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University of Utah 2003 Commencement Address by Terry Tempest Williams

May 2, 2003 —


President Machen, Senator Bennett, members of the Utah State Board of Regents, members of the University’s Board of Trustees, distinguished guests, faculty, family, and, most especially, University of Utah graduates, it is a great privilege to stand before you this morning. I believe I speak for all of us receiving honorary doctorates today when I say nothing means more than to be recognized by your own school in your own city in your own state. Nothing. Because you know us. You know who we are and who we are not. We share a history and history is always complicated. But we also share a love – a love of place and a love of people which translates to a love of community, which is why we gather today.

Thank you.

I owe you another thank you, For one reason or another, I did not participate in my own graduation ceremony. As a result, my father has always wondered if I ever really did receive my degree. Thank you for solving this question and a small bone of contention. The power of ritual matters. Today honors my father, also a graduate and devoted fan of the University of Utah. I am mindful of all of my family, and my husband, Brooke. They stand here with me.

This is a special occasion: our niece, Callie Tempest Jones, daughter of Ann and Steve Tempest, wife of Andrew Jones, is graduating today in the College of Humanities and my brief remarks are in many ways for you, Cal.

Lives change at this university. Mine did. I remember the moment. The class was American Romanticism. The professor was Dr. William Mulder. He introduced us to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson. It was here on this campus that I realized, “Yes, I am a Mormon, but I am really a Transcendentalist.”

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul — Emily Dickinsom

These words became sacred texts to me.

I realized that in American Letters we celebrate both language and landscape, creating an empathy for all life. Melville’s Great Whale. Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Emerson’s “Oversoul, the natural world infused with divinity.” I came to understand through an education in the humanities that knowledge is another form of democracy, the freedom of expression that leads to empathy.

I wanted to write from the passion of my own orientation as a woman living in the American West at this point in time. I wanted to explore how we find refuge in change. I wanted to understand what stories we tell that evoke a sense of place. I realized we, too, can be be part of a great tradition of a literature of hope.

And it begins with our questions.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of meeting with a group of graduating seniors. When I asked you what you felt we were most in need of as a society and as a nation, your answer was a unified one: building community. You used words like compassion and service, and phrases like “wanting to give something back,” or “having a desire and responsibility to contribute,” “to make a difference,” “to come together,” “to remain open and listen to opposing points of view.”

You spoke about both fear and excitement for the open space that now awaits you after graduation. What I heard were mature voices, steady, speaking from a generation that has witnessed two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, while students at the University of Utah. You watched your peers risk their lives.

You were not interested in ideas or language that polarized people: Christianity vs. Islam; Republicans vs. Democrats; Mormons vs. non Mormons; wilderness vs. development. You wanted to talk about alternatives, solutions, how to speak a language that opens hearts rather than closes them. You were acutely aware of the complexities and hesitant to take sides before considering all the evidence before you.

What I witnessed was a class of highly intelligent, thoughtful individuals who have learned how to think critically and creatively. I saw how an educated mind is an empathetic mind. I saw how open minds create open hearts.

Today, we honor you.

I have asked many of you graduating today, what question is burning in your heart that will not allow you to sleep. Many of you, like Rosemary Winters, are wondering how you can best serve society and make a difference, others have responded by articulating your desire to find meaningful work, still others have voiced your fears, that you don’t know what to do next.

To you – and Callie, in particular – I offer you these words from my mentor in conservation, Mardy Murie. She is 100 years old, living in Moose, Wyoming, and grew up on the Alaskan frontier and became one of the great advocates of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. On my graduation from college, she sent me the following words in a handwritten letter, Don’t worry about what you will do next. If you take one step with all the knowledge you have, there is usually just enough light shining to show you the next step.

I believed her.

And when things don’t go as planned, patience and perseverance are required. Trust. Stay open. Suddenly, a surprise appears. Something you never could have imagined.

I received a question from Merrilyne Lundahl, a graduating senior, that has become the question lodged within my own heart. How do I engage in responsive citizenship?

This is the question I would like to challenge you with today.

We are a nation emerging from the shadowed days of war. Within our own government we are witnessing an internal debate between the Department of Defense who favors force and the Department of State who favors diplomacy. Democracy always favors conversation.

How do we engage in conversation at a time when the definition of what it means to be a patriot is being narrowly defined? You are either with us or against us. Discussion is waged in absolutes not ambiguities. Corporations have more access to power than people. We, the people. Fear has replaced discussion. Business practices have taken precedence over public process. It doesn’t matter what the United Nations advises or what world opinion may be. America in the early years of the 21st century has become a force unto itself. The laws it chooses to abide by are its own.

What role does this leave us as individuals within a republic?

Abraham Lincoln warns: What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our crowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, our army and our navy. These are not our reliance against tyranny. All of these may be turned against us without making us weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the spirit which prized liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage and you prepare your own limbs to wear them. Accustom to trample on the rights of others, you have lost the genius of your own independence and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises among you.

I believe these are contemporary words — call them prophetic. Do we have the imagination to rediscover an authentic patriotism that inspires empathy and reflection over pride and nationalism?

How do we engage in responsive citizenship in times of terror

I would submit we can protect and preserve the open space of democracy by carrying a healthy sense of indignation within us that will shatter the complacency that has seeped into our society in the same of all we have lost — know there is still so much to be saved.

What does the open space of democracy look like?

In the open space of democracy there is room for dissent.

In the open space of democracy there is room for difference.

In the open space of democracy, the health of the environment is seen as the wealth of our communities. We remember that our character has been shaped by the diversity of America’s landscapes and it is precisely that character that will protect it. Cooperation is valued more than competition. Prosperity becomes the caretaker of poverty. The humanities are not peripheral, but the very art of what it means to be human. Beauty is not optional, but essential to our survival as a species. And technology is not rendered at the expense of life, but developed out of a reverence for life.

Reverence for life.

When I visited Kenya for the first time, as part of the U.N. Decade for Women with many women from the University of Utah, I heard the stories of women in India who, when faced with the cutting down of the forests adjacent to their homes by an international timber company, made the decision together that one woman would wrap herself around the trunk of one tree. “They would have to cut into our own bodies before they would cut into the bark of our trees,” they said. When asked why, they replied simply, “Because the trees are our flesh and our children’s flesh. The roots of our trees hold the soil in place. Their leaves shade our water. Their health is the health of our village.” (This is where the term, “tree huggers” came from. It came to be known as the Chipko Movement and the trees were saved).

In the future, brave men and women will write a Declaration of Interdependence that will be read and honored alongside the Declaration of Independence; proof of our evolution, revolution of our own growth and understanding.

The open space of democracy provides justice for all living things and extends our notion of community to include plants, animals, rocks, and rivers, as well as human beings. It is a landscape that encourages diversity and discourages conformity.

Democracy can also be messy and chaotic.

In the open space of democracy, every vote counts and every vote is counted.

Integrity is the highest investment that yields the greatest returns.

These are some of the values and ethics that live inside this landscape of freedom.

When minds close, democracy begins to close. Fear creeps in, silence overtakes speech. Rhetoric masquerades as thought. Dogma is dressed up like an idea. And we are told what to do, not asked what we think. Security is guaranteed. The lie begins to carry more power than the truth until the words of our own founding fathers are forgotten and the images of television replace history. An open democracy inspires wisdom and the dignity of choice. A closed society inspires terror and the tyranny of belief. We are no longer citizens. We are media-engineered clones wondering who we are and why we feel alone. Lethargy trumps participation. We fall prey to the cynicism of our own resignation.

When democracy disappears, we are asked to accept the way things are.

I beg you, as graduates of this distinguished university, do not accept the way things are.

Question. Stand. Speak. Act.

Patriots act – they are not handed a piece of paper called by that same name and asked to comply.

To engage in responsive citizenship, we must become citizens who respond. Passionately. This is how you can make a difference. This is how you can serve your society.

What is at stake? Everything we value, cherish, and love. Democracy.

It was true in 1776. And it is true in 2003. This is the commitment we make to a living, breathing, evolving republic. Hands over our hearts, our beating hearts, we pledge allegiance to this divine process of public discourse and discovery.

Thomas Jefferson said, “I believe in perilous liberty over quiet servitude.”

To all of you graduates, may you commit yourselves to “perilous liberty.”

This is the path of intellectual freedom and spiritual curiosity. Our insistence of democracy is based on our resistance of complacency. To be engaged. To participate. To create alternatives together. We may be wrong. We will make mistakes. But we can engage in spirited conversation and listen to one another with respect and open minds as we speak and explore our differences, cherishing the vitality of the struggle. As our beloved J.D. Williams has so brilliantly said, “Democracy is built upon the right to be insecure.” We are vulnerable. And we are vulnerable together. Democracy is a beautiful experiment.

Thoreau wrote in his essay, “Civil Disobedience,” Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.

I want to tell you a story:

Prior to the war in Iraq, on March 8, thousands of women and children gathered in Washington, D.C., for a Code Pink Rally in the name of peace. We walked from the Martin Luther King Park through the streets of the nation’s capital to Lafayette Park located directly in front of the White House. When we arrived we were met by a wall of Washington, D.C., police dressed in black combat gear, bullet-proof vests and rifles. We were not allowed to proceed on to the public park. One of the organizers of Code Pink began to negotiate with the police. While these negotiations were underway, Rachel Bagby, an African-American poet and musician, stood directly across from a policeman and focused her attention on one officer in particular, also African American. She began singing with all the power of her God-given voice, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” Over and over she kept singing, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” Other women began to join her. She never took her eyes off that man, but just kept singing to him in her low, dignified voice. In that moment, it was clear neither one of them would be who they are, or where they are, without the voices of dissent uttered by their parents, without the literal acts of civil disobedience practiced by their parents’ parents and their parents’ parents’ before them. The African-American policeman quietly stepped aside, creating the opening we walked through.

This is what the open space of democracy looks like.

One on one, in the name of love, we support each other in the vitality of the struggle called Democracy. Liberty. Freedom. We can not only change the world, we can transform it. Indeed, we are in this together. As you step outside this morning with your diploma in hand, may you celebrate your accomplishments. May you recognize the power of the present, and your place inside this exquisite moment. Never have we needed what you have to give more. Never has there been more room for you to take your place in the world at large. May you make vows, prayers to your highest and deepest self, that you will allow your soul to be used for the greatest good with all your gifts and talents. May you follow your heart.

Question. Stand. Speak. Act.

Make us uncomfortable.
Make us think.
Make us feel.

Keep us free.

Something within you has been set in motion – this is the gift of your education.

This is the open space of democracy.