The Catholic University of America

Class of 2016 Conovcation Address
"A Sense of Your Own Story"
Sarah Duggin, Professor of Law and Director of the Law and Public Policy Program
Great Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Sept. 12, 2012

 

 
  Sarah Duggin addresses the Class of 2016.
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Thank you, Dr. Brennan!

President Garvey, Dr. Brennan, Dr. Mack, Professor Lidh, Fr. Morosowich, Fr. Jude, deans, faculty, members of the CUA community, good morning!

Welcome to CUA, Class of 2016! I am so honored to be here with you today!

Just a few weeks ago, you each began a new chapter in your life. All around you a new story is unfolding, and you’re the star. The story that you create during your time in college will be one of the most important stories in your life. It will become an essential part of who you are.

Stories are powerful. For thousands of years, human beings have told stories – around campfires, in churches and temples, in schools and theaters, and, more recently, through electronic media. Psychologists tell us that our deepest learning often occurs through stories. As our earliest ancestors knew instinctively, a story is a precious treasure.

Do you remember when you first heard about Adam and Eve in the garden or Noah and the animals in the ark? Every great religion communicates important lessons through stories. For many of us, the Hebrew Bible tells the stories of our earliest ancestors in faith. The gospels tell the story of Jesus’ life and teachings, and Jesus himself taught about the Kingdom of God through stories called parables. Good stories strike a chord in our hearts and touch us at the deepest levels of our being. It’s sometimes said that “[t]he shortest distance between a human being and the Truth is a story.”i

Stories are all around us. Every family has its own special stories – tales repeated so often that even the youngest members know them by heart. What stories does your family tell about you? I’ll bet there are a few you wish your relatives would forget, . . . yet, somehow they never do.

Stories are essential to our identity as Americans. We read the Declaration of Independence and study the Constitution, but stories shape our identity – tales of Native Americans, Pilgrims and Puritans, George Washington and the terrible winter at Valley Forge, families braving the Oregon Trail in covered wagons, immigrants arriving at Ellis Island or crossing the Rio Grande, the moon landing. As a noted science fiction writer points out: “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but . . . no societies that did not tell stories.”ii

A month ago the whole world watched the Summer Olympics in London. We saw Jamaica’s Usain Bolt crowned the fastest man alive in the 100-meter race, Gabby Douglas win gold in gymnastics, and Michael Phelps become the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. But it wasn’t just about the winners. Do you remember the standing ovation the crowd gave Sarah Attar, the young Saudi woman who crossed the 800-meter finish line last in her heat? Why did they cheer? They cheered because they knew her story – the saga of the great courage it took for Sarah to become the first Saudi woman to compete in an Olympic track and field event. Then there was South African Oscar Pristorius who ran the 400-meter sprint on artificial legs. His story has inspired people seeking to overcome disabilities throughout the world.

There’s something else intriguing about stories, too. We use language to tell stories, but stories themselves give new meaning to words. For example, we all know what it means to say someone is a “good Samaritan.” Few of us are experts on the moral qualities of people from Samaria, but we all know the story of the man who helped an injured stranger on the road to Jericho. Contemporary stories, too, help to shape the way we communicate. I suspect you’d all understand me if I said, “May the force be with you,” or “May the odds be ever in your favor!” I doubt you’d think I was talking about physics or mathematics.

Listening to others’ stories helps us to understand who they are and how they perceive the world. Stories can open our hearts and minds to new ideas, even across great cultural divides. They teach us about love and courage and reaching for the stars; they help us to become better, stronger, more caring people.

Perhaps most importantly, our sense of our own story helps us find meaning in our lives. Let me give you an example. Several years ago, I got separated from my husband and one of my sons in a northern African city. I tried to help a disabled man and had an encounter with a policeman. Fortunately, everything turned out okay.

So what did I just say? Not very memorable was it? But what if I recounted those same facts as a story – the way they are written in my heart?

Late one afternoon, my husband, son and I were walking with a guide through another world – the narrow, curving streets of the kasbah of an ancient North African city. Shadowy passages twisted and turned in every direction along paths utterly incomprehensible to me. At one point, we came upon a small open space. I stopped to look at the beautiful tiles surrounding the door of an otherwise humble home. Then I saw something that nearly tore my heart in two. Not far from where I stood, a man with badly misshapen limbs was crawling along on all fours. He had rags tied around his hands and knees to shield them from the uneven cobblestones. Without thinking, I went over to the man and tried to talk with him. But he didn’t look up, so I put a hand on his shoulder. I didn’t have much money with me, but I hoped that the few Euros in my pocket might help him. I knelt beside him and handed him the coins. He didn’t seem to recognize the Euros as money, but he took them. Then he spoke rapidly in a language I couldn’t understand.

All at once a dark shape loomed over us. I looked up to see a formidable man with a large moustache. He was wearing a military uniform; he had a gun at his hip; and he looked very severe. He spoke in a voice that sounded stern and harsh. “I don’t understand,” I replied, “Do you speak English? Parlez vous francais?” But he only shook his head. He motioned to me to stand. “Oh, no,” I thought. “What have I done? Have I violated some cultural taboo? I felt for the scarf I had tied over my hair earlier that day, but it had slipped off. Was it a crime to be a bareheaded woman in this traditional neighborhood? Or perhaps he thought I meant some harm to the disabled man? How could I explain when he couldn’t understand me? Visions of medieval jail cells flashed through my head. I looked around. It was dark; somehow afternoon had morphed into night. Hardly anyone else was afoot, and my family had disappeared. I felt very alone and very vulnerable.

The man in the uniform said something to the disabled man. He nodded, and, surprisingly quickly, he crawled away. Now I really was alone. Fearing the worst, I said a quick prayer, swallowed hard, and faced the uniformed man. What now? We regarded one another gravely. “This is not good,” I thought. I wondered if I could make a run for it, but I had no idea where to go. I could see the headlines: “Law professor shot fleeing police.” But then something totally unexpected happened. The uniformed man looked into my eyes, and, in heavily accented English, he said, simply “God bless you.”

At that point, my husband reappeared striding quickly toward me. The uniformed man bowed slightly, then walked away. My family and I followed the guide back to our inn. But the world seemed different somehow; now those narrow passages were filled with grace.

As Dr. Brennan mentioned, I’m an Episcopal priest as well as a law professor. I’ve received many blessings in my life, yet few have affected me so deeply. That blessing has become an integral part of my story, a chapter that helps me to remember that God’s grace is all around us if only we open our hearts.

As writer Isak Dinesen once said, “To be [human] is to have a story to tell.”iii

Members of the Class of 2016, it’s your turn to create your story. You’ve always had a story, but, until now, your parents and family have been your directors, producers, publicists and editors. As you begin your college career, you are at an amazing point in your lives. Your story is yours to shape in whole new ways. Your teachers and coaches will set rules you need to follow, but each one of you is living your own unique story right here and right now. You’re the star, and it’s a 3-D, living color, multi-media, full surround sound production.

Too often, we think of life stories as memoirs written by old people, but, whether we’re 97 or 17, we have the power to shape our own stories. Understanding our lives as our stories helps us to realize where we’ve been and focus on where we want to go. It also enables us to see past life’s inevitable disappointments. When bad things happen and it’s hard to get through the day, having a sense of your story can provide perspective and help you look beyond the sadness and pain to the better times sure to follow.

This year, many of you are eligible to vote for the first time. Listen as candidates for offices at every level – and their spouses – strive to present their stories as the embodiment of the American dream. Why? They understand the power of stories. As you go forward in life, you, too, will be called upon to tell your story in many different ways. You’ve already begun by talking with new roommates and introducing yourselves to classmates, teachers and teammates. Before long you’ll be applying for summer work and later a job or a graduate program. In today’s world it’s not enough to give prospective employers or grad schools a list of facts on a piece of paper. To succeed, you need to be able to articulate a compelling story in a way that helps others understand who you are and what unique gifts you offer.

This is a great time to be young. There are lots of challenges in the world, but there are even more opportunities to make a difference – from pitching in to help fight poverty to exploring Mars. You have the ability to access the whole world from your cell phones. Just think of the things you can do in your lifetime!

In some ways, though, you face greater challenges than any past generation in defining who you are. Several years ago, philosopher and teacher Sam Keen wrote:

The parable of the postmodern mind is the person surrounded by a media center: three television screens . . . giving three sets of stories; fax machines bringing in other[s]. . .; newspapers providing still more . . . the effect of being bombarded with all of these points of view is that [too often] . . . we don’t have a story. We lose the continuity of our experiences; we become people who are written on from the outside.iv

Today we need to add in laptops, tablets, smartphones, iPods, social media, Facebook timelines, Twitter, crowd sourcing and so much more. Terrific as these things are, the danger of becoming people who are written on from the outside is escalating. Don’t let it happen to you!

This is your chance to create your own story, and the possibilities for how it will unfold are endless. You’ve already begun by reflecting and blogging on the wonderful collection of materials you received last spring entitled, “In a Sense All Things.” I’ve read the reflections posted on MyCUA, and I am really impressed with your thoughtfulness, as well as the scope and insight of your comments. Taking time for reflection is important. Your story will be authentically your own only if it comes from deep within you.

What kind of story will you create in your college years? Whatever you do, I’d like to ask you to keep three things in mind.

First, every story needs a chapter in which the hero or heroine bravely explores uncharted terrain. You’re here at CUA to learn and – equally important – to learn how to learn. Stretch yourself – explore new things. If you’re a math person, take a music course, or study art history. If you’re a budding playwright, try a physics or biology course. If you’ve never been into sports, see how much fun it is to cheer on the Cardinals, or try exploring a new sport yourself. Remember that learning how to deal with things that are new and unexpected is essential to succeeding in life. You never know what will turn the odds in your favor. I hear that archery can really come in handy sometimes! And don’t forget to explore our nation’s capital, its centers of government, its wonderful museums, its vibrant arts scene, its monuments to great leaders and it memorials to the men and women who gave their lives for our freedom.

Second, your life will be infinitely richer if you remember that your story is not just about you. Life is about relationship. You are part of a CUA community that dates back more than 125 years. Never doubt that every one of us – our Chancellor Cardinal Wuerl, President Garvey, Dr. Brennan, Fr. Jude, your deans and administrators, and the wonderful staff who work so hard to keep you safe and well in every way – cares deeply about each one of you. Then there are your professors! We have stories, too, and we want to help you create your story. Get to know us in person, not just by email. Ask questions in class; stop by during officer hours. Come visit the law school; sit in on a class. You’re the reason we’re here! And don’t forget the people whose love and support helped you get to CUA. Talk to your family and friends – especially about the things that matter most to you. Remember, too, that we are all called to protect the weak and defend the vulnerable. Reach out to those in need. CUA has an amazing tradition of volunteer work; make caring for others an integral part of your story.

Third, and most importantly, remember that you are spirit as well as flesh. Even when you encounter physical limits, your mind and heart still have wings to soar, and, in Aristotle’s words, your soul “is in a sense all things.”v Look around you at this incredible basilica; feel the columns and arches reaching toward heaven. Here at CUA you are surrounded by people who love God and seek to serve God in all that they do. If your faith is strong, good for you. Nourish it. If you’re not so sure, spend some time exploring your relationship with God during the next four years. It’s hard to find a better place to do so. However your life unfolds – even when those you care about let you down, even when you’re angry with yourself – never forget that your story will always be a love story, the story of the love beyond all measure that God offers each and every one of us and calls us to offer one another.

What will your story be? I can’t begin to predict, but I can tell you that the world needs your story. You are our next generation of leaders, and each of you has a unique contribution to make. You’re now part of a great university. We will do everything in our power to ensure that you never become people who are written on from the outside; we are committed to helping you to find a sense of your own story. Whatever path you choose, I’d say that the odds are already very much in your favor.

A few moments ago, I told you the story of a blessing in my life. In closing, I pray that your lives will be filled with blessings. CUA’s motto is Deus lux mea est (God is my light). May you always walk in the light of God’s love, and may that love shine forth in each chapter, page and verse of your story, now and always.

Class of 2016, it’s your turn. Make it your story!

i Rev. Anthony DeMello, S.J., Myths, in ONE MINUTE WISDOM 23 (1988).
ii Ursula K. LeGuin, Susan Wood, ed., THE LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT: ESSAYS ON FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION (1979).
iii Isak Dinesen, LAST TALES 3 (1957).
iv Sam Keen, Our Mythic Stories, in SACRED STORIES: A CELEBRATION OF THE POWER OF STORY TO TRANSFORM AND HEAL 28 (Charles H. Simpkinson & Anne A. Simpkinson eds., 1993) (emphasis supplied).
v Aristotle, DE ANIMA, Taylor Fayle, trans., from Ed. W.D. Ross, DE ANIMA (1956), quoted in Todd M. Lidh, Nicholas Kruckenberg, Taylor Fayle and Philip de Mahy, eds., IN A SENSE ALL THINGS: A CUA PRIMER (2012).