In his May 10, 2015 Naropa University graduation address, Parker Palmer offered six brief suggestions about the road ahead of the graduating class of 2015. Parker, an accomplished author and scholar, is the founder of the Courage & Renewal Center and in 2011 was named an Utne Reader Visionary, one of “25 people who are changing your world.”
PARKER J. PALMER: Thank you so much, Jerry [Colona], dear friend, Naropa University graduating class, relatives, friends. I’m deeply moved and I’m profoundly grateful to be here.
This is a wonderful moment in everyone’s life, and I’m going to take just a brief moment of personal time to say it’s doubly wonderful for me because not only is my wife here, but my son and his wife, and my two little granddaughters ages 8 and 6 are here.[applause] […]
And I just want to say a word about them because I’ve been thinking a lot about them in the Naropa context.
So two years ago my wife and I were in Golden, and we were hiking in the foothills with Naiya, 6 years old, and Kiara, age 4 at the time. And they both were hiking barefoot up these rocky trails. I finally asked Naiya, “How can you do that? It hurts me just to watch you walk this terrain barefoot.” And she very quickly and instinctively said, “Well I’m a nature girl and nature loves me and I love nature except for the spiky parts.”[laughter]
At which point Kiara, then age 4, wanted to say something about herself, and she said, “And grandpa, I’m a vegetarian, except for bacon.”[laughter]
So my sense is these two fit the Naropa vibe, would you agree?[applause] […] I’m honored to be here but my true honor is that I get to share this important moment in the lives of the class of 2015. A deep bow to all of you, and a deep bow also to the friends, family, relatives, strangers, and to staff, faculty, and administration of Naropa University who have helped you come to this day.
Naropa is a very special place. I think some of you know that the contemplative teaching and learning movement is now getting traction in higher education around the country. It’s slow but it’s coming, coming to an extent one could not have imagined 40 years ago when this university was founded, let alone even 30 or 20 years ago. And Naropa has planted those seeds. This is a granary of something that is now growing. Our task is to the let the world know where the granary is…[applause]
…so let’s try to do that, get the word out. I have tried to be your emissary—I want to do that on into the future because I think what happens here is a very important contribution not only to you as individuals, but to higher education and to the world at large.
I have two modest graduation gifts for the class of 2015. I wish I had more to offer but, for now, this. The first is six brief suggestions about the road ahead of you, and the second is a promise to stop talking in about 12 minutes so you can get on that road sooner rather than later.
My first suggestion is simple. Be reckless when it comes to affairs of the heart.[cheering]
Now, since half of you misinterpreted that…[laughter]
It’s true I spent the 60’s in Berkeley, but I’m 76 now and… well there may be snow on the roof but there’s still a fire in the furnace.[laughter]
Anybody know CPR?[laughter]
What I really mean, parents and grandparents, is be passionate, fall madly in love with life. Be passionate about some part of the natural and/or human worlds and take risks on its behalf, no matter how vulnerable they make you. No one ever died saying, “I’m sure glad for the self-centered, self-serving and self-protective life I lived.”[laughter]
Offer yourself to the world—your energies, your gifts, your visions, your heart—with open-hearted generosity. But understand that when you live that way you will soon learn how little you know and how easy it is to fail. To grow in love and service, you, I, all of us, must value ignorance as much as knowledge and failure as much as success. I know this is ironic advice on graduation day, but clinging to what you already know and do well is the path to an unlived life. So, cultivate beginner’s mind, walk straight into your not knowing, and take the risk of failing and falling again and again, then getting up again and again to learn. That’s the path to a life lived large in service of love, truth, and justice.
Second, as you integrate ignorance and failure into your knowledge and success, do the same with all the alien parts of yourself. Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself. Let your altruism meet your egotism, let your generosity meet your greed, let your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow, even Buddhists, even Quakers, even high-minded people like us—especially high-minded people like us.[laughter]
But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good. Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection, it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of your life. As a person who, as Jerry said, has made three deep dives into depression along the way, I do not speak lightly of this. I simply know that it is true.
As you acknowledge and embrace all that you are, you give yourself a gift that will benefit the rest of us as well. Our world is in desperate need of leaders who live what Socrates called “an examined life.” In critical areas like politics, religion, business, and the mass media, too many leaders refuse to name and claim their shadows because they don’t want to look weak.[applause]
With shadows that go unexamined and unchecked, they use power heedlessly in ways that harm countless people and undermine public trust in our major institutions. If you value self-knowledge, you will become the leaders we need to help renew this society. But if for some reason—and I doubt that there’s anyone like this here—if for some reason you choose to live an unexamined life after you leave this place, I beg of you, do not take a job that involves other people.
Third, and critically important, as you welcome whatever you find alien within yourself, extend that same welcome to whatever you find alien in the outer world. I don’t know any virtue more important these days than hospitality to the stranger, to those we perceive as “other” than us. The old majority in this society, people who look like me, is on its way out.[applause]
By 2045 the majority of Americans will be people of color.[applause]
The sad fact is that many in the old majority fear that fact, and their fear, shamelessly manipulated by too many politicians, is bringing us down.[applause]
The renewal this nation needs will not come from people who are afraid of otherness in race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.[applause]
It’s because of that fear that our once-vital society is gridlocked and stagnant, and our main hope for renewal is diversity, welcomed and embraced.
I recently met a professor on a visit to southern California who had left a prestigious institution, predominantly white, to teach undocumented youth in southern California. I asked him how it was going, and he said, “Best move I ever made. My previous students felt entitled and demanded to be entertained. My undocumented students are hungry to learn, hard-working, and courageous enough to keep moving out of their comfort zones.” America will be renewed by people with these qualities.[applause]
And if we who have privilege and power will welcome them, collaborate with them, and help remove the obstacles in their way, 2045 will be a year of great promise for all of us.
Fourth, take on big jobs worth doing—jobs like the spread of love, peace, and justice. That means refusing to be seduced by our cultural obsession with being effective as measured by short-term results. We all want our work to make a difference, but if we take on the big jobs and our only measure of success is next quarter’s bottom line, we’ll end up disappointed, dropping out, and in despair.
Think of someone you respect because he or she lived a life devoted to high values—a Rosa Parks, a Nelson Mandela, or someone known only to a few. At the end of the road was that person able to say, “I’m sure glad I devoted my life to that job, because now everyone in the world can check it off their to do lists forever and ever.” No, our heroes take on impossible jobs and stay with them for the long haul because they live by a standard that trumps effectiveness. The name of that standard, I think, is faithfulness—faithfulness to your gifts, faithfulness to your perception of the needs of the world, and faithfulness to offering your gifts to whatever needs are within your reach.
The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results. Public education is a tragic example. We in this country no longer care about educating children, a big job that’s never done. We care only about getting kids to pass tests with measurable results.[applause]
And we care about that whether or not, or without even considering, whether they measure anything that matters. In the process, we’re crushing the spirits of a lot of good teachers and vulnerable kids. Care about being effective, of course, but care even more about being faithful, as countless teachers do—faithful to your calling, and to the true needs of those entrusted to your care. You won’t get the big jobs done in your lifetime, but if at the end of the day you can say, “I was faithful,” I think you’ll be okay.[applause]
Fifth, […] since suffering as well as joy comes with being human, I urge you to remember this: Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering. Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering. Sometimes we aim that violence at ourselves, as in overwork that leads to burnout or worse, or in the many forms of substance abuse. Sometimes we aim that violence at other people—racism, sexism, and homophobia often come from people trying to relieve their suffering by claiming superiority over others. The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death. It happens every day.
I’m 76 years old, I now know many people who’ve suffered the loss of the dearest person in their lives. At first they go into deep grief, certain that their lives will never again be worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that not in spite of their loss, but because of it, they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys. These are broken-hearted people, but their hearts have been broken open, rather than broken apart. So every day exercise your heart, by taking in life’s little pains and joys. That kind of exercise will make your heart supple, the way a runner makes a muscle supple, so that when it breaks, (and it surely will,) it will break not into a fragment grenade, but into a greater capacity for love.
Sixth, and finally, I quote Saint Benedict (not a Buddhist but still worth quoting) who said, “Daily, keep your death before your eyes.” That may sound like a morbid practice, but as I think you know, it isn’t. If you hold a healthy awareness of your own mortality, your eyes will be opened to the grandeur and glory of life, and that will evoke all of the virtues I’ve named, as well as those I haven’t, such as hope, generosity, and gratitude. If the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining.
So I’ll close with this brief quote from a great writer Diane Ackerman, who reminds us to live, truly live, our lives:
“The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat an unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies between.”
Once again, a deep bow to the class of 2015. To each and every one of you, traveling mercies and blessings as you make the journey from one mystery to the next and the next and the next.[applause]
Following his commencement address, Parker Palmer was presented with Naropa’s first-ever Honorary Doctorate in Contemplative Education. Naropa Provost Janet Cramer presented Palmer with the honorary degree and acknowledged his leadership and numerous contributions to education, social justice, and compassion. Her remarks appears below:
PROVOST JANET CRAMER PRESENTS PARKER WITH AN HONORARY DOCTORATE:
“Naropa University today honors Dr. Palmer J. Parker with an honorary degree. Honorary degrees are given to individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements and who are widely known and highly regarded in a specific field related to a university and its mission. Certainly, Parker J. Palmer is a respected, admired, and highly regarded proponent of contemplative education.”
“In 1993, core faculty at Naropa received copies of Palmer’s book, To Know as We are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, and this book became a focus of our early conversations on contemplative teaching. In 1997, Dr. Palmer was the keynote speaker at our “Spirituality and Education” conference that drew the University into the spotlight as the leading institution in contemplative education.”
“And so, today, with the authority granted to me as Provost, and with the support of the President and the faculty of Naropa University, I confer upon Parker J. Palmer, the degree of Doctor of Contemplative Education honoris causa.”