With the incoming Class of 2004 poised at the beginning of the Hope College experience, speaker Gerald Sittser offered a suggestion for facing the future: focus wisely on the present.
Sittser, a 1972 Hope graduate who is a member of the religion faculty at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., presented "The Wonder of the Present Moment" during the Opening Convocation for the college's 139th academic year on Sunday, Aug. 27, in Dimnent Memorial Chapel. Approximately 1,000 people, mostly new students and their families, attended the event. Classes begin on Tuesday.
While he acknowledged that college is certainly an appropriate time to consider one's future direction, Sittser stressed that the future is too uncertain to rely upon.
"Sooner or later you'll also learn how little control we human beings really have," he said. "However well we plan and well prepared we are, we're going to encounter surprises along the way--some wanted, some not."
"This present moment is the only time we really have," he said. "The past is done, unchangeable and irretrievable, like a baseball that's left the pitcher's hand, headed straight toward the batter's box. The future is not here yet; it only looms ahead as a range of possibilities, any one of which could become a reality."
The key to living in the present, Sittser said, is to accept and live it well. He described a nun that he met who served at an orphanage in Kenya. Her daily routine, he said, featured primarily helping the children, prayer and meals, and earned only one month off every seven years, and yet he found that she accepted it serenely. He also cited the Bill Murray character in the film "Groundhog Day." Forced to relive the same day repeatedly, the character reacts first selfishly and then with despair, but ultimately uses the experience to learn and to help those around him.
As the students approach their own present moments, he offered two suggestions.
"First, I suggest that you be attentive to the little things," he said. "There'll be daily reading assignments, weekly quizzes and papers, conflicts with roommates, jobs, service opportunities, down-time with friends, moral challenges, often very subtle, that quietly demand attention. It will be easy to overlook these little things."
"Yet the little things we do build habits, however good or bad; they develop character, whether admirable or despicable; and they set a course for our lives, whether toward excellence or mediocrity," he said.
"Second, I suggest that you be attentive to one big thing," Sittser said. "While at Hope, search with all your heart for truth. It's the one opportunity you will have when time and resources are at your disposal for just such a search."
In particular, he said, the students should search for religious truth. "The answers to your questions about God are the most critical of all," he said. "It is the one 'big thing' that I encourage you to put at the center of your education at Hope College."
The answers, he said, can help in future uncertainty. While it is not "fair," he said, when bad things happen, neither is it fair when good things do. The good things in life, Sittser said, come not because they are deserved, but because of "God's undeserved favor." Such grace, he said, reflects God's love for humanity.
"A few minutes ago I mentioned a young Catholic nun who embraced the present moment with such serenity. I realize now that the reason why she could do the little things so well in the orphanage, so peacefully and so contentedly, is because she had been attentive to one big thing," he said. "In her search for God she learned that in Christ God had been searching for her. She lived in grace. And that made all the difference."