‘Unfolding’ – Remarks at Commencement 2013 by Tim Leisman
Good morning. I feel so honored and blessed right now to be here with you all, friends, family, and fellow graduates. I have some brief remarks that I hope can help speak to the metamorphosis that I think we all are trying to process here together.
In a letter written in June 1851 to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, wrote: “From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself.”
While I cannot go as far as to say that I date my life back to enrollment at Guilford College, I certainly count it as a critical turning point. And barely a day has passed in these last four years that I have not unfolded within myself.
I think this idea of unfolding is a good metaphor for the transition that we, as students young or old, undergo in our time at college. You might unfold in a physics class in the observatory while staring up at the stars and contemplating the mystery of the universe. Or while learning more about violence and oppression in a peace and conflict studies class.
It can even happen late at night at three in the morning in the dorm room arguing and laughing with friends, debating the existence of God. Perhaps that’s less well remembered because God knows what else you’re doing at three in the morning.
Each of us here has our own story of transformation. For me an important part has been the honor of serving as the clerk of the traditional Student Government Association, Community Senate.
Through this experience I’ve gotten to learn about, witness and participate in the Quaker business process that guides decision-making at this school. Whether it’s in the Board of Trustees meetings or the Wednesday night student Senate meetings, this process helps our community strive towards the values of diversity and equality, allowing all voices and frustrations to be heard and, significantly, for the wisdom of the collective to overcome the desires of the individual.
Certainly we are not always perfect, but the core values are ideals towards which we strive, and through which this school demonstrates unfolding. This year at Guilford, for example, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of integration with the Journeys in Blackness series, led by the Multicultural Education Department, which marked both progress and continued obstacles.
As an institution, Guilford has come far and has a long way to go – and so do we as graduates. But I know that Guilford has given us the tools to continue unfolding throughout life, because through Guilford’s unique synthesis of Quaker values with liberal arts traditions, any in- or out-of-class experience, even a seemingly insignificant conversation, is both significant and serendipitous because it prepares us to engage with all types of people around important issues.
In a phrase, it teaches us to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And so however we came to Guilford and no matter our unique experiences, we leave as graduates who are empowered to be engaged citizens.
And so don’t be worried if you don’t know exactly what you want to do with your life, if you don’t have the perfect job. Even at a job at Bruegger’s Bagels, where I worked in high school washing dishes and making sandwiches, you have an opportunity every day to demonstrate kindness and community.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Being Peace, notes that even as seemingly menial a task as doing dishes offers us an opportunity to be at peace within ourselves and live in the moment. He continues by saying that this search for inner peace is the first step to creating peace in the world.
Call me cliché but I am a firm believer that no matter what we do after Guilford, big or small, by living an intentional and examined life we can be the change we wish to see in the world.
I’ve spent a lot of time here at Guilford studying society and politics, and one thing that clearly emerges is that the leaders of our day are failing to address the pressing problems that the 21st century poses. At the same time, this century offers tremendous new opportunities through technology and changing cultural attitudes to take a stand for nonviolence, to use our hearts and hands to their fullest potential in creating social change.
In the 21st century we are beginning to recognize that creating truly peaceful social systems is the mandate of our future.
If we do not act to fight oppression now, we are running out of time to redress social inequalities before they lead to violent revolution; so in a larger sense, this is a critical moment of world history. But it is also a terrifying and thrilling moment for us here together, sitting under the weight of uncertainty. Fortunately, throughout this process of unfolding, Guilford has empowered us with the tools to be agents of social change.
And so, my friends, I leave you with this question, derived from a favorite poem of mine by TS Eliot: “Do we dare disturb the universe?”
As prepared for delivery at Commencement on May 18, 2013