Remarks for 2014 HerStory dinner: Four steps to living a life of purpose summarized in eight minutes

First, I am delighted to have the honor to speak to you this evening. Friends, faculty, staff, family members, our leaders, President and Mrs. Machtley. This dinner is one of my favorite events here on campus. I leave here feeling recharged and reminded of how blessed I am to be in the company of such exemplary young women and the brilliant, talented and dedicated staff and faculty that bring us all together. Thanks from all of us for the tireless efforts of Toby Simon, Carolina Bogeart and many many more people who make this event happen.

So, I am going to take advantage of this opportunity to share with you, for the first time ever on this stage or any other, my four-step formula for living a good life in just under ten minutes. Based on a lifetime of research and reflection, I will lead you quickly through these steps and hope that you find something valuable and true in what I have to say.

To me, living a meaningful life is more important than anything else we may achieve or possess. My four points are to imagine, to contemplate, to visualize and to reflect. So, let’s get right to it.

STEP ONE Imagine all your possibilities. Living a life where you follow someone else’s dream cheapens the whole enterprise. You may have heard it a million times but it bears repeating again. Life is more amazing than you can plan for. As Alice Walker wrote, “Expect nothing, live frugally, on surprise.”

Don’t put off doing good or following a passion until you are rich and your children enter college. In my life, I have owned a computer consulting business and been a humorist and comedian. It is true that when I was 45 years old I debated whether to chase a career as a stand up comic or to pursue a PhD. To the great relief of my best friend, Tina Fey, I went the professor route and well, she went her own way. I still dream of being a back up singer in a girls group–think of the Supremes, the Shirelles, Destiny’s Child. Check this out—and sing along if you’d like—– ShooBop, ShooBop. I dream of being TechGirl, a superwoman in a cape who would arrive at the scene when your cell phone is dying and your computer seems to need an exorcism.

I have been a construction worker, an aide to the Governor, a child welfare worker. I worked at the state prison. I didn’t know that I was called to teach until I was in my mid-forties and didn’t understand my own sexuality until I was in late thirties. As I said before, one never knows.

But I have a strong creative spirit and I haven’t for a minute thought that I should drown these other interests so that I could be fully a professor. It doesn’t work that way. You are so much more than you know yourself to be at this age.

Of the life we may live, Marcel Proust wrote,

The only true voyage would be not to visit strange lands but to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.

Unlike many of your advisors, I will urge you not to focus too soon or too narrowly. Be everything. Pursue much. Think right now of something you have been passionate about that you have let go studying in school or moving down a narrow road. Go down that other path and embrace it. It’s what makes you special. In his lovely poem, Langston Hughes wrote,

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

 STEP TWO Contemplate your galaxy and your orbits. As a sociologist and by temperament, I see the multiple ways that we are connected to people across the planet and back through generations. I think of everything that makes us what and who we are. I think of the people in my personal orbit and how they have influenced me. The steady hand of my now deceased mother who, as proud as she was that I graduated from college, would pull me back into her orbit when she thought I was wandering too far from my working class roots. Or the influence of my oldest friend in the world, a Trappist monk, who reminds me of how distracted my life can be, how far I can range from being fully alive. I think of my friends who have rescued me from deep dark depressions and those whom I saved from other tragedies, an attempted suicide, an abusive husband. I think about the mothers in prison that I’ve met and the children in foster care I have encountered who have fashioned my view of justice and right and wrong more powerfully than have my education and religious training have. These people are all treasures in my life. Think carefully about whom you allow to serve as your guide, as your northern star. Put people in that galaxy who can make you a better, more authentic, more compassionate person who can be challenged to do better.

And think about the gravitational force you exert on others and how you make them better and more loving, more caring, more cared about—or just the reverse. Be always on the search for inspiration; for people and books and ideas that feed your curiosity and push you away from complacency and self-satisfaction.

STEP THREE Visualize the person you would like to be. Even at my mature age, I think about all the potentials we are, all the projects we could begin, all the interests we can pursue. I must say that in many ways, the days that you are living now can be the most challenging times in your lives. We say that these are the best times of your lives but people your age face so much uncertainty. Whom will I marry? What will be I do for a living? How will this all turn out? This uncertainly was true when we were young and it is certainly true now. It is simply a stage of life.

Live your life so that when you are a bit older you can say that I gave it my all, that I was never bored, that I lived my life as if it were a profound gift, that I made beautiful use of the talents, all of the heart, all of the love that had been bestowed upon me. At the end of the day, I can solve that big equation and see that I gave away much more than I took.

STEP FOUR Reflect upon our bounded fates. I am certain that you have heard of Lean In by Sheryl Sanberg of FaceBook. What she means by leaning in is to take up challenges, to put yourself forward, to show them what you’ve got, girl! I’ve been thinking that leaning in is not sufficient if we really want to make a difference, so I tell a short story here. In my mid-twenties, I accepted a position at the state prison where I was the only professional woman in a decidedly male and macho environment. Six months into the job, it was time for my performance review, which determined whether I would keep my job or be asked to leave. My boss said, “Sandra, you’re well liked here; people find you easy to work with; you are very pleasant person; you are an excellent writer.” My gosh, I thought, this is going well. But then he said, “The BEST thing about you is that you think JUST like a man.” Amazed I was to hear this. Actually, I was so young and so undeveloped in my feminist thinking that I took it as a compliment, as a testimony to my, I don’t know, clear thinking, my lack of drama, my ability to understand sports metaphors? I don’t know really. But I know he meant it as a good thing, something that distinguished me from the rest of the women he thought he knew. And while I accepted the complement and was promoted soon after our conversation, I did nothing at all to convince him that I was NOT the exception, that plenty of women thought as clearly as any man, were as smart, and as capable, and in some instances, doing their work in more exceptional ways, just to be considered average. I regret my actions that day—leaving that “compliment” on the table and not making the situation right.

So, I want to propose is that you lean together, not alone; that you don’t just make the mark for yourself, but strive, as you move along in your careers and lives, to advance the case for other women and for others that you believe don’t benefit from easy privilege, and are not part of the insider group. You are old enough and savvy enough to know what I am talking about here. You know in your heart that some of us just don’t get the breaks we deserve–some of us don’t have access to the golden rings. And if you don’t know that, if you don’t feel that, if you think everything that you have you have earned entirely on your own merit, if you feel no obligation to others who have less but deserve more, then we have failed you in your education and I am sorry about that. In this world, it is impossible for us not to make a difference, good or bad. Martin Luther King, Jr. said this beautifully, when he suggested that we are tied together in the single garment of destiny.

As members of this generation, you have been given opportunities that are unprecedented in our history. With so many possibilities and so much promise, we expect a great deal from you. We want you to be happy, to put your talents to good use, and to see the world for what it is, a place of great magic and mystery and fun and hard work. You will be blessed with many gifts and more importantly; you will face challenges that without doubt will reveal your deepest character. You cannot escape this life without ecstatic joy and unbearable pain.

For the seniors in our audience, you know that we love you, that we will miss you for everything you have contributed to Bryant, for lighting up our lives, but more importantly, for the spirits that you are.

May all of your paths shine brightly and may you light the way for others. Thank you very much for your kind attention.

Speech delivered at Bryant University, March 31, 2014.

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About professorenos

I am a professor of sociology and coordinate service-learning and social entrepreneurship work on my campus at Bryant University. This blog brings together academic and creative work.
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