Now It Gets Complicated

February 13, 2014 | by the Office of Marketing and Communications

In his Midyear Commencement address on February 8, 2014, President S. Alan Ray encouraged graduates to keep their minds alert, their hearts open and their bodies engaged in service as they head out into the world.

Welcome Class of 2014, as you spend your final moments as students of Elmhurst College.

In a few minutes, you’ll become the next generation of Elmhurst alumni, carrying on a proud tradition that reaches back 143 years to our founding in 1871.

Welcome, too, all of you very patient, very generous parents, relatives and friends. Greetings to our dedicated faculty and trustees, and to all who have gathered today to celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime achievement.

Each of you soon-to-be graduates has been shaped in your education by the Elmhurst Experience. Each Elmhurst Experience is different, because you are different people, yet each is the same, because it stems from our shared mission, vision and core values. We have tried to help you form yourself into someone who is a critical consumer and producer of knowledge and culture; a person who rejects materialism while crafting a life philosophy appropriate to the complexity of human being; and someone whose compassionate heart leads them to deeds of service to others and commits to the slow transformation of a dangerous and unjust world. Mind, heart and hands working together to make you a better person and the world a better place: That’s the aim of the Elmhurst Experience.

So what lies ahead for you?

Comparative religion scholars and psychologist Carl Jung tell us that virtually every tradition has a myth about a young hero who faces a crossroads in life, a moment of decision fraught with danger and the temptation to take the easy path rather than seek out his or her destiny.

You stand on the edge of a similar transition, a similar going out into the world, a world you know will be challenging at best, with no guarantees of success and many examples of failures. You come armed with a mind that has been trained to think critically and constructively, a heart that bears compassion and hands that have given service to others. You want to make it, but you don’t want to lose your soul in the process. As the title of my remarks indicates, now it gets complicated.

The world. It will tempt you.

While it may be difficult to imagine yourself right now as climbing a career ladder, I assure you that you will. In fact you’ll probably climb several during your life. As you succeed in your career, you may feel inclined to think less and conform more in your ideas to whatever it takes to get you where you think you want to go; to reduce the complex to the simple; to seek the magical algorithm of happiness; and to regard your college years as a special, even quaint, time in your life when you were encouraged to think “big ideas.” But big ideas aren’t useful when you have a project to complete and a deadline to meet. The life of the mind—devoted to elucidating the human condition—can become reduced to endless problem solving in the interest of a paycheck. The treadmill of labor looms.

What about values? You’ll feel tempted by materialism, tempted to monetize every human interaction. Maybe you’ll exempt your spouse, or parents, or children, or even friends, from this materialism—or perhaps not. Besides, what’s wrong with pursuing a career that leads to wealth?

And service? In the working world or in graduate school there is little time for service. If you acquire a family, there’s even less time for it. You may consider dealing out service—for now, you’ll say, until I can afford to take the time. And as you start to earn a living, it’s easier just to write a check than volunteer somewhere. You may be tempted to abandon service to those, you may tell yourself, who have fewer demands on their time—say, college students. And, whatever it is you wind up doing for a living, you’ll be tempted to tell yourself that that is your service—and what’s wrong with doing well by doing good?

The temptations to abandon the life of the mind, the compassion of the heart and the service of the hands in favor of simple ideas, materialistic values and self-seeking behavior will be real and they will be constant. And here’s the kicker—this will happen not in spite of your success, but because of it. The world will tempt you. Things, in the most existential sense, will become complicated. How will you respond?

First, apply the skills of the mind to meet the world on its own complicated terms. Recall that your liberal arts education was intentionally general in its orientation. As you become specialized in practice or further studies, don’t forget that the world remains complex. The world doesn’t know that you’re narrowing your focus. So, try to think of every significant event from at least three points of view, three disciplines that you’ve studied, and don’t be afraid to say, “It’s an open question.” Keep your love of ideas. You’ve worked too hard to become uninformed, to become uncritical of what is going on around you and through you.

Then there’s the heart. The underlying virtue I endorse and the College has embraced is respect for the human spirit against materialism. The materialism of our world presses in at every turn. The human spirit—that thing you share with poor people, and ugly and odd people, people of no earthly use to you whatsoever—is not much valued out there. Elmhurst offered you a place and time to think and act in spiritual terms, sometimes in overtly religious terms, other times not. But here’s the thing: Don’t give in to the pressure to talk about people in purely quantitative terms, to find the measure of a person in their annual income or the status of their position. Don’t reduce poor people to a statistic on poverty. Don’t participate in segregation by subscribing to NIMBY—“not in my backyard”—ideas and practices. Remember, it is not that compassion has little value in a materialistic world—compassion is the enemy of a materialistic world. You must work, even fight, to sustain the value of compassion, the value that proclaims “we are all equal in our needs,” to nurture it as your foundational value. Otherwise it turns into mere pity: the gaze of the powerful upon the abject. The heroes of our religious and secular traditions have compassion for the poor; they do not have pity. Be like them.

As to religion, I say stay open to change—change to religion from non-religion, or change from one religion to another, or even from one religion to none. You may be an atheist now, but don’t assume you always will be. Religion at its best celebrates the mystery of life; it doesn’t seek to explain it. Down the road there will be deaths and births of loved ones. If you feel a religious tug in those moments, don’t dismiss it: It’s a sign of your humanity and perhaps a call to become someone new.

Having a critical mind and a compassionate heart will always produce service. The fate of the world is still your business, your concern—you live in it. The poor, the sick, the socially marginalized are still your concern— tomorrow they could be you; in fact, reflection and compassion tell us they already are.

As to injustice, you may find it’s harder to know what exactly it looks like. Living in a complex world means acknowledging moral ambiguity, even admitting that your first moral impression was wrong. It is possible this can mean that you are becoming indebted to a system of injustice yourself—for your income, your social standing, your children’s future. Perhaps in college you believed capitalism was obviously an evil, unions were always good, and now you’re not so sure; you thought that lawyers were corrupt, now you are becoming one; you thought doctors were kindly healers, now you’re seeking to join the health management world. You’re becoming aware that you’ve always been part of this system, only now you’re becoming an active participant, an agent, whose life choices are empowering arrangements of power, privilege and access that long preceded you. How can you identify true injustice?

Here is where I hope your Elmhurst Experience can assist you, again. Our College’s core values are not window dressing; we’ve tried hard to help you internalize them and apply them to your life. Our values of intellectual excellence; community; social responsibility; stewardship; and faith, meaning and values are substantive principles for you to take with you, take in you, take as you, as you face the temptations of the mind, the heart and the hands. Be assured—there is injustice in the world, not just differences of opinion. But your critical habits of thought, compassion and engagement will help prevent you from becoming dogmatic and too self assured that you always have justice on your side.

Remaining in touch with the socially marginal is the best way I have found to rightly perceive injustice. People on the margins are the canaries in our collective coal mine, the ones whose suffering and stories will tell you most of what you need to know to spot injustice in fact and not merely in concept. Your service to the world may consist of a lifetime of self-critical acts that lead to social change. By bonding with others engaged in this process, and especially by listening to those adversely impacted by the status quo, you’ll gain insight into the injustice before you and around you, see how you may be unwittingly participating in it, and receive the strength to make changes in your life so that your actions will be consonant with your values.

I believe Elmhurst College doesn’t just train people to enter the workforce. We don’t just aspire to graduate what my predecessor, H. Richard Niebuhr, called “the standard product.” We strive to do something more audacious: we aspire to help our students transform themselves into better human beings, equipped morally, spiritually and intellectually for whatever awaits them in the world. If we have succeeded in this, your lives will be infinitely more complicated for it, but also, I hope, infinitely more human and filled with the joy of lives well lived.

In conclusion, as you leave us, keep your mind alert, your heart open and your body engaged in just service. And never forget that now you’re part of a larger community—the Elmhurst College community past, present and future—and we won’t forget you. If you need us, just call and we’ll be there for you. Stay in touch with us. You’re alumni and alumnae of a remarkable institution that, thanks to you and literally thousands of other graduates, is becoming stronger by the day.

Thank you. I wish you a rich, complex and complicated life in the years to come.

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