present moment, and of the great value of human relationships. They speak of "waking up" from a stuporous daily existence, of "shaking off" the natural tendency to postpone important matters to some time in the future, of no longer being willing to say, "There will be time for that later."
Some recall the classic Talmudic saying attributed to Hillel: "If not now, when?" Others reflect on the uncertainties of the future: "What if there is no tomorrow?"
The philosopher Martin Buber described such a moment:
Early in Buber's career, he was quite taken with the mystical aspects of religious experience. He was attracted by the capacity of religious fervor and contemplation to take one away from the mundane concreteness of everyday life, to take one "out of the course of things," and to create an experience of "otherness" that removed him from the dull ordinariness of daily routine.
He wrote, "Over there now lay the accustomed existence with its affairs, but here illumination and ecstasy and rapture held without time or sequence."
But the mystical spell of religious ecstasy was broken for Buber: "What happened," he tells us, "was no more than that one forenoon, I had a visit from an unknown young man....
"I certainly did not fail to let the meeting be friendly. I did not treat him any more remissly than all his contemporaries, who were in the habit of seeking me out about this time of day as an oracle that is ready to listen to reason. I conversed attentively and openly with him only I omitted to guess the questions which he did not put to me.
"Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends he himself was no longer alive the essential content of these questions; I learned that he had come to me not casually, but borne by destiny; not for a chat, but for a decision. He had come to me; he had come in this hour. "
"What do we expect when we are in despair and yet go to a man? Surely, a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning." After that experience, Buber gave up on the search for mystical experience.
"I possess nothing," he wrote later, "but the everyday, out of which I am never taken."
From that insight sprang Buber's philosophy of intense commitment to the here and the now and to meetingat least half way the "thou," the authentic self in every person and situation we encounter in the present.
That is why Hillel's question about the present "If not now, when?"was linked with and preceded by two others: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I?"
There are great lessons in these questions. Do not wait until tomorrow to engage with what concerns you most and with the people you encounter along your way.
Do it now not only because tomorrow may never come, but because doing today is the only way to create meaning in our lives for all the tomorrows that do follow.
Only in our actions, only from our experiences, only through attentive encounters with other people, do we come to understand that, yes, despite all the violence and incivility, "nevertheless, there is meaning."
Meaning emerges only where there is active engagement with the presentand with the people we meet here, in the present.
The Talmud tells us, "Not learning, but doing is the chief thing."
And Ben Franklin agreed. "The great aim and end of all learning," he said, "is service to humanity."
And in the here and now, doing means doing with others. Doing with an open mind and a sensitive heart. Striving to listen to those you encounter in life. Listening to what they say, to what they mean by what they say, and to what they have not said.
As Buber learned, all real living is a series of unexpected and unpredictable encounters upon the narrow ridge of human relationships.
If you do, you will understand.
If you understand, you will resist the temptations of isolation, withdrawal, and mistrust.
And if you have really to do with others, then your own life will be rich and meaningful.
That is my prayer for you today.
Congratulations and God bless you all.
Volume 42 Number 34
June 18, 1996
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