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Advice for Graduates, Part 3

Part 3 of 3 of my 2019 Commencement Address at Augustana College

May 23, 2019
 
 

The third thing that I hope stays with you from college is those intense moments reflecting on identity and diversity - as it relates to both you as an individual, and to the various concentric circles of community to which you belong and contribute.

Again, Springsteen serves as a fascinating reference point. Listen to those early albums. Here you have a young Bruce Springsteen who will kill to break free. He is Born to Run, to Race in the Streets, to get out of this place, to exit St. Mary’s Gate and declare his own personal Independence Day.

How things change. Nowadays Bruce Springsteen lives 10 miles from the house where he grew up. He says that the most meaningful part of life is not being a rock star but being a dad and a husband. He writes about the comfort he gets from church bells chiming, the same church bells that he dismissed as a kid.

At the end of the Broadway show, he leads the audience in the Our Father.

In fact, he calls his musical career “a long and noisy prayer” not ultimately about discovering himself, but about understanding the people around him.

Think about the various characters Springsteen conjures in his songs. He sees the decent cop who lets his criminal brother escape, the ex-con trying to walk the straight line, the returned Vietnam Vet seething in the Darkness on the Edge of Town, Tom Joad as a Mexican migrant worker, the high school hero in late middle age, the innocent West African immigrant who gets shot 41 times because of the color of his American Skin.

He sings these songs in such a way that we not only identify with the characters we like and resemble, we learn something about the ones we dislike and consider alien. 

If Bruce Springsteen didn’t exist, America would have to create him because he is so essential to our national identity.

And you know what story Springsteen chooses to tell? That if you didn’t exist, America would have to create you. Because the distinguishing feature of American identity is that it regards each person on this sacred ground to be essential.

The magic trick that Bruce Springsteen performs is making this random assortment of individuals feel like a nation.

That’s why America is a potluck, not a melting pot. A sing-along, not a solo. An improvisational jazz show, not a strictly ordered symphony.

If our people, in all their motley variety, don’t contribute, well then, the nation doesn’t feast.

It is only in understanding our collective story, that the ultimate meaning of our individual stories are revealed. And it is only in the gathering of our individual stories that we have a collective story. South Africans call this Ubuntu – we become people through other people.

And this, in the final analysis, is why college matters so much, to the student and to the nation. Because every Elvis moment that happened here slips into your backpocket when you leave, and you pull them out when you need a personal reminder that the world can be split in two, and that your magic trick can turn a random assortment of people into a community.

When you are out there healing, teaching, helping, building, and you find yourself quoting something you read here in college or recalling an insight of a classmate or a professor, or revisiting a realization that you had during a service-learning project – remember this place and these years. Be grateful for your time in Graceland. 

 

 

 

 

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