By Dr. Bree Morton
[Here is a link to the event, here is a link to the basic idea of Lavendar graduations. If I find pics of the event (lots were taken) I'll try to post those]
First, let me say, genuinely, that I am immensely proud of all of you graduates. I'm gonna say that over and over today until it is funny, maybe even until it is annoying, but I'm going to keep saying it anyway.
2016 has been a weird year. Earlier in the year, one of my close friends came out to his family as a crossdresser. He was prepared for it to go pretty badly, but it didn't. His 15 year old brother said to him at one point "Pff, it's 2016" by which he meant something like, "don't sweat it, nobody is hung up about that kind of stuff anymore, we just want you to be happy." And he meant it. In many ways, there is more acceptance of queer folk and sexual and gender minorities now than at any other point in my life. On the other hand, 2 weeks ago, shortly after the election, a translady and her bi partner that I dimly know, who live a few counties from here woke up to find their home covered in awful spray paint graffiti. She's more of a friend of a friend really, but I've talked with her, and she lives close enough that it might as well be here. The graffiti said "Fag Lives Here" and "Trump." There were a couple of swastikas, and some crosses, including a burning cross labelled "God save us from gay." It said "cross-dress faget" and misspelled faggot. Most chillingly it said "KKK strike here." That is happening too, basically here, basically now. Never in my life has there been this much acceptance of queer folks, but never in my life has there been this much vehement anti-acceptance either. During the heights of the AIDS crisis I wasn't really a part of the queer community yet, but I had friends who were, and they were terrified. It was a bad time, in many ways worse than now. But I don't think it was quite as polarized of a time. I don't think our culture has ever been quite as polarized about queer folks as it is right now. Every queer person in this room is going to be surprised by support and acceptance from a direction they never expected it at some point in the coming years, and every queer person is going to be surprised by attacks and anti-acceptance from a direct they did not expect it in the coming years. That is the way it is going to be for all of us. And I'm saddened to say it, but it is going to get worse before it gets better. I cannot give you the consolation that times are going to be easy. They are not. All lives have a mix of harder times and easier times, and we're gonna get plenty of hard ones in the coming years. But I will try to give you the consolation of philosophy. And that is that even though things are going to be often horrible in coming years, you can cope with it, and you can be happy anyway. And for that I am so proud of you.
In a sense, it is my job as keynote speaker to give advice to all of you on how to live the rest of your lives, and that's a pretty tall order. Decent advice has a lot of limitations. Mostly it sounds like clichés you've heard before. That's OK, my job today isn't to teach you wisdom, it is to remind you of the wisdom that you have already learned, and maybe put it in a slightly different way than you've heard before so that you can hold onto it better. All the stuff I'm telling you are things you basically already know, if not in exactly these words, and that's good. In fact, it's one of the reasons that I'm so very proud of all of you.
When I was a professor, I studied and taught philosophy and religion. Now I teach math at high school, and lead the philosophy club. People often ask me who my favorite philosopher is. It's Master Zhuang (except that I can't really pronounce it right). He was an ancient Chinese philosopher, one of the great masters of Daoism. By his own admission he was a reformed poacher. The other great Daoist classic the Dao De Jing, supposedly by a guy named "Old Master" is famous for being beautiful minimalist poetry. Few words, but the exact right words to evoke the mysteries. Master Zhuang's book isn't like that at all. He loved to tell long weird made up stories, almost always with lots of humor and jokes, and to use them to make philosophical points. He describes his own writing style as "flowing words." He also loved to argue with his logician friend, Master Hui. He often made fun of and criticized Master Kung, the philosopher that in English we call Confucius. But I think Master Zhuang had a lot of respect and affection for Master Kung as well. There is a lot I disagree with in Master Kung's thought, but I like him too, and there is a lot I DO agree with. Sometimes Master Kung is just right. Like now. Master Kung says this in his book the Analects (Chapter 6 saying 27), and I'm translating a little loosely:
"The excellent person, broadened by culture or study, and brought back to essentials by the rites, can perhaps be relied upon not to turn against what they have stood for."
The first requirement here is being "broadened by culture or study." That is what you have been doing for the last several years. You have learned the skills of your profession, but you have also learned sooo much more. You have learned about art, and science, and society. You have learned from engaging with communities. You have learned from people very unlike yourself. You have been challenged by ideas and worldviews and ways of thinking that are different from your own, and you've had to compromise with them and come to understand them. This process has made you much broader of mind. That was step one. And I am so proud of you for accomplishing it.
Step two is "being brought back to essentials by the rites." That's what graduation is for, and other rites of passage. That is my job as keynote speaker. I'm trying to help bring you back to what is essential, by reminding you of some key things. Here are some of the things that I think are essential, based on the life I've lived, and what I think I've learned.
So what is essential and what is non-essential? Well the first important answer to this, I think, is that YOU have to figure it out. It is what is essential to YOU that matters. You have to find your own center, your own core values, the things that make you you, instead of a cut-rate imposter of yourself. It is possible to lose what you are, to deny what you are, to drift away from who you really are. You can get caught up in how you think other people want you to be, or how you need to pretend to be to get by, or how you think you ought to be, instead of who you actually are. Don't do that. Be yourself. Over and over. Relentlessly. Be proud of yourself. Be someone you can be proud of, but also be yourself. It's trite. It's cliché. But it's also true, and it's essential. Go back to being yourself over and over. Create little rituals in your life to remind yourself who you are. Use the big rituals in your life like graduation to reflect on who you are and what is essential to being you. It we put it into words it sounds like a cliché, but when you actually do it, it feels more like home. Return to your center. Be yourself. Be Proud. And if it helps remember that I, and probably many other people in this room are so proud of you being you.
Second. "Don't Quit your Day Dream." When I was shopping the other day I got a new comfy t-shirt that had that as a quote on it. "Don't quit your day dream." I love it. The cliché is, of course, "don't quit your day job." And sometimes that's good advice too. Your job can help you pay the bills and put food on your table. For many of you, it may be part of your dream and may be much more satisfying than just a way to get enough to eat. Good for you. But everybody, whether they have a dream job or not, needs dreams to get by. My fantasies have saved my life many times over. I'm a geek, and many of my dreams are about knights and dragons and faeries, or great philosophers of the past. But other folks have other dreams and that's good. Maybe it's a garden by the sea you hope to have some day. Or travelling the world. Or cheering a sports team. I'm not a sports person myself, but when I'm around family who love sports I can't help but be joyful of their love. Geeking out is about loving what you love and not being ashamed of that, whether it's comic books or college football. Or a special someone. The great Hoosier sage John Green likes to put the point this way "Don't forget to be awesome." The things that you love, the things that you are passionate about, the things you geek about, the things that you daydream about when you can, those are what make you awesome, and those are what allow you to cope with hard times. Leonard Cohen sings about the Future "I've seen the nations rise and fall / I've heard their stories, heard them all / but love's the only engine of survival." It is what you love and dream about that will see you through … I am so proud of you all for being awesome and dreaming your day dreams and loving the things you love.
Third, you may wonder why I am qualified to give you any advice at all. I have an odd qualification. I have been wrong about lots of terribly important things. If I have any advantage over other people my age, it is that I have made bigger mistakes than most people. I was suicidal for years. I was literally wrong about whether or not life is worth living. That's a biggie. I'm a transwoman. I tried to live as a man for decades. I didn't really think I was a man, but I sorta felt I didn't have any choice that I had to do my best to try to be a man, and that I sorta rounded off to being a man, and that I had try to make peace with it somehow. It never worked. I was literally wrong about my own gender for decades. I can't tell you much about success. I wrecked my first career, never really thrived at my second career, and I'm just now starting on my third career. But material success is not essential. As someone who has made deep mistakes, I tell you, being right is also not essential. Trying to fix your mistakes and trying to learn from them, that is essential. The more secure you are, and the more safety nets and back ups you have, the more you can afford to make mistakes and learn from them. But no matter who you are, you are going to make mistakes of some kind, of some size, of some frequency, and you are going to need to try to fix them, and to learn from them. Leonardo Da Vinci liked to say "Wisdom is the daughter of experience" which is more or less a fancy way of saying it is making mistakes that makes you wise. Eventually. Hopefully. I am so proud of all of you for making mistakes and learning bits of wisdom from them. Pass your wisdom on as best you can.
The fourth essential thing I want to try to tell you is to extend yourself outward. You need to find your center, and who you are. But then you need to stretch out. To loved ones. To family, maybe. To chosen family. To community. To your profession. To your society. To your alma mater. You are yourself, but you are also part of various things that are bigger than you. You draw from culture, from the past, from community, but you also contribute to them. That is what flourishing is. Stretching out from yourself to various other people, and things, and projects around you in the world and beyond. You are not your loved ones or community, but when you are healthy and flourishing you will become tangled up with each other. They will be part of you and you will be part of them. Like plants with roots intermingling. Like lights from different light sources overlapping. It is not your job to fix society, but it is your job to try to fix it. To contribute towards fixing it. To making things better for future generations. Hold close to the LGBT community. Draw from it. Contribute to it. Be strengthened by it, and strength it in turn. Teach the younger kids struggling with things you have struggled with. Care for the elders who are becoming frailer and frailer. Be part of things bigger than yourself, especially your communities. You are also now firmly part of the vast University community. We are wearing these robes to remind us that we are part of a tradition that stretches back centuries to medieval times. My closet has several outfits of medieval clothing, but I'm betting I'm in the minority on that point. For most of us, this clothing is odd, it’s a ritual thing, we wear only very rarely. It is designed to link us into bigger things, the vast tradition of universities and scholarship and graduations. Oxford University is older than the Aztec empire. Harvard was founded only a few years after the Mayflower landed, and taught for a century and a half before the Constitution was even written. Indiana State University was teaching before your great-grandparents were born. These traditions are old. And you all are now part of it. Millions of smart men and women have studied and graduated and lived and died before you, and millions will after you. But you are part of this vast stream through the ages. University culture is part of you now, and you are part of it. It is essential that you are yourself, but it is also essential that you are part of bigger projects … You are about to be a graduate into a grand centuries long tradition, and I am so proud of you.
So to review. It is not essential that others honor you, or that you are popular, or widely liked, but it IS essential that you are yourself and that you are proud of being yourself. It is not essential that you are materially successful, but it is essential that you remember to be awesome, and don't give up your day dreams. It is not essential that you are right. It IS essential that you try to fix your mistakes, and that you try to learn from them. It is not essential that you fix the world, or your society, or your community but it is essential that you are part of these things and try to contribute to them in some way.
Master Kung said "The excellent person, broadened by culture or study, and brought back to essentials by the rites, can perhaps be relied upon not to turn against what they have stood for." You have been broadened by your university education over the last few years. Hopefully you are being brought back to essentials by these rituals and by your own reflections. The next step is to not turn against what you have stood for, over the coming years. Even when it is hard to stick by what you have stood for. Especially when it is hard to stand fast in what you have stood for.
I'm not really trying to make a point about Daoism or Confucianism, rather I am trying to tell you things that all cultures have known, but perhaps in a slightly different ways than you've heard. You are all going to face hard times in your futures, and you are going to face them with dignity. You are going to face wonderful times in your futures and you are going to face them with joy. With dignity and joy united within yourself you are going to flourish amidst all the things that life throws at you. And I am so proud of you for it.
Thank you so much for including me in your joyous evening. Thank you for listening to me talk about some of the things that I think are important, that you probably already know. And one last time, I am so proud of you all. Thank You.