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Lives that Speak

Paul C. Pribbenow
Augsburg College President Paul C. Pribbenow

Here is an excerpt from my Honors Convocation address this spring.

The title for my address this afternoon is a play on a meaningful Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.”  In his book of the same title, educator and honorary Auggie Parker Palmer recounts his own vocational journey.  Initially he interpreted “Let your life speak” to mean find the most inspiring causes and individuals in the world and seek to be like them.  But after many epic fails at that pursuit, he instead comes to know that “Let your life speak” means to listen to your own values and gifts and passions so that yours might be the life you were intended to live – not someone else’s.  And therein is the turn I want to make in my remarks to you on this special occasion.  Even as we gather here today to honor and celebrate you, I want to boldly proclaim that each of you has lived here among us with a life that has spoken loud and clear with exceptional intellect, hard work, and moral passion in the classroom, on campus, in the neighborhood and around the world.  You honor us with your lives that speak.

So, what lessons have we learned from your lives that will continue to shape Augsburg into the future?  I trust others gathered here will share why they believe you deserve to be honored, but here are four lessons I’ve gained from your good work here.

First, you’ve shown me over and over again how intellect and experience cannot be separated.  You embody the 20th century educational philosopher John Dewey’s idea that education is not preparation for real life, it is real life.  I was with a group of our students in 2014 at our campus site in Cuernavaca, Mexico.  We spent a couple of days visiting various sites – a bathing suit factory made possible by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an indigenous village where the residents lived with unhealthy and unjust conditions.  These were long and stressful days, full of experiences that challenged our hearts and senses and minds.  And I’ll never forget the moment as we were about to leave the village after a wrenching and exhausting day when one of our students asked for reflection time.  And even though a few of us groaned in our weariness, she didn’t want to leave the experience she had just had – as difficult as it had been – without seeking to understand, to reflect upon, to integrate into her own thinking what she had just seen and done.  This integration of theory and practice that is at the heart of an Augsburg education is not something to be taken for granted.  I visit lots of other colleges and universities in my work, and students often comment that they feel “under a bubble” while in school there.  There is no Augsburg bubble and we have you to thank for showing us what it means to be what MIT professor, Donald Schön, has called, “reflective practitioners,” those who practice the art of linking reflection and experience in every aspect of your life.

You’ve also taught me how to love this place.  The pride you have in this college and its place in the heart of the city is tangible in your spirit and t-shirts and good work to make this college and neighborhood even stronger.  From the time you first arrived for SOAR and were assigned to a neighborhood, you have been stewards of this place in myriad ways.  You have settled here and taken good care of what has been entrusted to us on this campus and in our neighborhood.  There are tangible results of your stewardship of this place in a Campus Cupboard to meet the needs of your fellow students, in your engagement on behalf of lives that matter, in more and more attention to our carbon footprint, and the care you have taken to create a safer and more vibrant neighborhood.  The novelist Wallace Stegner once wrote that the American psyche is in tension between what he calls “the boomers,” those who go into a place, use it up and then leave – and “the stickers,” those who settle in a place and work to renew it and make it better.  You have taught me again the importance of “sticking,” of staying and settling in. At Augsburg, we accompany and settle alongside our neighbors.  We pursue education in this place, equipping each other for lives of meaning and purpose.  We welcome each other in this place, sustaining a community of hospitality and mutual respect.  We love and are faithful to this place that has been our home for almost 145 years.

And you’ve taught me not to be afraid of the other, the stranger.  We live in a world of fear and violence and separation.  We too often marginalize the stranger, retreating to what the late sociologist Robert Bellah called “our lifestyle enclaves,” mingling with those with whom we share culture and skin color and income status, trying to find safety away from the uncomfortable, the unknown.  But, of course – as you have taught us well – retreating doesn’t work because the world only becomes more dangerous and polarized and frightened.  Here at Augsburg you have lived into a community of hospitality and justice that embraces otherness and difference, that faces the tensions and complexities of diverse perspectives and experiences, that seeks to engage what political theorist Michael Walzer calls a “thick” sense of life together, not trying to minimalize our differences but calling them into dialogue and mutuality.  Your class has been at the heart of this good work here at Augsburg and you’ve challenged all of us to face our privilege and biases and fears – and some days we get it right, on others we have so much more to learn – as we embrace the richness of life together in this remarkable community.  The late priest Henri Nouwen described our aspirations this way:

Hospitality is the creation of free space where a stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer space where change can take place ….The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and find themselves free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free to leave and follow their own vocations.

Finally, you’ve taught me to hope.  For more than 35 years, I have worked at colleges and for all of the messiness that often passes for daily life on a campus, I come back each and every day because of the hope you inspire in all of us.  It is hope despite the evidence on many days.  When His Holiness, the Dalai Lama was with us in 2014 at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, someone asked him a question about how he could continue to follow his path toward peace when the world was so violent and there was little evidence of a way forward.  His response was quick – “What choice do I have?  If I meditate on pessimism, I will die.  If I meditate on optimism, I will live.” It is not a naïve hope that you teach us – just wish for it and all will be well with the world.  No, you are well-educated individuals, fully aware of the complexities and uncertainties of life in the world – in society, in our environment, in the cosmos even!  And yet you hope and you get to work and good things happen.  In this way you honor the world you will surely change – as you have changed us in this college.