Monday, May 16, 2011

Find Your Passion - My Commencement Address At Widener University

On Saturday, May 14, 2011, I received the Doctor of Public Service, h.c. from Widener University and was privileged to offer the Commencement Address. Here's what I said:

Good morning, President Harris, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, parents and family, and most of all to the 846 graduating students.

I am moved almost beyond words by having my life’s work recognized by this prestigious university. People have asked me how it is that Widener, a university in Pennsylvania, heard of my work to award me this honorary doctorate. I've told them that when it comes to graduate training in human sexuality, you are the premier university in the country. One of my most important teachers and mentors, the Rev. Dr. William Stayton was a co-developer of the program, which began at the University of Pennsylvania in 1977. When Penn decided to close the program in 1999, Dr. Stayton brought it to Widener. Under the leadership of President Harris, and the direction first of Dr. Stayton and now Dr. Betsy Crane, the human sexuality program has grown to be the most outstanding preparation for sexuality professionals in the country and I am intensely proud to now be among its degree holders. Thank you from the deepest part of me.

I am deeply honored to have been asked to be your commencement speaker. To be honest, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed about it, as your previous commencement speakers have included your Congressman, a former Surgeon General of the United States, and then Senator Joe Biden. I can imagine that some of the students and parents are thinking “who is Debra Haffner and why didn’t we get a famous person to speak?” My mother and children who are here today are probably wondering that as well!

It has been said that every minister and rabbi really only has one sermon in them, and that every sermon is merely a variation of that theme. If I had to describe mine, it would be in the title of the second sermon I ever gave, “Life is Not a Dress Rehearsal.” Regardless of your individual eschatology (a word that I learned in seminary that means your understanding of what’s to come after our time in THIS world ends), that regardless of our individual beliefs, this the one life we for sure know we have been given, and it is up to us to create it as fully as we can.

You all probably remember the fairy tales that you were read when you were little. They often involved a prince and a princess, who met, fell in love, got married, and …(lived happily ever after…) When I read those stories to my own children when they were little, I would change the ending: they met, fell in love, got married…and it was a lot of work.

I wish I could promise you happily ever after, but like marriage, life is both wonderful and a lot of work.

Some of you may remember the Billy Crystal 1991 movie, “City Slickers”, about the middle age men on go on a cattle drive for a vacation? Curley, the crusty owner of the Ranch says,
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that….

So, I thought about just standing up today and saying, “just one thing” and sitting down. Dr. Harris told me that one of the most successful commencement addresses he ever heard was a young CEO of a company who stood up and said, “I was only a so so student at Widener. I graduated, started a company, made millions, retired at 35, and if I can do it, you can do it too” and sat down to a standing ovation.

For me, part of the “just one thing” is discovering your passion in life. Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner defines finding your passion, your call in life as the intersection of discerning “where the world’s greatest need meets your greatest joy.” Sexuality education and now sexuality and ministry are my calling.

I could not have imagined how my life would have turned out at my own college graduation, 35 years ago this spring. I was on my way to an internship in Congress in DC, on my way to law school, and what I hoped would be a career as first an attorney and then as an elected politician. If someone would have told me that 35 years later, I would be a sexologist minister – I would have laughed. It would be a little like telling me that 30 years from now, I’d be an astronaut!

My career has taken me to the most amazing places: to the set of the Golden Girls with then Surgeon General Koop to talk about Hollywood and the AIDS epidemic, to a meeting with the House of Lords with all of them in robes and wigs to talk about abstinence, to debating Bill O’Reilly on national television about whether the word uterus would damage kindergartners, to Thailand for the Peace Council. I could never have imagined any of these.

It’s also been about the quiet moments of ministry: blessing a newborn baby, conducting weddings including several of same sex couples under the threat of arrest, to holding someone’s hand as they lay dying and being with their family after, to the glorious night 8 years ago when I was ordained to the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

The point is that you cannot possibly know today what life will evolve for you. I hope that each of you will find what you love and then find or create a way to make a living doing it. Oscar Wilde famously said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

When I asked a young friend of mine graduating this spring for advice about today’s talk, she wrote me this on Facebook:
“Honestly, all of us are scared of the "real world". Just tell them we're all gonna be ok, and just to not let fear stand in the way of anything.” It reminded me of Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English mystic, who was the first woman to write a book in English. She wrote, "…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well"…and indeed, I want you to know it will be.

I also want you to know that it is more important to be happy than it is to be successful, and that the most important parts of your life will take place not in your workplace but with the people you love and who love you back. I’ve heard the principles of Buddhism described with these four simple statements, that I try to use to guide my life:

Show up…Speak the truth….Do what you do with enthusiasm….Don’t get attached to the outcome.

Of course, the last is the hardest. It is especially at those moments of greatest change that we need to do the first three – show up, speak the truth, do what you do with enthusiasm -- and trust that the rest will work out. Graduation is one of those moments, but so is falling in love, changing jobs, moving away, thinking about retirement…Sometimes, we have to be willing to trust that all will be well.

But, we can help ourselves along the way. Some of you may know about the relatively new field of study called positive psychology. We now know that there is a genetic component to happiness. But the research also tells us that happiness in life is even more based on our daily choices and actions than genetics. People who are happier:

Exercise, spend time in nature, Do good deeds and serve others, take the time for daily reflection, through journaling or meditating, have a strong support network including family and friends, belong to a religious community, and express gratitude each day.

Meister Eckardt, a thirteenth century mystic, wrote,
“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough”.

Today is a day for immense gratitude. I hope that at the end of the ceremony, you will say thank you to your parents and other family members who did so much for you to reach this place of graduation, remembering for many of you, you are the first people in your family to graduate from college. I want to say thank you to my husband and children today for the sacrifices and support they have given me to make today possible for me. The only prayer we ever need is thank you.

I want to end with a story of a small village a long long time ago. In that village, like in every village a long time ago, there was a wise old woman, who the people in the town revered and who helped them with their problems and questions. The teenagers in that town, like teenagers ever since, doubted their elders and sought to discredit the wise old woman. The leader of the pack of teenagers came up with an idea.

“Let us go to the wise old woman with a bird in our hands. We will say to her, “Wise woman, is the bird in our hands dead or alive? If she says alive, we will crush the bird with our hands and show her the dead bird. If she says dead, we will open our hands, and the bird will fly away. “

And they climb the hill, go to the wise woman’s home, and knock on the door. She comes out, and the leader says to her, “Wise woman, if you are so wise, is the bird in my hand dead or alive?”

She looked at them for a long long time and was quiet, so quiet that the teenagers could barely stand still. And then she spoke, “The answer is in your hands.”

Find your passion, show up, speak the truth with enthusiasm, be open to the adventures life offers you. The answer is in your hands. May you choose wisely and well throughout your lives. Thank you again for honoring me, and blessings to each of you on this graduation day.

1 comment:

Miss Dorothy Gale said...

Thank you for sharing such uplifting thoughts! Your words touch me in a special way as I am at a crossroad in my life. God be with you till we meet again.