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Fireside Chat – Dr. Margaret Anne Smith

By September 23, 2020September 30th, 2020Current News, Faculty Blog

Our theme for 2020-21 is “co-creating a new normal.”  Life in a pandemic sure doesn’t feel “normal” and our new ways of doing things are complex, unfamiliar, and sometimes stressful. So let’s try to find the hope in this. As much as this is a difficult time, we do have choices.  I keep reminding myself of this.  We have not chosen Covid-19, but we have all chosen to be here in this time, and not somewhere else.  So let’s get a little closer to the heart of our choice: why here?  Why do we study, live, and work at SSU? Our mission statement tries to articulate the heart of this.

Others universities and groups, other corporations, have mission statements.  But I can’t think of any.  They go on the wall, on the website, but they don’t get talked about very often. We’re different. We talk about our mission, our purpose here at SSU.  What are the three key words in the SSU mission statement?

The Mission of SSU is to prepare people, through academic, personal, and spiritual development, for a life of justice, beauty, and compassion, enabling a humble, creative engagement with their world.

I love this combination of values.

Justice:   It’s in every major creed, religion, philosophy.  It requires action. Justice is a principle, but more than that:  it requires action. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins turns it into a verb: the just one justices.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;

If we act with justice the world will change.  It requires effort and patience.  A line in my favourite hymn promises this: “Justice will flourish in God’s time, and peace til the moon fails.”  That time of justice is our goal and doing justice is hard work. But justice alone brings little joy.  And we need joy.

So we add Beauty: the good life is not just about doing good–we need to appreciate and cultivate beauty in the world around us.  Last night’s circle of music and poetry did that.  It was SO good, and such a relief to sit, relax and simply enjoy beauty.  We value beautiful things in our life together.  The restored tin ceiling in our main entrance.  A perfect bowl of soup at lunch.  A painting.  A sunset.  A smile. A leaf. A new tattoo. A new or renewed friendship.

But this still isn’t enough. A just world could be about rules, and beauty can sometimes be about surface impressions: add compassion.  It tempers and softens all things Compassion is concern for those around us, and also for ourselves. I need to show care for the people around me–and even for myself. There will not always be justice.  There will not always be beauty.  For those times, we need compassion.  Gregg Finley, our longtime and beloved Dean of Arts, talks a lot about the L-word.  Love.  When everything else fails, this is what we need.

We have been building SSU for 45 years.  It certainly isn’t perfect yet.  We don’t always live up to our ideals, but I am asking each one of us here today to commit and recommit to these ideals.  We can’t do this alone, and it’s a lot more exciting together.

The Mission of SSU is to prepare people, through academic, personal, and spiritual development, for a life of justice, beauty, and compassion, enabling a humble, creative engagement with their world.

This is phrased as mission statements usually are.  It is direct and concise.  I think I would add hope for 2020–justice, beauty, compassion and hope.  Because I think we really need it.  And cultivating hope is hard sometimes. To do the work of justice, to create and appreciate beauty, to feel compassion, we need hope. Hope that our efforts matter. I would finesse the rest of the statement a bit too, because I don’t think it is SSU’s  job to prepare you, our students.  It is our task to create a place where you prepare yourselves for your place in the world.  We have created a lot of structures that I’m sure you have noticed: live together, cook together, eat together, clean together–you get it. These ways of living together make us better people, they make us draw closer and know each other better. And we will put a lot of incredible ideas right in front of you in your classes–the best ideas of centuries of human experience, creativity, and wisdom.  It’s like we have prepared a garden bed, with all the best ingredients we know of–and you get to do the planting and growing.  You need to make and find your place.

Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” says this well:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

So we have created a place where we live other values, too, values and practices that we hope will help you answer that call and find your place in the family of things. I think there are four things that will help us, especially this year:

  • Engagement: jump right in.  If Peter asks you to sing or read a poem at arts night, for example, just do it.  If it goes badly, you are among friends.  We promise compassion.  Get involved.  Take the risks necessary to build relationships, to learn, to grow.
  • Laughter: our faces are hidden these days, and smiles are hard to see.  Be funny.  Be ridiculous. Make each other laugh.
  • Uncertainty: Embrace the questions

Rainer Maria Rilke’s well-known quotation always helps me:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Hold your answers lightly.  If someone asks, “what is the meaning of life?” of course we know that there is no set answer.  There is much beauty in many answers.  Add one thread at a time (family, relationship, purpose, beauty) so you–over a lifetime–create a tapestry or a woven blanket that shelters and holds you.  (I’m a fibre artist, so thread is one of my languages.) If you like, think of building a word cloud: add words until you have a cloud vision of what matters to you.  Together, our answers create a vision of what matters to us.

In your own uncertainty, allow for the uncertainty of others.  Build your own meaning, but allow space for others.

  • Learn to really talk to each other, and listen:

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of one story.  Her African story is not adequately told by the English story of colonizing Nigeria.  She needs room to tell her version, her own story, her truth.  It is not the same as my story, but I need to listen to her.  People like me have had a voice for a long time.

This doesn’t mean anything goes.  If your truth is justice, beauty and compassion and someone else finds truth in hurting small animals, you wouldn’t say–that’s ok, that’s your truth, you can believe what you want, you get to tell your story too.  I’m wearing green shoes.  I like green.  Someone else might say “ I don’t like green.” totally fair.  But if someone says “I don’t like green shoes” that hurts my feelings.  And even worse,  saying: I don’t like people who wear green shoes”  is very hurtful. (And rather silly–but I think you see my point) Accepting hurtful speech isn’t tolerance.  Hurtful speech does injustice.  Or injustices.  There is a tension here, and we discover it in our life together–and it stretches and challenges us.

There is a movement called Scholar Strike Canada across many universities and colleges yesterday and today.  We as faculty have been in shutdown since most Black Lives Matter protests have been held.  Today, when we are back to class, we have an opportunity to use the voice that professors have to draw attention to the issues of racism, the silencing of voices, the brutality against black bodies. We all know the saying Black Lives Matter.  Some people respond with All Lives Matter.  Saying “all lives matter” isn’t untrue.  But in our current situation, it ignores what is most important. People have the right to say many things in a society that values free speech.  But because of context, some statements (like “all lives matter”) shut down other conversations.  Right now in 2020, we need to pay attention  to the legacy of slavery in North America, which is resulting in more and more moments of overt racism and brutality towards black citizens.  Right now, black lives need more attention right now than most white lives. Saying that my life matters is intentionally tonedeaf.  My body and my life have never been threatened because of the colour of my skin. 

This is awkward to talk about.  But we are a university community.  We value wisdom, and knowledge and information.  We value justice, beauty, and compassion.  We need to talk about the hard things.  We need to work at it.  There are a lot of screaming voices in the world, and not enough listening.  Let’s practise listening and speaking together.

We have a saying here that describes the hope that faculty and staff have for students.  We hope that you will be rooted with wings.  (Peter thinks I said that first, years ago.  I have a vague semi-recollection of that!)

We offer you fertile soil to try out some ideas, to figure out ways to live together, to discover who you are and what your place might be in the family of things. To put down roots. To live in uncertainty with hope.  To work for justice.  To make beauty.  To embrace compassion. Being rooted here for a while (maybe a year, maybe four) will let you grow even more into the person you are.  And it will give you time to design and create your own wings.  You won’t stay here in this nest forever.  We want you to leave us eventually, and take your version of justice, beauty and compassion with you wherever you go.  And we will keep part of you here with us.  You influence us, too, and we grow because of the time you spend here with us, in our garden. We are so glad you are here.

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