Prepared text of the 2016 Stanford Baccalaureate address by Katharine Jefferts Schori
Following is the text of the address, “What’s Your Life Worth?” by the Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, BS ’74, head of the Episcopal Church until November 2015, as prepared for delivery at Stanford University’s Baccalaureate celebration on June 11, 2016.
What is your life worth? Have the years you’ve spent here learning, discovering and developing relationships that will last a lifetime been worth your while? Has it been worth your parents’ emotional and financial support – and the investment your professors, teachers and coaches have made? You leave this place with expectation and hope that your lives will be worthy.
The world around us often judges “worth” in terms of monetary value, but the deeper roots of the word are related to “becoming” and the turning or bending of transformation, with the sense that the worth of something is judged by what it can become. It may be what the plow turns, or a verse of poetry, or sports competition (Stanford vs. Cal), or a legal encounter (Brown v. Board of Education). The Latin root behind that turning, vertere, also yields the turning of conversation and the conversion of heart and mind – for when we turn toward one another and engage the other’s full worth and possibility, all parties can be transformed. Worth is also derived from an Old English word that means a place to return, the“home place” that Robert Frost insisted is where they have to take you in1 – the place where your worth is finally acknowledged. We should also note that worship means recognizing and affirming what is ultimately worthy, literally its worth-ship.
“None of us can fore-know the full cost of claiming and pursuing life-giving dreams, yet it is the passion we invest that makes them meaningful, possible and worthy.”
—The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori
What is your life worth, and what is worthy of your life’s full energies? The wisdom of the ancients – our ancestors across the globe – would have us attend to what is truly worthy, and shape our lives in that homeward direction. We heard Isaiah’s vision [Isaiah 65:17-25] about a destination worthy of his people’s whole-hearted attention and labor – a “city of peace” (which is the deep meaning of the name Jerusalem), inhabited by joyful people, living in plenty with no hint of oppression or servitude, at peace through living in right and just relationship with their human neighbors and the rest of creation. That vision of deep peace, in a whole and healed world, shapes the prophet’s work and life, energizes his voice and action, and continues to lure his people into a new and more hopeful future.
The prophet speaks out of passion, which is at least a two-splendored thing. Passion is both the animating force that drives him toward the realization of his dream – in this case, what he understands as God’s dream for creation – and passion is the cost he suffers for speaking, motivating and enacting that vision. Passion is both the frenetic joy in the company of your beloved and the cost of relationship, whether learning to put up with personal foibles or surrendering that piece of your heart at the grave. Fyodor Dostoevsky said the only thing he truly dreaded was that his life wouldn’t be worthy of his suffering.2
What is your life worth? Where and for what or whom will you spend your passion? You’ve tasted many and varied flavors of passion in the time you’ve been here – including the elation that comes of investing your whole being in game or sport or sharing the gloried experience of those who do. Stanford hasn’t seen two Rose Bowl wins in four years since I was a student here in the 1970s! For most it may be reflected glory, but nonetheless draws the community into a greater whole. What is that worth?
You’ve discovered the boundless gift of relationships with those who come from diverse contexts across this nation and across the globe, and you have most assuredly found both shared experience and occasionally confounding difference. OpenXChange3 has been just one way to constructively explore and build on those impassioned encounters. We don’t have to look much past Twitter or the latest news cycle to know how urgently this world needs greater skill and investment in conversation that affirms the worth of difference, and dialogue that will engage that difference creatively. The multidisciplinary learning and research President Hennessy has so passionately espoused here is a powerful expression of the creative possibility of diversity. None of us has the answers to all the world’s challenges, though each of us has a unique offering to make – and together, we have far greater possibility to find a homeward way for this fragile planet and its lively cargo.
The passion that students here have brought to questions of justice, whether the violence of policing in American cities, Middle East peace, faculty diversity or fossil fuel divestment, has given you a taste of the complexity of finding constructive and creative solutions. The awakening of that passion is a gift – both the vision of a transformed future and the suffering that are its essence. It will be an abiding gift. The very ability to engage your passion in this community is the result of Leland and Jane Stanford’s willingness to answer the pain of their son’s death by letting their hopes for him be transformed. Our own willingness to invest our full selves in a passionate dream, and to bear the cost necessary to its realization, even the pain of our own transformation, is perhaps the most worthy possible use of one’s life.
This remarkable community continues to model that passion for transformation in organic ways that shape its graduates. The encouragement to engage diverse ways of knowing and worldviews was part of Stanford’s birth – welcoming both women4 and men with the goal of educating “useful citizens.” The arts and humanities continue to be essential to that goal, even as this institution celebrates its extensive and innovative history in science and technology. All those varied worldviews are essential to the flourishing of humanity and this planet – to the worth of the global home we share.
St. Paul’s Cathedral in London hosts a remarkable example of passionate transformation, in a provocative recent video art installation. Bill Viola’s work is titled Martyrs, a word that means witnesses, those who will claim a creative vision with passion enough to hope for greater life despite the threat of death. Four human witnesses begin in quiet, their peace soon disturbed by increasingly relentless elemental assault by earth, air, fire or water.5 It evokes the question we began with – what is your life worth? For what are you willing to die or spend your passion? None of us can fore-know the full cost of claiming and pursuing life-giving dreams, yet it is the passion we invest that makes them meaningful, possible and worthy.
What is your life worth? Tackling the profoundly interconnected impacts of climate change on the ability of human beings to feed their families, sustain their ways of life in peace or bear children for health rather than calamity? Is it worth working to ensure the ecological sustainability of this planet through innovative power generation or habitat restoration? Developing more creative negotiation tools and peace-making strategies so that human beings might study war no more? Or teaching children, neighbors and ourselves the deep worth of diversity? What about confronting entrenched attitudes and systems that continue to maintain some categories of human beings are less worthy than others, whether they are the objects of gender violence, racial profiling or generational poverty? Studying the inner workings of genes and cellular functions, in order that illness might be relieved? Unknitting the complex life-cycles of the stars – birth, destruction, black holes, new elements, re-birth – to yield even greater awe and wonder? Honoring the worth of another by attending deeply and creatively enough to “hear a person into speech,” as Nelle Morton6 put it? Composing music and making art to help express the longing of human souls for meaning in this mortal coil?
Whatever worthy witness you choose, pursue it whole-heartedly, like Prince’s reigning/raining passion for purple, or the wit and wisdom of Muhammad Ali, who learned to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and reminded us that [one] “who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” Keep count of that courage when the cost seems too high. Remember the companions who walked these halls with you; lean on each other in the coming years. Encourage the Nerd Nation web of relationships to expand and deepen and grow new synapses beyond this bubble, for none of us ever goes anywhere on our own hook or steam alone. The world needs nerds – and farmers and tree huggers and dreamers and every other partner you can find. Tend and test that web, for it will never become resilient and life-sustaining without life-giving challenge and passion.
Take the Tree with you, too, as an icon of organic community; learn from the diverse denizens hosted in its branches and among its roots, and let El Palo Alto become a tree of life for the world you go out to serve. Remember the Farm that formed you and help the world turn furrows for fruitfulness. Windhover’s7 gifts and inspiration will accompany you, if you search new skies, for the “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” rides the rolling winds abroad as well as here – and as your worthy life endures, and persists through pain and joy for dreamed-of ends, the furrow turned will yield abundantly, and ash will become the blood-red gold of passion lived and offered for the world.8
Go well, go in community, let your passion lead you, that the world might become that turning place where each one is met in dignity and known as worthy. Then will joy abound. Go live a passionate and worthy life!
- Frost, Robert. “The Death of the Hired Man,” 1915. North of Boston. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/118, Accessed 5 June 2016.
- Frankl, Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Pocket Books, 1997, p 87.
- Even if the floods of women soon led Jane to limit their number! Cf. among others https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=44763.
- https://www.stpauls.co.uk/history-collections/history/bill-viola; https://www.stpauls.co.uk/SM4/Mutable/Uploads/imported_media/Martyrs_(Earth,_Air,_Fire,_Water).jpg
- Morton, Nelle. “Beloved Image,” in The Journey is Home. http://actsofhope.blogspot.com/2007/08/hearing-to-speech.html, Accessed 5 June 2016.
- Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “The Windhover,” 1877. Poems. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/122/, Accessed 5 June 2016.