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May 10, 2017 / Kerry Alys Robinson

Imagining Abundance & Choosing Joy

Commencement Address, Emory & Henry, May 6, 2017

Kerry Alys Robinson

E & H commencment

Congratulations Class of 2017!

“Nothing is more endangered in the modern world than the powerful combination of hard work toward meaningful goals joined with an exuberant embrace of the present moment.”

You have worked very hard and deserve to heed Tom Morris’ advice. Exuberantly embrace this present moment and regard this momentous day with immense gratitude.

When you arrived on campus for the first time, did you imagine this day? Here you are at the commencement ceremonies surrounded by professors, parents, grandparents, siblings and classmates – some of who will be your close friends for the rest of your lives. Your remarkable and inspiring president, Jake Schrum and all who are assembled here are so very proud of you. And the truth is you are loved beyond measure. You have a right to be proud of your accomplishments and we celebrate you today. But no one is solely responsible for his or her success. So many people here- your family, friends, teachers and staff at Emory & Henry have positively impacted you, championed you, and contributed to your accomplishments, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. Remember to be grateful to them and for them. Remember to express that gratitude, especially to your family members who made it possible for you to be where you are today.

It might sound platitudinous, even in your early twenties, but there is no more meaningful path to a joyful life than gratitude. Its so easy to focus on what is lacking, on the imperfect, on the negative, to be tempted by cynicism, to be genuinely anxious, or resentful. In some ways we have done a very poor job with your inheritance: unprecedented political divisiveness and acrimony at home and abroad. Poor care of our common home, a growing disparity between the rich and poor, age old sicknesses of racism and sexism, forced migration and burgeoning refugee camps where some young adults your age have lived their entire lives. Famine and the risk of starvation affecting 20 million people in Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria right now. The threat of violence and terrorism worldwide. Always being a click away from vitriol, or evidence of the pathology of a culture of indifference. But you don’t have to succumb to a despairing worldview. You don’t have to be coopted by insidious cynicism, abandon your idealism, your hope in the future, or your compassion in the face of another’s suffering.

“To whom much is given much is expected.” And you have been given much. Today you receive your diploma from college, from this college, Emory & Henry, the oldest institution of higher learning in Southwest Virginia. With Methodist roots, you have been formed in the ethos of John Wesley: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

The truth is no one can promise you an easy life, assure you of material comfort, longevity, health, or further accomplishments, a life free of sorrow or tragedy, or hardship. Generations of philosophers, theologians and thought leaders have tried to make sense of human suffering. I have come to believe that we may never understand why bad things happen to good people, we may never understand the reason for suffering or tragedy, but we can always find profound meaning in our response to suffering- our own, the suffering of those close to us, and the suffering of a broken world.

Be aware. Pay attention. Be present. Don’t rush by any part of your one wild and precious life. Remember that you cannot protect yourself from sorrow without also protecting yourself from joy. Cultivate a merciful heart. Encounter people who are different than you. Accompany people who are in far greater need than you. Let your heart break by this beautiful world and our common humanity.

March 8th is International Women’s Day and for the past four years – as incongruous as this may sound- I have celebrated it in the heart of the Vatican. This year I moderated a panel of exceptionally wise and accomplished women leaders from three continents as part of Voices of Faith. One of the panelists, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Dr. Scilla Elworthy, posed two simple questions: “What breaks your heart? And what are you good at?” Her advice is that knowing the answers to these questions and connecting those answers will set you on a life of meaning, purpose and fulfillment.

I can’t help but marvel that she is speaking directly to you, Emory & Henry Class of 2017. You were here when the Ampersand Institute was created and dedicated. No other college has such an institute, as its director Tracy Lauder asserts, to empower students to connect what you care about to what you are learning so you can design and implement projects that contribute to our community and our world.

In fact this very college was founded on the principles of vital faith and civic engagement. The transformative academic community at Emory & Henry allows for your education to be distinguished by advancement toward expanded potential and civic responsibility. Emory & Henry has been preparing you for the sweet spot of meaningful work: the perfect combination of what you are passionate about combined with what you are good at, coupled with being paid for it, in response to what the world needs. What a legacy and what formation you have had in your four years on this beautiful campus.

It might seem strange to think about one’s legacy at the age of 21 or 22 but it is a worthwhile exercise. At the end of your life, what would you like people to say about you? Now, what do you need to do today, and tomorrow, and next week and next year to ensure that is your legacy?

John Raskob is my great-grandfather; he died before I was born.

He dreamed of creating the world’s tallest building and imagined how high it could be without falling over. In the late 1920s he called a press conference to announce that he would build and finance what would become the Empire State Building in New York City. Almost immediately after his bold announcement in 1929, the market crashed. No one expected John Raskob to keep his plans but it was a matter of integrity and prescience to him. The building project continued—but now thousands of people were employed to provide as much opportunity for work as possible. Multiple records were broken as the skyscraper rose.

Today it is one of the most iconic buildings in the world. But here is the little known fact: It took forty years before the building reached full occupancy. Most people scoffed at the folly of his imagination and conviction. But John Raskob was a remarkable leader of profound vision. He knew that he did not need to live to see the results of his vision and hard work for it to have value for others.

It has been said that the greater the leader, the farther out extends the leader’s vision. While many of us are looking toward the end of the week in anticipation of Friday, a great leader is looking out 40 or 50 years to anticipate a future. A necessary corollary is courage and tenacity, the ability to stick to one’s vision and conviction when everything else is conspiring to dissuade you of that vision.

I have marveled my whole life at the tenacity of visionaries who work toward a more just and charitable world. It is activity not for the faint of heart. To be committed is to be committed for the long haul. My best friend quips that “if you need to see the immediate results of your work, paint houses.”Imagine all that can be brought to fruition by leaders who possess this particular constellation of qualities: vision, courage, tenacity and a radical commitment to making this a better, more just and joyous world.

What broke John Raskob’s heart was witnessing potential being squandered usually because of the fear of failure. What he was good at was thinking big, charting a course of action, ensuring his intentions were sound, acting on his convictions and never giving up.

My beautiful friend Mary Ann Wasil was forty when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Rather than give in to the heavy weight of sorrow and anxiety that her cancer presented in her life – the worst thing that had happened to her – she was able to take the experience of her diagnosis and convert it to be a blessing for others. Mary Ann founded the Get in Touch Foundation to change the world one girl at a time and advance breast health advocacy. She had an insatiable belief in the importance of girls and women to be informed and strong. And she believed that service was the pathway to joy and purpose. She would be delighted and proud that the chair of Emory & Henry’s board – who is with us today – is Gary Reedy, CEO of the American Cancer Society.

What broke Mary Ann’s heart was knowing one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. What she was good at was offering hope to women and men affected by cancer, speaking with breathtaking passion, and advocating for women and girls.

When most of you were still in high school, preparing to come to Emory & Henry, the world was preparing for the birth of the 7 billionth person. My super creative and talented friend, Valerie Belanger, conceived of a global art installation centered on one question: “What would you say to the 7 billionth person?

The answers, in a variety of media, fell along a spectrum: alarming, anxious prognostication about the dire state of the world into which this child would be born on one end and heartfelt, hopeful joy for a child we have been waiting to welcome on the other.

Where would your response fall?

People of faith, people of good will, are instructed to bear joy and to bear witness to joy even in the midst of oppression, suffering, poverty and broken-heartedness. This is not facile joy, but joy that comes from faith, faith in God and faith in something larger than oneself. It is a spiritual discipline to cultivate. Faith that it is possible to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. Faith that it is possible to correct unjust structures. Faith that it is possible to eliminate extreme poverty and inequality. Faith that it is possible to ensure potable water and food for all people. Faith that peace can be achieved, that reconciliation can be effected, that forgiveness can be extended.

How in the midst of communal and personal suffering can one access joy, let alone radiate it? It seems incongruous, if not impossible.

I understand, therefore, why some of the submissions for my friend’s art installation depicted scenes of violence, hunger, toxicity, human trafficking and genocide, alerting the 7 billionth person to the kind of world she or he will find.

Life does not have to be perfect for us to find reasons to be grateful. In the midst of tremendous human suffering there can be found compassion, mercy, altruism and love. Be aware of such grace and human kindness. It is everywhere, even and especially when there is concomitant human anguish and loss. Rejoice in this. Gratitude begets gratitude. Blessings multiply. And the fruit of the habit of gratitude is that soon one experiences blessing where before one experienced only lament.

When we bear witness to joy we offer hope to a broken world. And the world needs hope.

So my favorite submissions centered on welcoming the 7th billion person as a celebration of wonderful news, with open arms and love. “Welcome! You are the one we have been waiting for. We are so glad you have come.”

In a surprise appearance by video at the TED talks last month in Vancouver, Pope Francis said, “The future [has] a name, and its name is hope. A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another ‘you,’ and another ‘you,’ and it turns into an ‘us.’

What breaks Pope Francis heart is a culture of indifference in the face of human suffering, especially the suffering of the poor, the imprisoned, refugees, and victims of violence. What he is good at is having his actions match his words, of restoring our faith in the goodness of humankind, of embodying mercy.

What breaks your heart? What are you good at? As you discover the answers to those questions, as you prepare to take leave of this beautiful campus with greater knowledge and deep friendships remember what contributes to a life of meaning, purpose and joy:

  • Be grateful.
  • Be aware.
  • Pay attention
  • Serve others by being a beneficial presence in their lives.
  • Notice and acknowledge even small details that brings you joy.
  • Laugh often and well.
  • Don’t waste one minute of your time being anything other than fully alive.
  • Think big.
  • Be generous.
  • Extend the benefit of the doubt to others.
  • Surround yourself with people who ennoble your spirit.
  • Be the biggest, best version of yourself.
  • Know your priorities.
  • Begin each day with a little awe and enthusiasm.
  • Resist cynicism.
  • Celebrate what is right in order to find the energy to fix what is wrong.
  • Tell the people you love how much you love them. Show them how much you love them.
  • Be the reason for someone’s hope each day.
  • Imagine abundance.
  • And every day, every single day, choose joy.

Congratulations Class of 2017. Thank you for the exquisite privilege of being with you to celebrate and honor you.

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3 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. snikkel / May 11 2017 6:08 am

    Beautiful, Kerry! xoxo

  2. Sandy / May 11 2017 11:58 am

    How lucky your audience! Beautifully written and I’m sure even more beautifully spoken! I’m saving this! 💞

  3. Laurie Eason / May 13 2017 11:27 am

    What a blessing for me (us) to be able to share such marvelous words beyond our family into the world. Thank you for sharing your message beyond the original audience. You are a blessing!

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