William Swing advises graduates to follow their passions, not someone else’s

Following is the prepared text of the speech delivered June 16, 2007, by the Rt. Rev. William E. Swing at Baccalaureate

L.A. Cicero Rt. Rev. William L. Swing

The Rt. Rev. William L. Swing delivered the keynote speech Saturday at the Baccalaureate Celebration.

Congratulations to all of you who are graduating and to the rest of you who also helped pay the price of academic success by providing the graduates with personal support, by teaching them, by building up the community life of Stanford, by covering tuitions—congratulations to everyone involved. This is your time, your moment for successful completion.

Over a quarter of a century ago, I received an honorary doctorate from Kenyon College, my alma mater. Three people were invited to return to campus for a couple of days to teach classes, meet students and faculties, and to receive hoods at an honors assembly. I was one. The head of the Peace Corps was the second. And the third was Jonathan Winters, the comedian.

On the night before the big event, we were talking over dinner, and I said, "I don't know about you guys, but I'm kind of embarrassed about walking up on that stage tomorrow. I wasn't a good student. As a matter of fact, the faculty encouraged me not to return after my second year."

The head of the Peace Corps said, "I'm glad you said that. I only lasted one year at Kenyon."

Jonathan Winters said, "I'm glad you guys said that. They kicked me out in February of my first year."

We looked at each other in wonder. Of all the students who were straight A's in math, or English, or political science, why did they invite three dummies to return? So we spent some time pondering that mystery. Why were we there? Actually, we came up with two thoughts.

One: Isn't it great to fail when you are 19 years old in front of your parents, peers and professors, and then to discover that life goes on, that the sun comes up again, that there is much more ahead of you? Some people don't conspicuously fail until they are 45 years old, and it devastates them. That's what I want to tell you graduates. Fail early and get it all over with! If you learn to deal with failure, you can raise teenagers, you can abide in intimate relationships, and you can have a worthwhile career. You learn to breathe again when you embrace failure as a part of life, not as the determining moment of life.

There was a second learning that the three of us thought was worth knowing. We figured, wasn't it great to spend a lifetime working firsthand on your own passion, rather than working secondhand or thirdhand on somebody else's passion? Whether comedy or faith or youthful idealism or whatever, be an apprentice in something that beckons your heart to pursue with endless fascination. None of us was an expert in many things, but all three of us were passionate about one thing. Some unique one thing. My advice to you: Stay with things that draw you like a magnet. Trust your DNA. Pay attention to your daydreams.

Because of that experience I have always been on the lookout for the two themes of passion and failure. And because I have spent a lifetime in the field of religion, I have witnessed a boatload of religious passion and religious failure.

First, religious passion. Even though you graduates have spent four years in the Bay Area, where religion seems like a quaint elective, let me point out that in vast parts of the world the passion for one's faith forms the core of one's life. What does this have to do with you? It means that people of various religions are going to challenge you—on the battlefields, in the field of science, in your bedroom. You don't want to be playing religious Frisbee while they are playing religious life and death. Religious passion has been unleashed in the world you will be living in. And everybody here will have to come to terms with it, sooner or later. "What do I do about this hot fervor of religious passion that stands directly in my path, in the path of my nation, and looks directly in my eyes?" That's the religious passion question for you.

Second, religious failure. I said, "religious failure." Look, I'm a company man. A bishop, for heaven's sake. I could talk endlessly about the significant, brilliant, heroic dimensions that religions contribute to ordinary life. And I would be on target. But in the face of the religiously motivated violence exposed daily in our newspapers, I have to admit there is something radically wrong in the interactions between religions. The nations of the world have gathered every day for 62 years to struggle together for global good. The religions of this world in those same 62 years have never gathered for one day to struggle together to pursue global good. Never! This failure has to do with our inability to give a healthy and ultimately correct answer to one question, i.e., what do we do about all of those other religious spiritual traditions that exist throughout the earth? Religious spiritual traditions that seem so foreign and misguided and potentially dangerous? Life is going to give you Stanford graduates a required course in the Survival Department—pass, or fail at your own peril. Everyone else will be taking the same course and answering the same inevitable question: What do I do, we do, about all those other religions? The religions themselves have failed this test. But we are never going to make it as a civilization unless vast numbers of people come up with the right answers.

For the last 13 years I have wrestled with these questions every day. As a matter of fact, I spend all my days now working with Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, indigenous tribal peoples on these questions. The United Religions Initiative is my work, is the laboratory where I and a global host of others pursue peace among competing religions. Peace among religions is in everyone's self-interest. Look at Baghdad. When peace among religions breaks down, livable society crumbles. Peace among religions is in everyone's self-interest.

I have one graduation gift to offer you. There is an antidote to the disease of confrontational religious passion and religious failure. The antidote is generosity.

In the lesson read here today, the God-like person queries: "Do you begrudge me my generosity?" Ah, there's the clue. The assumption is that the Creator of this universe is generous beyond imagining. Don't begrudge, don't limit, don't forbid the vast generosity that exists in the center of the universe and at the core of every molecule and potentially abides deep within the sacredness of all religions.

Make room, lots of room, intellectual, spiritual, devotional room. While a small team of people searches for human life in the rapidly expanding universe, let us search for expanded human life on earth. Sunken treasures lay submerged deep below the surface waiting for our explorations. The author of the Universe is generous; why should we buy into a stingy god? The key to standing up to the toxic tyrannies of religions that want to shrink our skulls is to hold on to a muscular, unflappable generosity. The God-like person queries, "Do you begrudge me my generosity?" Nor will the wise graduate begrudge her or his own generosity.

Today I offer my voice in chorus of honor and blessing for all of you graduates. You are people who have had a generous education. I hope you will use it extravagantly for the good of all and to add to life's glorious Divine touch. Amen.