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Do Great Things, But Never Forget Your Own Neediness

Fairfield Univ Graduation Speech

Jason Bache

William Van Ornum - published on 08/02/13

We should make the most of our skills and opportunities, but we should never let our success make us think we are invincible or omnipotent. Most of us could use a healthy dose of humility every now and then.

Some academic speeches are worth re-visiting. Here, Fr. Gerry Blaszczak, S.J., addressed students at Fairfield University who will be graduating at the end of the 2013-14 academic year. Fr. Blaszczak was prescient about the papacy of Pope Francis when he challenged young people to become citizens of the world.

Pope Francis, young at heart, is connecting young people and those young at heart from around the world. Fr. Blaszczak now works out of Rome and travels to all continents (or “the ends of the Earth,” as Scripture says) to encourage faithfulness in the 21st century.

This past Wednesday, 31 July, he celebrated his 46th anniversary of joining the Jesuit order, on the Feast of St. Ignatius.

Fairfield intentionally follows a path marked out for us by St. Ignatius Loyola and the early Jesuits more than 500 years ago. They shared the renaissance humanists’ conviction that there is an intrinsic link between education and the virtuous life, and that a life of learning and virtue leads both to personal flourishing and outfits a person for public service. Humanistic studies led, they believed, to “pietas” – upright character – which was needed if society were to be both prosperous and just. In 2001, in an address at Santa Clara University, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, then Superior General of the Jesuits, insisted that “the real measure of our Jesuit Universities lies in who our students become: competent, reflective persons, capable of compassion and well educated for solidarity, ready to think on a global level and act on the local level.”  Through both the curriculum, and extra-curricular activities, “students should learn to perceive, think, judge, choose, and act for the rights of the disadvantaged and oppressed.”

Class of 2014, you should know from the start that yours is no ordinary university. And yours, surely, is no ordinary time.  More than ever your communities need you to return to them as visionaries and as leaders, outfitted with the skills required for equitable democracies, societies where prosperity is not limited to the elite, and where the legitimate rights of all persons are respected. Our global society needs you to fulfill your responsibilities as well-informed, empathetic, dynamic artisans of a global society of justice and well-being.  Robert F. Kennedy’s words in 1966 at Cape Town University speak to this, your moment:

“This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. Thus you, and your young compatriots everywhere, have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.”

This idea of active learning is not new; it goes back to Socrates and is as risky and as difficult today as it was in his time. And just as necessary. Plato linked lack of critical reflection and self-scrutiny with Athens’s disastrous military and political policy blunders.  The liberal arts, which are at the heart of a Fairfield education, are meant precisely to liberate you from the tyranny of unexamined presupposition, from authoritarianism and obscurantism of any kind, and to open your imaginations to new possibilities for ourselves and for wider society.

But more than habits of rigorous analysis and critical inquiry are needed if you and I are to become global citizens. We need something that stretches our imaginations, opens us deeply to the humanity we share with our classmates, with the people on our corridor, with the people of Tanzania and Nicaragua, of Greenwich and Bridgeport. It is what allowed young Afrikaaners to see beyond the all-pervasive propaganda of their ethno-nationalist culture.

There is at least one other element that is required in your education here at Fairfield if you are to become empathetic, effective global citizens. It is something that ought to come naturally, but curiously, seems to be the cause of great shame for most of us. It is something most of us have been taught to hide or disguise. I am talking about our fundamental human weakness.

Please do accomplish great things, noble things here at Fairfield, please do stretch and excel, but not at the price of buying into the grandiose expectation of omnipotence and completeness. To deny your fundamental neediness and limitations is to separate yourself from the rest of us, to claim some imaginary higher status. I understand that incompleteness and neediness are frightening, and that illusions of toughness and invulnerability can be comforting, and at times can even feel necessary.

I understand that it is hard not to deny and to hide away from ourselves and others our humanity, our frailty, our fear. But please, stay with the rest of us mottled, mixed, ordinary people. Please do not be scandalized by our mistakes, foolishness, limits, our own imperfection and vulnerability. Learn to empathize with us, learn to see yourselves, us all sharing the same humanity, and able to offer one another support, understanding, and even love.

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