Assistant Professor Sociology
9 a.m., May 17, 2009
Good morning. It's an honor to be invited to speak with you on this important morning. Congratulations to the seniors, the class of 2009, and a special thanks to your parents, siblings, grandparents, and other family members who have supported you over the last years. Welcome.
Over the last year, I must admit, I have been working off campus on a research leave. My current research examines the care provided to people at the end of their lives. So rather than being on campus during your final senior year which I would have really enjoyed, I've been sitting at the bedsides of people as they pass out of this world, as they die. So rather than delivering my usual first day lecture in a human sexuality course or listening to your presentations at the end of the term, I've listened to sets of stories at the end of life. You are at the end of a very different journey, a journey noteworthy in part for what it means to. A journey marked by preparation and anticipation for what comes later because for all of you there is a lot more living to do.
When I was asked to address you on this, a pivotal Sunday morning, I thought that if they could, people at the end of their lives would have some worthwhile words for you as you approach this rite of passage. Their advice would be quite specific and unlike what I might say to you as your professor. For my part I would say that moments like today and tomorrow, moments similar to those early days at Grinnell when I met you in an introductory course or wandering down the hall lost, or at campus events, are characterized by the same kind of ambivalence, joy, grief and anticipation that accompany all major transitions in life. And these moments are the stuff of live. Such transitions, although incredibly scary, are full of possibility and opportunities for self definition. So my two cents would be to seize this opportunity and to remain open, raw, and curious. What would older people at the end of their lives say? Those of you who have shared those final days, will have some idea of the sorts of memories that dying people cherish and want to repeat or tell the story of, and those kinds of ideas and practices that lose all significance in the final days of one's life. You know what I have observed over the last couple of years of doing this research here are the top five recommendations that I think people who are at the end of their lives might say to you, who are just starting yours.
Number One: Be truthful and proud of all your skills. You did not arrive at Grinnell College accidentally, and now you are leaving with more skills, ideas and refined gifts. Be honest with yourself and with others about what you do well and what you know you can improve upon. Surround yourselves with people who also move in the world with integrity, and whom you admire. This will provide you with a steady touchstone as you further refine and develop your abilities.
Number Two: In friendship, focus on quality, not on quantity. If you have one person you can call when you need support or when you need a good laugh, one good friend, call yourself lucky, and be sure to care for that friendship during this upcoming transition. The old adage that the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young seems quite apt. So for those of you who are lucky enough to be building lifelong friendships, take good care of them.
Number Three: Pursue newness and mystery. And this is one thing that I really admire about Grinnell students is they always push themselves to the edge of their knowing, to the edge of their comfort. So I hope you keep that up. Keep a healthy dose of newness in your routines. Do you remember that feeling of walking into NSO for the first day, or walking into the first course of the first semester of your first year of Grinnell and that kind of feeling of electricity, and being on the edge, and the butterflies in your stomach, where you feel you have no idea what is going to happen. Bond to that feeling; seize it, seek it out in your life. If you find yourself feeling stretched then you are in a good place.
Number Four: Find work that makes sense to you. If you're exhausted at the end of the day and still looking forward to the next day, then you have found the work that makes sense to you. Money and prestige may or may not accompany this work, but find work that makes sense, makes use of your strengths and uses up the strong parts of you and satisfaction will likely follow.
And finally, Number Five: Make peace with your body. Appreciate how your body facilitates all of the things that you do. Occupational, intellectual, emotional, and sensual. If you have a body that can do things, or even if you have a body that can do most of the things that you want it to do, enjoy and celebrate that body. For much of us our brains and our intellects that brought us together for four years at Grinnell, but it's our bodies that have made that coming-together possible. So take good care of yours.
So that's it. Be truthful about your skills, foster quality friendships, seek out new experiences, find work that makes sense, and make peace with your body. If I could transport you and your families and friends to the bedside of the person who is navigating the final days of theirs, these are some of the things I imagine that they would say to someone like you. Someone who is new, talented, fresh and just getting started. I have many wishes for you as you move forward from your time at Grinnell, but for now I'll says it's been an honor to have been here with you this morning, and no matter how you perceive these next steps, I wish you a safe and exciting journey.