Professor of Sociology
9:30 a.m. May 18, 2003
Good morning! Finally this moment has actually arrived -- this time of endings and beginnings -- this time to say goodbye to the place and the people who have filled most of your life for the past few years, and to greet the future and life beyond this campus. I'm sure Bob Hope's line to graduates speaks to some of what you're feeling: there's a big wide world out there, just waiting for you. . . Don't go!
But go you must -- and there's so much I would love to say to you, but time is short. So I'm going to speak to you from the context of two courses that I teach -- one on Death and Dying, and one on Human Sexuality. I've learned that these two subjects share a similar paradox: while we are culturally bombarded with images of death and sex, we are virtually paralyzed to speak about either one honestly, telling the truth about our lives in ways that help us become better individuals and strengthen the bonds of community.
You are a graduating class that has had to learn far too much about the depths of grief as death has made its presence painfully known this semester -- in the suicides of your friends, in the sudden loss of a beloved professor, in the casualties of a pre-emptive war that many of you worked tirelessly to prevent. In all my years of teaching, I have never known such communal grief as we've experienced in holding each other together during the past week. As you leave this place, what can be said to give meaning to these deaths, even as they are so little understood? One certainty I've learned: that our experiences with death teach us most about the meaning of life. Mitch Albom, who wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, learned many of life's precious lessons from his dying professor: Tears are OK, we need to forgive ourselves, embrace your own mortality, make peace with living, accept your need for others, and don't wait to express love because we might not have time. Love is the most rational act. Love wins, says Morrie -- love always wins.
Which brings me to what I'd like to say about sexuality in its broadest meaning: the wholeness of our sexuality is our way of being embodied human creatures in the world. Think about words that describe who you are and what is unique about your being in the world.
You are among the world's few who have been enriched by the many offerings of a liberal arts education -- a generous education that has increased your knowledge and heightened your understanding of the world in which you live. Today, as you're about to graduate, I would suggest that the entire point of your education is not simply to understand the world, or have skills to adapt to the world and make your place in the world, but to change the world. For as Alice Walker once said to a graduating class: Your job, when you are educated, is to change the world, for the world is not good enough -- you must help to make it better.
You are about to become some of the most privileged people in the world -- the proud holders of a Grinnell College diploma. In the most memorable commencement address that I've heard here, New York governor Mario Cuomo told the graduates that they would have what it takes to write their own ticket to success, but some of them -- and I hope some of you -- will look beyond the markers of success -- will see the poor, the imprisoned, the weak, the suffering, the powerless -- and will choose to make a difference in their lives. To do this, you will need to sustain your passions -- embody your passion for life, love, sensual pleasures, justice, relationship -- and cultivate all the things that make you fully alive to being in this world.
Toni Cade Bambara, in her novel The Salt Eaters, describes the soaring, healing beauty of jazz and musicians who were "ready to go anywhere in the universe on just sheer holy boldness." I hope you are ready to go anywhere in the universe with sheer holy boldness. A bleeding, hurting, alienated world needs you -- needs your passion and your commitment to make change happen. Powerful cultural forces will urge you to go with the flow, settle in, make yourselves comfortable, and adopt a lifestyle of least resistance. But I encourage you to continue to be a card-carrying Grinnell non-conformist. Be different, go against the flow of lovelessness and complicity with injustice. Don't avoid the painful places where people suffer and struggle. Confront your gender privilege, your heterosexual privilege, your race, class, educational, and national privilege. Rage against the hopelessness and despair that come from lack of caring, but don't turn your anger inward to depression -- turn it outward, join forces with others, and be -- in a word -- odd. For as Flannery O'Connor said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you. . . odd."
I hope your passion for life and love and justice will burn brightly and bring you the repeated suspicion that you are odd. Most of all, I hope you know the deep joy expressed in Kate Millett's wisdom: that "the work of enlarging human freedom is such nice work, we're lucky to get it." Cherish laughter, keep your sense of humor, do nice things for your body (like eating plenty of chocolate), and be alive to wonder and delight.
I recently read an amazing book by Brian Hall about the Lewis and Clark expedition 200 years ago, entitled "I Would be Extremely Happy in Your Company" -- which comes from Merriweather Lewis's invitation to William Clark to join him on that historic adventure. For the special honor of sharing this moment with you, I am immensely grateful, because I am about to join you in the exciting and uncertain passage of leaving Grinnell College, when I move back to Tucson in November. You, and Grinnell students over the years, have embodied the energy, intellectual curiosity, irreverent challenge to social arrangements, and creative imagination that sustain the delights of teaching. So as we go, I borrow from Merriweather Lewis to say -- I have been extremely happy in your company. Blessings for the future, to each one of you!