posted May 6, 2007

2007 Commencement Address

The Battle To Become Human

Delivered Sunday, May 6, 2007
at Holland Municipal Stadium

by Prof. Dianne Porfleet
Adjunct Associate Professor of English

Families, friends, colleagues, and, especially, the graduating class of 2007. I want to mention a very special group also, since I'm they're advisor: the Mortar Board group of 2007, and Lisa [C. Smith], our president, congratulations to all of you.

The father of an author I really enjoy reading once wrote her a postcard. And there was only one short line on the postcard. And on it he said, "Never forget, even if you win at the rat race of life, you are still a rat." And that quote is very significant: "Even if you win at the rat race of life, you're still a rat." This afternoon you will walk out of here with a well earned degree from an excellent college, but, you know what? There are going to be hundreds and thousands of people out there with that degree; and there are going to be hundreds and thousands of people in that career you have chosen. And if you're not careful, there's going to be all sorts of tension and pressure put on you to run that rat race

to get the promotion, the biggest salary, the largest home, to get the most toys, and these will all threaten to consume you. And if you join this rat race of life - those of you that had to read Dante for me, you're going to wake up some day in the middle of that dark wood, and you're going to say, "How did I get here?" Or like Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie, sixteen years after his college graduation, "What happened to me? What happened to me? What happened to me?" In a few moments you're going to walk out of here with your college degree...

But you're also going walk out of here this afternoon with one thing that nobody else has- and that is your true self, your unique personality - you are the only person who has sole custody of your life, your unique potential; and only you can fight your individual battle to live a real life, to become the most human you can be, to live the joyful, abundant life that Christ has offered to each of us. And my advice to each of you today - and anybody who has had me in class will know what I'm going to say--is "get a life." Get a real life, not the artificial life, the rat race life, but get a real life. Henry David Thoreau in Walden once said he went to the woods because he wished to learn to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and find out what he had to learn, and not to come to die and find out he had never lived, living is so precious. Or as Morrie Schwartz stated, dying is only one thing to be sad about - living unhappily is much worse. And this is what I'm urging you: get a life, a real life. Frederick Buechner wrote it quite differently: "Each of us needs to discover what makes him or her most joyful, most alive, for this is the true battle of life - to become fully human, and this is the battle we all can win because this is the battle that God wants us to win." As Jesus said, I have come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly. God wants each of us to find this life, to live deliberately, to live consciously, as sons and daughters of God, and to achieve that joyful, abundant life. And each of you graduates has been given unique abilities, unique skills, unique personalities. I've told many of you this: that I've prayed for so many of you when you're in my classes. I don't pray about your intellectual problems, not usually. You know what I think about? I think about your uniqueness, your strangeness, that thing that makes you "you." I could name so many of you in this spot here - those things that stick out, that unique you that makes you that human, that very special human.

Society, friends, graduate school, and maybe even family sometimes will constantly be pulling you away from the real life to the wealthy life, the successful life, maybe the safe life, the life that will make them proud of you, the life our culture tells you you're supposed to live. And there may be hardly any voices actually applauding you as you consciously make that effort to become truly human and open yourself up to every precious moment of every precious day that you live: becoming the person God has created you to be.

Right now, this particular moment will never be repeated. You will never again be with this group of friends, surrounded with your family and your friends, graduating from Hope College. I want you just each to stop for one moment and look around you. This will never happen again. And I know that some of you earlier had tears in your eyes as you suddenly realized, "This is it." It will never happen again. This moment, feel the breeze, feel the sunshine, think about this unique, wonderful moment. When Renita Weems visited a dying woman, the woman asked her a question. And the question was, "Is today tomorrow?" And Renita says that that particular question has haunted her: "What kind of a question was that?" "Is today tomorrow?" And she said, "I was standing over her bed as she was dying, my mind racing with all the things I should be doing. And suddenly I felt the brush of an angel on my shoulder: Is today tomorrow? No, today is today. And tomorrow is out there somewhere and unknowable. I think of this woman's dying question every time I think I ought to be doing something I'm not doing right at this particular moment, or I should be somewhere where I'm not right at this particular moment."

Henri Nouwen approached this same idea from a different perspective- Are we so worried about tomorrow or so wishing we could undo the past that we never truly live in the present? Are our roommates always the "what ifs" and the "if onlys" -- The "what if this had happened?" "If only this hadn't happened." "If only I hadn't done it this way." And do any of us ever live, Henri Nouwen asks, in the here and now?

Some of you are going to achieve excellence in your careers - you're well on your way. Some of you have been accepted into wonderful graduate schools, you have wonderful careers out there ahead of you. And many of you will get wealthy, and you're going to get a lot of human praise as you go through your life. But....if you never truly learn to live in the present moment, never learn to savor the unique flavor of every day of your life (both the painful ones and the joyful ones), if you never really follow the voice of your joy and become that unique person you were created to become, you will miss out on the real life, and you will die having never lived - and living is too precious for that. There is something more sad than being diagnosed with a terminal illness and that is never living - only participating in the shadow our culture tells us is the good life.

For the true battle we should be fighting every day of our lives is to find peace within our skins, to regain the awe and the wonder of each moment of life. Larry Kushner once told me: "I ask God every morning for awe and wonder for that day, and I have never been disappointed yet." This is the battle for our human soul - the battle that God wants each of us to win. People in our culture don't talk about the soul very much. It's so much easier to study, to work at our careers, or to stay busy than it is to craft a human soul. But the best career in the world, the highest paying job, the biggest house are cold comforts on days in your life's journey when everything seems dark and dreary, or when you are depressed, or when you're lonely, or when you've gotten back the medical test results, and they're not good, or when you've gotten that phone call that someone you love dearly has just died. Of course, we all want to do well in our careers, and we want our resumes to be filled with degrees and experiences that will help us advance in this world.

But this is how I want my resume to read, and I hope when I come to die it will read this way: I am a friend to my husband and a loving mother, and I have tried never to let my career or my self centeredness stand in the way of my being a good parent, a loving friend, or the human God wants me to become. I no longer consider myself the center of the universe. I have learned to pay attention to each moment and to each person who crosses my path. I show up for each day of my life - I really show up for each day of my life, I'm there; I try to listen to its voice and its uniqueness and enter fully into it; I have at times experienced deep joy and deep sorrow, and I have learned to be content in all circumstances realizing that the cup of life which God gives us to drink has both sorrow and sweetness in it. I have learned to laugh, to love, to cry, to play. And throughout the day to listen to the still, quiet voice of God, and I genuinely attempt to love God with all my heart, my mind, and my being, and I try to love my neighbor unconditionally. I have learned to treasure every moment I have with each person, to savor each sunrise and each sunset, and to thoroughly immerse myself in the joy and wonder of living.

I hope I have stopped worrying about the past and the future, and I am learning to live in the present - in the here and now.

And I would urge each of you, unique, wonderful individuals, all of you - get a life. Get a real life, not a manic pursuit of your next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house, the busier life. Do you think those things are going to matter if you get cancer? Do you think those things are going to matter when everything seems to have fallen out of your world? Each time you look at your diploma, I want you to stop and remember that you are still a student and you always will be a student --still learning how to love God, to love others, to live fully. Always maintain a childlike amazement at and openness to life. Frederick Buechner once wrote that the worst sentence in the world is "I'm just killing time because time is all we have, and it's not time we are killing." It's our own lives we're killing. Never get bored with your life. Live your life, live it fully.

And remember that this life is the only one you get in this world, and you have no business taking it for granted or wasting it in trivialities. When I was diagnosed with cancer, something really happened to me eleven years ago - a deep sense of how fragile life is entered my consciousness, and a few years later when my husband of forty years was diagnosed also with cancer, this sense of the fragility of life surfaced again. When my father died of a massive heart attack, and four years later my mother died of cancer, when I held a former student who was dying of AIDS at the age of 27 and sobbing over his lost life, I learned something. I learned today, this moment is all I'm ever really going to have. The recent events of 9-11 and Virginia Tech have reinforced this for each of you: you never know when that last moment will be, no matter how young we are. But through all these events I learned to love the journey of life, and I determined to tell each of those, especially you students who have heard it so many times in these four years, and to tell everybody who has helped me in so many ways, how much they mean to me as our lives touch one another. I hope I am learning to share my life with others, including each of you my students, urging you to slow down and savor life, that I am learning how to give something back to this world, to, perhaps, touch a life through kindness, give courage to a wavering, fearful soul, and to care deeply for those who come into my life. We try to make living for God so complicated when all He asks is that we love Him with all our hearts and that we encourage one another, help one another, weep with one another, rejoice with one another, and love one another wherever we find ourselves.

It is so easy to exist instead of to live. I hope that I learned to live many years ago and am still learning each day. And I urge you to treasure your friends, your family, the breath of air you inhale every moment, treasure this moment. And work at loving others and expressing that love to them. Okay, I want each of you today to do this for me: write a letter to somebody and tell them you appreciate them, kiss your mother or your father or your grandparents, hug your friends. Tell those friends who have touched you how much they have meant to you. Tell that classroom member how much he or she has meant to you. Tell those people who have touched you - "thank you." Get a life in which you are generous to those around you.

A poem I read to many of my students at the beginning of each semester says it this way:

"If I had my life to live over again, I would try to make more mistakes the next time. I would relax. I would take more chances. I would take more trips. I would be sillier than I have been and more crazy. I would have more actual troubles and fewer imaginary ones. I would climb more mountains, swim more rivers and watch more sunsets...I would ride more merry-go-rounds. I would pick more daisies." And those of you that know me, I would ride more roller coasters and I would have rappelled down more mine shafts, and I would have started before I was in my mid-50s to do so, and be crazier next time around.

So I want you to go out from graduation this day and face life deliberately. Find the true life and embrace it. Don't come to die and suddenly realize you have never truly lived - living is so precious.

As Walter Wangerin Jr., my favorite author, who has advanced lung cancer, wrote me a few weeks ago: "Go for it. Go for it. Go hard for it."

So I say to each of you today: "Go for true life- the abundant life that Christ wants for you. Go for it. Go for it. Go hard for it."

God bless you each and everyone this graduation day, and thank you. You have shared part of your journey with me. Thank you so much - you'll never know how much you have meant to me. And I and all the faculty members who have been privileged to walk with you during this part of your life's journey thank you.