Antioch Graduation Speech on Hope in Spite of it All
Thank you for selecting me as your graduation speaker, and congratulations on your success. In my short time today I want to say why – even with a future as uncertain and discouraging as the one staring us in the face – I am filled with hope. Yes, we live in one of those times in history when the stakes are high and here’s reason #1 for hope: daunting assignments actually bring out the best in people. There’s no script for our times and in that is reason #2 for hope: In the absence of certainty, hope is sanity because it lets you move into the unknown as if life is rooting for you to succeed. How could it be otherwise?
Life itself is an ally, we don’t need to generate hope, and we just need to cooperate. – and that’s reason #3 for hope. All living things get up each morning not knowing what the day will bring, yet we go on mating and birthing, flowering and fruiting assuming the conditions for flourishing are always there to receive us.
As a budding improv actor I can tell you that when you have nothing but an audience, stage and other actors, brilliance comes from making bold choices, saying “yes” to all offers, giving your scene partners something juicy to work with, taking risks, and if you fail, failing gloriously.
In my 67 years around the sun I’ve had a long time on the stage of life. I didn’t design my life and then live it. I have lived life, and learned. I’ve found and lost and found and lost hope many times. I want to share what I’ve learned about hope by telling some stories from my life as improv.
when I was young, I had little girl hope. I thought it was the same as luck. Hoping was like saying “pretty please” to parents, Santa and God. Life was good, but it was also out of my hands. I hoped I’d be picked for the team and get invited to the prom, I’d get good grades and get into a good college – which I did.
College, though, was confusing. I’d played by the rules but had no dreams of my own beyond that. Who was I? What did I want? I became increasingly desperate to find out and felt ambushed by this unfamiliar despair. From the top of my class to the pits. I longed for purpose charming. Some blaze of insight about my calling.
It took two decades for that to come. In the interim I’d lived simply with a small group of friends. Together we learned the life skills they don’t teach in college and eventually we’d taught our form of creative frugality to friends and then in seminars. It was all good but not gripping until I found myself, in 1989, at the Globescope Pacific Assembly, the first US conference on “sustainable development. Everyone who spoke from the podium said essentially the same thing: the biggest threat to long-term sustainability was the level and pattern of consumption in North America.
Listening to these experts deliver this dire news – and then shrug as if “nobody can get between an American and their right to consume” – I had an audacious thought. “could it be we have the solution to the biggest problem on the planet?” People who adopted our approach to money replaced seeking happiness in stuff with finding joy in having enough. With this focus on quality rather than quantity, folks dropped their spending by 25% – and were happier. What if we can get everyone to use these tools, and end overconsumption in North America? It was like I was picked up by the scruff by this calling …dare I say… save the world. Talk about purpose charming!
Hope became the heroic will to act. It became muscular. It was head, heart and hands working together like a well-oiled machine. Action in the direction of my values literally gave me hope for the world. We wrote Your Money or Your Life, which became a major bestseller and catapulted me from obscurity to the limelight! I truly believed that by the turn of the millennium we would have turned the tide of overconsumption.
But the decade ended and the tide had not turned. Savings were down, debt up, overshoot marching on. The only tide that had turned was an inner one. I swung once more into the arms of despair. We’d failed and were heading for a crash. For three years I kept going, though, like a bear keeps running after being mortally wounded. I tried new approaches to large-scale change. Some friends and I started the Conversation Cafes here in Seattle. They eventually spread round the world. I did the early design work for the Pachamama Awakening the Dreamer Symposium. I wrote a magnum opus – as yet unpublished – on rethinking freedom in a world with limits. I was frantic, really, managing my rising fear for the world through hyper-activism. I needed to stop and take a good hard look not at global overshoot but at the limits to what one little human can do.
Thank god I was diagnosed in 2004 with stage 3 colon cancer. It reined me in, slowed me down and placed my attention in the present moment.
I could finally hear my soul, and she told me, in no uncertain terms, “let go. Go within. Find out what is underneath your fear. Find the one who has not yet had a chance to live. “
I actually wasn’t focused on surviving. I was focused on transforming. I did not have a will to live. I had a will to be alive, to experience my life again rather than fighting to save it – or the world. I left all my positions of leadership. I left a comfortable home and friends who’d care for me and moved in to a small cabin above the beach to tend my soul – alone. I ventured out for treatment and then dropped even that to simply be.
In this emptying there was room for a modest yet authentic hope to trickle in – hope not as action in the direction of my values but hope as trusting that love is sufficient and that I don’t need to steer the great ship of state, I only need to go where I am led and love who is right there in front of me – without having any idea why.
In year 3 of my recovery – and I am recovered – I learned about Peak Oil. I had retreated but the global problems had not! They’d advanced.
Peak Oil is engineering speak for the rising certainty that we have now burned half the available reserves of oil on the planet. The next quarter will be more difficult, risky and expensive to extract. The last quarter we many never get to, since burning the prior quarter will surely send us into irreversible climate destabilization. Imagine a car. Even if we could gas it up, we’d be insane to crank it over. Stalled.
The global predicament was once more right in my face. I felt that old desperation for the world returning, but without my former fervor for tide turning. Perhaps, I thought, adaptation is the best we can hope for in the era of Peak Oil and climate change. Cancer taught me that honoring limits and finding grace in the littler picture of daily life actually opens the door to mature hope. It brings humility and proportion. There is hope in surrender to what is.
I saw a simpler task. Relocalization. Preparing my community to weather the coming changes. I was acting once more in the direction of my values, but out of love and acceptance rather than fear and resistance.
A few years later, though, I had a Technicolor dream that pointed me to yet another lesson in hope. In it I was sitting on the nose-cone on an old dual prop plane a young activist friend was piloting. The grass below was vivid green. The wind in my face exhilarating. Then I slipped off, falling without hurting myself.
It’s okay, I said to him waving, I’ll go home. I know my way
No you won’t he said, dipping the wing of the plane. He pulled me up and I was once again with my face in the sun and wind, my young pilot behind me.
The message of the dream was immediately clear. I knew that “going home” meant dying. I had learned through cancer that dying can be a liberation and had no fear. But my young friend was having none of that. He wanted me on the plane, not as a copilot but as a figurehead at least, one who encourages and admires and supports just by being. He wanted an elder. How could I tell him, and his friends, that adaptation to a diminished future was as good as it gets. I had to find hope again. But where in this sea of bad news?
I saw with a start that I actually do not know if “all is lost.” In fact, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow so how can I take a set of drear statistics and make a whole worldview out of it?
About that time I undertook to relocalize my eating. I started with a 10 mile diet, only eating what grows within 10 miles of my home. From a caper, this became a route home to hope. Through eating from where I live I became part of where I live – the farmers and fields and forests and waters – and community – that are my source of nourishment. I’d gone forth 20 years earlier from my little clan of friends to battle overconsumption, I’d lost hope. But through food I was returning home to a new community – and to a hope filled life.
And here is my final insight. If hope is a property of life. If the younger generations need hope from their elders as fuel for their own arcing journey towards making a difference. If facing facts isn’t just resignation but also the realization that we don’t really honestly know what the future will bring. Then hope is not just an option. It is our responsibility to say yes to hope, to become a beacon for hope. Hope is the very the oxygen the generations behind us need for their fire to burn bright.
My life has been a boxing match between hope and despair, each bruising round a teacher. I think my hope is deeper because it has been tempered in this way. Hope isn’t the absence of challenges, a sunny optimism. Real hope is in that renewal of life even after devastation.
To be hopeless is to hobble and hog-tie your life. Indulge it when it comes along. For about 5 minutes. Or dive into it. Swim to the source of your pain and forgive yourself, others and the world for not measuring up. Then allow the buoyancy of life to bring you to the surface again. The stakes are high, now, so let’s do improv , make bold choices, say “yes” to all offers, take risks, and if we fail, fail gloriously, only to rise again to the next occasion – or to lift someone younger up on our shoulders. Do this and whatever your career or vocation or avocation or even vacation, you will come to it with expectancy the 0way spring happens every year, never holding back.