"Reflections on Hope in an Age of Cynicism"
Inter-religious Baccalaureate Service
May 17, 2003
Remarks of Dee Ann Casteel
Associate Professor of Chemistry
Graduates, Members of the Class of 2003, Family, Friends and Honored Guests - Good evening.
I am very pleased and honored to address to you tonight. Your graduation from Bucknell tomorrow marks an important moment in your lives. A time of farewells and a time of new beginnings. A time of looking forward to your new lives as adults with all the privileges and responsibilities that are entailed therein.
You begin your adult lives beyond Bucknell with a wealth of great gifts - your native intellect, the education your received in this place, both in the classroom and out, your industriousness which allowed to you reach this point, your energy, your enthusiasm, your good humor and your dreams. All these will serve you well in whatever future you have envisioned for your self - (or whatever future happens to you that you have not envisioned). Cherish them and value them. Continue to grow in wisdom and knowledge throughout your lives using the tools of inquiry and critical thinking that we, your faculty, hope we have fostered in you over these last four years.
We, you and I, have lived through an interesting four years. When you arrived on campus those four long years ago, could you have imagined the what was in store for you? The classes and the friends, the parties and the studying, the organizations and the fun?
Could you have imagined the terror of the events of 9/11?
It used to be easy to live inside Bucknell's "bubble," where all that one really needed to consider was the next exam or paper and the next time you could hang out with your friends. But we were all shaken in fundamental ways by the terrorist attacks. The ease, comfort, and security of our lives were shattered. Terror leaves us feeling terribly vulnerable; we had no control over events and actions. I certainly sat helplessly in front of the TV, watching almost mindlessly. Feelings of despair and hopelessness were common.
And then there was the war in Iraq. Would we attack? When? Who supports the US position? Perhaps members of your family were in harm's way, or your friends were. How many Iraqis would die? How many among the coalition forces? How would it turn out? Would weapons of mass destruction be used? Would more attacks of terrorism be the result?
We seem surrounded by violence, by enemies, by grim visions, by uncertainty. Vulnerability, despair, hopelessness. In spite of our exalted position as highly educated, informed individuals, we can often be tempted to throw up our hands, at least metaphorically, and throw in the towel. What can we do? What can anybody do?
Abbie Hoffmann observed in an article in Harper's magazine some 15 years ago:
"You travel around the country, and no matter where you go, people say, Don't waste your time, nothing changes, you can't fight the powers that be - no one can. You hear it a lot from young people. I hear it from my own kids: Daddy, you're so quaint to believe in hope. Kids today live with awful nightmares: AIDS will wipe us out; the polar ice cap will melt; the nuclear bomb will go off at any minute. Even the best tend to believe we are helpless to affect matters. It's no wonder teenage suicide is at a record level. Young people are detached from history, the planet, and, most important, the future."
"Even the best tend to believe we are helpless to affect matters." The best, that's you, you know. Do you believe, with all your skills and educations and newly-to-be-acquired credentials and promising futures, that you are helpless?
Detachment and cynicism do seem to be rather fashionable, chic. One would not wish to appear to care too much. Studied pessimism, or perhaps aloof disengagement is better. In an almost ironic twist, the more educated a person becomes, the more attractive such a stance can seem. We've seen it all; we know the score; we know that folks are only out for themselves and I'm going to take what I can get.
But stop. Please don't allow yourselves to be drawn down this path. As an alternative to living a life of detachment, cynicism, pessimism, disengagement, I ask you to consider living a life engaged by hope.
"Hope" as word and as a concept has become culturally undervalued, I believe. What does "hope" mean to you? I hope I did well on that exam [fortunately you don't have to worry about that one for a while unless you are headed to graduate or professional school], I hope my parents don't embarrass me tonight at the party [I hope so to], I hope my friend gets a job [most certainly], I hope grandma will get better. We use the word "hope" for a range of desires, from the trivial to the substantial and the profound. But often we are left with the sense that hope has no power to actually accomplish anything.
You've probably heard that golden oldie Wishin' and Hopin':
Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'
Plannin' and dreamin' each night of his charms
That won't get you into his arms
There it is, hope as just another, seriously ineffectual, route to whatever it is we desire.
But I have a different sense of hope, that there is something more there. I'm not talking metaphysics or psychic powers or anything, that if I hope something strongly enough, I can make it happen.
Rather, I'm looking to a deeper sense of hope.
Why is it that speakers always go to the dictionary to look up definitions of words when preparing a reflection such as this? Have you ever noticed that? Anyway, I looked up "hope."
Although there were many variations at dictionary.com, the words desire, expectation, future, promise were used in many of the definitions. [As an aside, "hope" as a synonym for trust or confidence is now an archaic usage. Who knew?]
But this one was my favorite:
* To desire with expectation or with belief in the possibility or prospect of obtaining; to look forward to as a thing desirable, with the expectation of obtaining it.
Not just desiring, not just wishin' and thinkin', but desiring with the expectation of obtaining it. Hope isn't wishing or dreaming, it's vision combined with work.
If we are to be a hopeful people, filled with a sense of the possible, we must expect it to happen and we must work so that it does happen. Do we hope for peace in our world? Then we must work for justice and oppose oppression. Do we hope for homes for the homeless and food for the hungry? Then we must build houses and provide meals. Do we hope for an end to violence and terrorism? Then we must seek to alleviate the root causes of violence and enmity.
One thing I'm sure of is that your four years here have given you a clearer vision, a deeper understanding, and the ability to question critically. Using these tools, you are in a position to creatively and hopefully address the problems and trials of your lives and of the world.
Where does one find a sense of hope? How do we "keep hope alive?" For me, a reliance on hope, an engagement through hope, a denial of hopelessness and despair, comes from many places.
From personal experience of the transcendent, the numinous, moving me to a renewal of spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
From the world's religions which inspire me in my spiritual life and which call me to respond to divine love by loving my neighbors;
From history itself, which despite all examples to the contrary, does hold evidence of the dignity of the human heart;
From humanist teachings which counsel me to heed the guidance of reason and science, and warns me against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
From the words and actions of prophetic women and men throughout history which challenge us to live with courage and to create the world we envision.
In thinking about the teachings of such prophets, I urge you to reflect again on the wonderful words of hope printed and read in this baccalaureate program. I have a few of my own to add to the list.
You have probably heard the quote from Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist:
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
These are hopeful words, reminding us that change for the better is possible and that we, you are the agents of that change.
And from Edmund Everett Hale, a writer
"I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do."
Empowering word of hope and possibility.
Just this past week I heard a story about an older couple, perhaps in their mid-80's who were slowly making their way around the garden center down near Shamokin Dam. They were buying trees to plant. How marvelous, how hopeful. They will never live to see the trees grow tall and offer shade to new generations of families. But they will plant trees nonetheless.
So I would urge you to consider taking one more gift with you as you go. It is not another course requirement or something to add to your resumé. It is rather a mindset, a way of being and acting in the world. If I would give you one gift this weekend, it would be hope.
Move forward with courage,
Fight against fear and detachment and cynicism,
Live with hope.
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