Baccalaureate Sermon 2011
Heroes, Chutzpah, & Hope [i]
The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel, Chaplain
Since you are still here, I take it that the Rapture last Saturday didn’t pan out for you. Those of you not vacationing in the month of May actually had to study for your final. Those counting on your saintly natures—along with your perfectionist, overachieving friends were, I’m afraid, Left Behind. To top it off, as if being Left Behind with flawed folks like me and your parents wasn’t enough, you still are being stalked by that anxiety-inducing question Grandpa keeps asking, “What are you going to do with the rest of your life?”
Well, friends, since dooms day and denial haven’t worked for you, it’s time to move on to acceptance. And to know this precious, fragile world of ours remains in need of you. Though at times it may feel like the world is coming to an end, life continues to hum, beckoning you to know your life has a purpose even if the details aren’t clear. A purpose larger than selfish gain and want. And larger than playing small due to shriveling anxiety, self-doubt, and fear. The universe is still in need of your tenderness. Your ability to think creatively and effectively amid times of uncertainty and complexity. In need of your generosity and humble strength. Your one-course-at-a-time intense work ethic tempered by playful humor and lightness of being. And how you know the best things in life aren’t, in fact, things.
Of course there’s the whole servant leadership spiel commencement speakers talk about. It’s an important spiel. But I know you know it. Many of you embody it. And more than a few of you have sat in my office and wept because of it. Because you get tired. Overextended. Overwhelmed from compassion fatigue from being a life line for the friend down the hall. Or for folks you don’t know in Haiti, Japan, Pakistan, Louisiana, Egypt, southern Africa, Missouri, and or wherever else your TV is featuring the latest round of natural disasters, pestilence, oppression, oil spills, economic woes, terrorist plots, revolutions, and war.
Though you know the drill about putting your oxygen mask on before helping others, you, like the rest of us, sometimes forget. Besides. More than a few of you once dressed in tike size firefighter or superhero gear complete with Powerpuff Girls slogan “Save the World Before Bedtime” on your underoos. Or whatever the Spider Man equivalent is for boys. I suspect that more than a few of you, as you played with your action figures, fantasized about superhuman strength, limitless availability, and near invulnerability. All while basking in the glow of your grateful, cheering fans swooning before your super hero chiseled jaw and dashing good looks.
Well let me tell you. You may look good. But having journeyed alongside many of you I’ve noticed how some of your Wonder Woman and Batman capes can look a bit thread bare. Others of you have lost yours altogether, leaving it amid disillusions in a crumpled heap. Or you accidently dropped it in the dumpster. Or packed it away in your parent’s attic along with other childhood dreams. Some of you never took it out of the box to begin with. Indeed, it’s easier spending all of one’s free-time gaming at the computer for excessively long hours than leaving that virtual world for the real one you can’t control. Yet the real world, with all its magnificence, still beckons you. It beckons despite the risks love and being fully alive entail.
With all that in mind—and with no illusions about burn out rates be they in the social services, teaching, medical, ministry, military, or legal professions; or whatever vocational path you take because that will be one too if you aren’t careful; I’d like to offer five universal spiritual principals from Eastern and Western wisdom traditions for your life sojourn.
First, though you live in a culture that practically worships unflappable strength, power, prestige, and perfection right down to the size of one’s thighs, remember how just about every one of your heroes doesn’t live that lie. They have their kryptonite. Some personal loss, haunting past, weakness, failure, or flaw. Yet along with an acceptance of what is, with each stumbling or adversity they build up a reserve of resilience, chutzpah, and hope.
Recall the likes of Bertie who, with great insecurity, reluctantly becomes King George the VI as retold in the British historical drama The King’s Speech. Bertie is thrust upon a throne he never wanted when his brother abdicates, and England is fraught with peril and prospects of another yet world war. Despite a debilitating stammer and lifelong sense of inferiority, Bertie accepts his duty over against the master orator and German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, and his troops.
Recall the likes of Lincoln. According to scholars like Joshua Wolf Shenk, Abraham Lincoln lived a lifetime with melancholy or what today we’d likely call clinical depression. Lincoln learned to maneuver within that interior darkness which, these scholars suspect, over time helped him develop skills for bearing the burden of the presidency, and cultivate night vision for leading this nation in its darkest hour.[ii] What’s more, though Lincoln was no church goer and wisely refused invoking partisan statements which claimed God’s will or favor, he repeatedly said he felt he was charged by a larger power with “so vast, and…sacred a trust” that he had no moral right to shrink”; no right to cower even in the face of rampant public criticism from all sides and potential threats to his life.[iii]
Recall athletes like Lance Armstrong and Wilma Rudolph. Or Oscar Schindler, MLK, Gandhi, and Mandela. Or divorced parents keeping their act together for the sake of their kids. Or the likes of liberated children in a back village of South India which several of us visited as part of an off campus course last fall. Many of them were slum children, or had known sex trafficking, or being sold into slavery in order to pay off their parent’s debts. Yet those liberated children out danced us. Out sang us and our privileged lives. Whooped us at soccer and Ninja. And humbled us with their laughter, beauty, resilience, and joy. So did the Catholic Sisters who’ve helped rehab and educate these children while honoring their various religious backgrounds not only with depictions of Jesus and Mary but Muslim and Hindu spiritual leaders like the great Swami Vivekananda gracing school walls.
Speaking of Sisters, I remember when, after her death, the private writings of Mother Teresa of Calcutta[iv] were published and the world first learned of how that saintly woman lacked sensing God’s presence. How that lack caused her excruciating spiritual pain for over two decades. Yet Teresa kept her vows, and continued serving the Holy in the abandoned, disease filled, and dying. When her private writings were published and a reporter asked “Do you think of her as any less saintly because of this sense of God’s absence?,” a woman answered “No. It makes me respect her more.” Teresa’s writings reveal how, in her third decade of interior poverty, she made peace with this emptiness, understanding it as her very meeting place with the Eternal who is ultimately unknowable, is the human manifestation of the Holy who also ached, and helped her enter even deeper oneness and solidarity with the poor, abandoned, and weak.
All of these heroes, and the billions of others never making headlines including perhaps your parent, classmates, teacher, rabbi, pastor, principal, or priest—have had struggles. Perhaps it’s being a recovering alcoholic. Or one who wept, felt powerless, and asked for aid. Or like Christopher Reeve who, with a damaged spinal cord, remained Superman as he refused to let a disability imprison his mind. We revere these people more because they’ve been weathered by life, and thus are mirrors of identity and role models. Teachers of resilience. Mentors for mingling our passions, pain, liabilities and limits with life’s mystery and magnificence. Mirrors of identity for knowing how the universe and Eternal Life Force many of us call God still uses these less than perfect people, thus granting hope and purpose for our own flawed and occasionally fear-filled, hurting lives. They help us accept and work with our own poverty. Or what my profession calls spiritual poverty which one Jesuit source defines in as this: i) Self-acceptance about being a limited, created being; ii) Self-acceptance as having made peace with one's past; iii) Readiness to let the Holy pierce one's most precious defenses; and—the really hard one for us Type A overachievers, 4) Acceptance of our being ordinary.[v] As horrible as that sounds, recall how everything from twelve step programs to both Western and Eastern spiritual wisdom traditions tell us how by loosening our ego-minds defenses, paradoxically, that self-surrender taps us into an ease, flow, grace, and strength which, in a very wui-we way, enables ordinary us to do the extraordinary things.
Quickly moving on. Second universal spiritual principle for the hero’s journey: It’s okay to have a good day. Some of the happiest, most playful people I know with the deepest belly laughs are folks who’ve suffered deep pain. Likewise you don’t have to play the martyr. Really. You can actually rest and let the world turn without you for a while. Go fishing, golf, dance, run, paint, hunt, do Tai Chi, nap, or gaming. Whatever your exhale thing happens to be as you honor ebb and flow of production and rest like fields of this good earth. You can partake in the Jewish traditional practice of Shabbat--of rest and renewal to in part guard yourself from enslavement to work and all the technology doo-hickies like twitter, texting, voice mail, email, etc which were supposedly created to make our lives easier and less stressful.
Yes, you may at some point be called into self-sacrifice on behalf of your family, community, or national and global life. When like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, or Jewish Warsaw Ghetto freedom fighters during WWII, or Father Oscar Romero as voice for the voiceless in El Salvador, or MLK on the kitchen floor after yet another bomb threat to his home, you fall on your knees saying “Take this cup away.” But then somehow rise to do what duty calls you to do having found in relinquishment and self-surrender an interior strength, grace, flow, and peace far greater that the world will always give.
There will also be moments when life summons, like last fall when in response to some yahoo down in Florida calling for burning Qurans on September 11th , we as Jews, Christians, Muslims, secular humanists and others at Cornell gathered amid our differences not only for a joint Jewish High Holy Day and Muslim end of Ramadan celebration at my home, but at the Cedar Rapids Islamic Center to share witness on behalf of reason, solidarity, global citizenship, and love. There may be times in your life like last winter in Egypt when thousands of Muslims used their bodies as human shields to protect weary Coptic Christian neighbors, standing hand in hand around churches so they could celebrate Christmas mass. And yes, there may even be a moment when like Lincoln, or Bertie, or soldiers we remember this Memorial Day weekend, or like the “Fukushima 50”—Japanese nuclear power plant workers risking exposure to radiation to cool wrecked reactors, that you may be summoned to respond in self-sacrificing ways.
But you don’t always have to carry the pager. And if you do, then something is horribly wrong. Likewise if you think self-giving requires spectacular human feats, then spiritual wisdom traditions East and West invite you to check your ego needs and desires. Besides, you already know from being on the receiving end how it’s the small acts of kindness that matter. The tender glance. The lost art of a hand written note. A hug. Or making beauty like people on the streets of New York City the day after September eleventh who played their violins and other dusted off instruments for passersby in need of healing balm.
Third, spiritual wisdom way: As our Buddhist text puts it, our thoughts create our reality, often creating more stress and harm in our post-game replay than the original circumstance itself. Or as the great poet, Walt Whitman put it, we carry and cling to “our old delicious burdens.”[vi] So whether it be through meditation or other means, it helps developing daily mindfulness practice using the breath, or a prayer, or mantra to help expand your awareness and train the brain to “unhook” from thoughts and feelings that otherwise hijack and blind your perception of what is real. To observe your anxious, angry, or sad thoughts come and go, knowing they aren’t you but rather like ever-changing clouds covering up a clear blue sky. This is so important because difficult people and circumstances will not go away. And an explosion of extensive research in neuroscience keeps telling us what long term meditators including Buddhist and Christian monks and sisters have always known about the ability to retrain our brains and consciousness. To lower heart rates and blood pressure. To radiate healing presence and peace.
Fourth and almost final spiritual wisdom way: As the Lakota holy man, Black Elk put it, “There c an never be peace between nations until we know the true peace which is in [our] souls…” He said we find true peace in our souls when we realize “our oneness with the universe and all its powers,… that the Great Spirit is at its center….[and] that this center is really everywhere. It is within each one of us.” Building off of this, Dr. Joan Borysenko, who is renown in integrative medicine that brings together spirit, science, medicine, and psychology in the service of healing says, “I used to tell my clients that they were already whole and healed”—for [the words whole and healed] come from the same root as holy.” And that what they are learning at the clinic are merely tools for peeling away layers of stress that covered their naturally wise, peaceful, and compassionate hearts.[vii]
Fifth and final wisdom way: Your life has meaning and purpose. It has a purpose even if the details are unclear, your girlfriend just dumped you, the world seems to be splitting at the seams and your thinking that—as the title of a hit film from my youth put it, The Gods Must Be Crazy. Or maybe you bombed several classes in your academic major, and the vocation you dreamt of since childhood to help “Save The World Before Bedtime” may not pan out for you. Well I promise you, though you may be caught up in a cloud of unknowing within the Great Mystery, your life still has purpose yet unseen. In fact, mystical tradition within all the world’s religions says it’s when you stop claiming you know, and humbly enter the cloud of unknowing—that’s when the real pathway toward growth and enlightenment unfolds. So with chutzpah and hope, keep going even though you can’t see the way.
I say this partly because your generation somehow got it into your heads that you have to be exceptional at darn near everything. For more than a few of you, being told you are average at something, like getting a C for satisfactory work in class, just about slays you. The 15 Day Drop has been turned into what some of your faculty are calling “a culture of quit” in ways which simply didn’t exist back when I was a student here. That is, too many students drop classes if they’re not earning a B or A. When something like that happens in your future, I hope that instead of quitting you join the rest of humanity by owning your humanness, and keep working hard with humble resilience even if a door closes and you’re worried about whether another will open. On that note, as a college president once said to faculty, “Take care of your A students because one day they will be your colleagues. Take care of your C students because one day they’ll endow your chairs.” It’s going to be okay, folks.
It’s going to be okay because of the likes of Lionel Logue depicted in The King’s Speech—whose dream of being a famous actor never panned out. Thank God. Lionel not only helped King George who in turn helped Britain and its allies against the Third Reich. He began his profession in post WWI Australia “when fellow soldiers suffering psychological injuries could no longer speak,” were deemed as lost causes by experts, and found themselves enlisting the help of a second rate actor who understood. The real life Lionel Logue once said, ‘I had to give them faith in their own voice. And let them know friends were listening.”[viii]
I end by sharing the following. A friend I’ve been listening to is one of my newest heroes: She’s my fifteen year old daughter, Rachel, who, like your other faculty and staffs’ children, and other citizens of this incredible Iowa town, is finding her way through the labyrinth of grief after a series of deaths involving high school friends. On Sunday before last week’s visitation for the third boy, Rachel invited me to watch one of her favorite episodes of Doctor Who. It’s the one where the good Doctor and Amy Pond travel back in time to visit the great 19th c. artist, Vincent Van Gogh. As many of you know, despite his paintings of sunflowers, irises, haystacks, cafes and starry nights being filled with vibrant color and spectacular beauty, Van Gogh had mental health and interior life struggles. Moreover, he was penniless, sold only one painting, and was deemed a failure by the art world before he ended his life.
Well, in the historical fiction world of Doctor Who, the good Doctor and Amy transport the struggling artist forward to a modern day museum. There Van Gogh witnesses school children on field trips and others experiencing the healing beauty and joy of his art. He’s moved to tears from glimpsing how his life truly mattered. The show reaches its climax with the following—two messages my daughter wanted me to know concerning her take on how we are to live on with resilience through difficult times whatever the future may hold. She wondered if it might help with this morning’s message, so here you go: First, the pile of bad things that have happened in your life do not take away from the pile of good. One more time: The pile of bad things that have happened in your life do not take away from the pile of good. And second, Van Gogh was called one the finest of painters because he was able to transform pain into ecstatic beauty. He melded his passion, gifts, goodness, and pain to portray the ecstasy, magnificence, and joy of this world. Members of the Class of 2011 and all you other everyday heroes gathered round--May we do likewise. I love you. Go forth and make some beauty, joy, and goodness.
And now, may the shalom of God, may the wildness and warmth of God, breathe within you and through you as instruments of healing wisdom and peace…Go in peace, joy, and hope.
Isaiah 57:15;58:9b-12 -- Aaron Zaubi
Ancient One -- composer and vocalist, Visiting Spanish faculty, Kelly Montijo Fink
The Dhammapada 1:1-4 -- Emma Jacobs
The Gospel of Matthew 26:36-44 -- Yuan-Chun Lisa Wang
The Bhagavad Gita 6:18-19;29-32 -- Sehar Shah