On Saturday, June 10th, Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School was honored to welcome the Class of 2017 commencement speaker, David Orr, PhD, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College. Orr is the recipient of six honorary degrees and other awards including a Lyndhurst Prize acknowledging “persons of exceptional moral character, vision, and energy.”
Living in an Age of Disconnection
Hawthorne Valley School Commencement June 10, 2017
David W. Orr
M. Forster opens his novel Howards End with the words “only connect.” It is a fitting challenge to you on your graduation day. Hidden in the simplicity of those two words, however, are questions such as how do you connect? For an age much given to ambition, connecting with the right people can help you move up in life, but you can also connect with others as a sojourner or pilgrim rather than as a careerist or social climber. The choice will be among the most important you will ever make.
Another choice has to do with the people, ideas, causes, and places to which you become connected. Before making such choices, however, consider Rudolf Steiner’s admonition to first connect with your own mind, heart, and soul.
Third, what happens when you connect? To that, there is no answer. Connection whether in a chemical reaction, a personal encounter, or in the meeting of diverse minds creates surprise, synergy, emergence, change and, with luck, growth. In other words, connect but fasten your seatbelt!
In that work of connecting you are fortunate to have begun here under the guidance and instruction of the teachers at Hawthorne Valley School. Your education and learning will continue over your lifetime but these years at Hawthorne Valley have given you a solid foundation.
A Waldorf education is a considerable privilege. The goal set by Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf schools is wholeness and connection first to yourself: soul, spirit, body and then to the wider world of nature, civilization, art, philosophy, science, and to your own self.
The problem that you and all of us face is that the process of connection must occur while your teenage mind is in transition to your adult mind, a process that is not complete until sometime perhaps in your mid-twenties. But you are an active participant in that process. The habits, patterns of attention, capacity for reflection, empathy, particular interests, openness to novelty—that is the capacity to connect—are being formed into what is hopefully an integrated whole person.
You cannot know—nor should you know—the full stature of that future you. It can be much larger than you imagine now but it can also be a lot smaller than it should be. There are tragic examples of men and women who never made the transition to a fully adult and fully human stature. The choice is one that you will make every day of your life.
Even in the best of times, however, this is not an easy process. It is rather like running a gauntlet through temptations, addictions, and distractions that deflect us from our higher self. As difficult as the process of growing into that fuller stature has always been, I think it will become even harder in the coming decades.
This is so partly because your journey ahead occurs at a time when many things are coming undone. Two, in particular, stand out. The Earth is rapidly warming with consequences that will make your lives much more challenging. The other is what writer Elizabeth Kolbert calls “the sixth extinction,” which is the accelerating worldwide loss of species. If either or both go on much longer the future of civilization will be in jeopardy.
These disconnections like all others are manifestations of a cultural solipsism that over-emphasizes our individualism above our connectedness. The truth, I suspect, is far more complicated. For example, I do not think that you can be all that you can be when many others are much less than they can be. In like manner, I’m inclined to think that we are saved or lost (whatever those words mean) collectively not individually, which is to say all of us are or none of us will be. Further, I do not believe that one can be rich while most others are poor or that anyone can be wealthy on an impoverished Earth. Neither do I believe in the great lie perpetrated by all nationalists and empire builders that greatness occurs by dominating the less powerful. The great truth of our existence is that we are kin to all that has been and all that will ever be. Our role is that of trustees obligated to those who came before us and to all who will follow. We are, in other words, connected, obliged, and constrained and thereby liberated from the demands of ego, aggrandizement, and fear.
Against this backdrop what does “only connect” mean for you? At the risk of presumption I offer four:
First, learn the kind of humility that makes you less certain of your certainties, but more clear in your underlying convictions. Your opinions and perceptions will change with experience, knowledge, and the normal aging process—and they should. But your underlying convictions formed by your capacity for empathy, charity, truth, and service should deepen.
Second, practice the art of gratitude . . . the sincere ability to say “thank you” to parents, friends, and strangers. This is not mere politeness, but something far more profound. Abraham Heschel once put it this way: “Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation.” In other words, acknowledge your gifts and pass them on to others in the circle of loving connection that binds us together over time.
Third, practice the art of good humor. Learn to laugh—first at your own self and then at adversity. If you can’t laugh at your own pretensions and at our societal conceits—you are not taking either seriously enough. But, true humor is never cynical, hurtful, or destructive. Rather, it punctures our tendency to pomposity and self-serving puffery. The lack of humor is surely the first and surest sign of derangement.
My final suggestion is simply this: get a life first and a career second. In other words, find out why you are here, what your special talents are, and what gift you will give in return. To get a life means getting connected first. . .to your core convictions, to friends, to humankind, to the cause of human improvement, and to service. A full life is the goal; a career is the means.
So, to you the class of 2017 find good work to do that that is so vital and important that you cannot possibly finish it in one lifetime. Do your Great Work with joy! And remember to take everyone with you.