Friday, June 19, 2009

Graduation Speeches and Spiritual Formation

I've been thinking about graduation speeches, since my school had our Graduation ceremony last night. Last night's graduation speech was so different, and I wonder if it was different because the economy is now so changed, or simply because our speaker was different.

In the past, we've been subjected to speakers who have reminded students that their most important duty was to make money. We've had speakers who have told students that nothing will be impossible for them. The main focus was success, success, success--and success was always measured in monetary terms. Blick.

Now, I'm at a school that prides itself in preparing students for careers. I understand I'm not working at a school that focuses on the moral life of students or their theological instruction or their willingness to complete good works. I went to a small, Lutheran, liberal arts college, and I'm not sure how successful that school was at spiritual and moral formation of students.

Still, there's more to life than money, and I think that Commencement ceremonies are a great time to remind students of that possibility. And last night, finally, we had a speaker, a Miami-Dade county judge, who did just that.

He called them to reshape the world, to work for justice. He reminded them that even artistic types can work to make the world better. He reminded them that their work skills can be useful in other arenas: chefs can cook for fund raisers, that kind of thing. It was great.

In his own work life, the judge told them that he sees the poorest of the poor in our community, people who have made dreadful mistakes or had dreadful things happen to them through no fault of their own. He came close to saying that we have obligations to those people, as well as to our own families. Instead of focusing on the individual poor, he mentioned larger groups who are oppressed. It worked.

I wonder if we're going to see a new era of graduation speeches. I certainly hope so. I saw a glimmer of this possibility in Barbara Kingsolver's 2008 graduation speech to Duke graduates. She says, "Now, the rule of 'Success' has traditionally meant having boatloads of money. But we are not really supposed to put it in a boat. A house would the customary thing. Ideally it should be large, with a lot of bathrooms and so forth, but no more than four people. If two friends come over during approved visiting hours, the two children have to leave. The bathroom-to-resident ratio should at all times remain greater than one. I’m not making this up, I’m just observing, it’s more or less my profession. As Yogi Berra told us, you can observe a lot just by watching. I see our dream-houses standing alone, the idealized life taking place in a kind of bubble. So you need another bubble, with rubber tires, to convey yourself to places you must visit, such as an office. If you’re successful, it will be a large, empty-ish office you don’t have to share. If you need anything, you can get it delivered. Play your cards right and you may never have to come face to face with another person. This is the Rule of Escalating Isolation.

And so we find ourselves in the chapter of history I would entitle: Isolation and Efficiency, and How They Came Around to Bite Us in the Backside." Then Kingsolver talks about all the stresses the world faces, all the oppressions visited on all sorts of people. And she wrote this speech before the various economic collapses of late 2008.

During good times, we often forget that hard times have the effect of making us all evaluate what's really important. During good times, we forget to attend to some of the things that make our lives worth living. We forget to attend to our souls, many of us.

I'm not sure I'd have ever recommended a recession/depression as agent of spiritual formation. Surely there must be a less painful way. But perhaps not. Our current situation reminds me of many a disease memoir, where the writer comes out of the other side of the disease a changed person, a person who wouldn't have come into existence without the disease.

I'm also aware of how problematic it can be, to shape hardship in these terms. It's easy for me to talk about recession as spiritual formation, sitting here still in possession of a job.

So, let me leave the subject here, as is often the case, with perhaps more questions than answers. Let us all go about our days, play our roles in the economy, and ponder.


Mrs. M said...

On an individual level, I'm aware that change often comes only when staying the same becomes too painful. It makes sense to me that the same would be true on a macro level.

Kristin said...