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College Is a Little Bit Like Elvis

Commencement Address at Augustana College -- May 19, 2019

May 24, 2019
 
 

Bruce Springsteen held his first concert when he was seven years old. The whole neighborhood came. His rented guitar shone in the sun. He whooped and he hollered. He danced and he shimmied. He pointed at the sky and he implored the audience to scream.

Up until that point, Springsteen’s life had, by his own account, been an endless loop of school, homework, church, green beans; school, homework, church, green beans.

“But then,” as Springsteen tells it in his one-man show on Broadway, “in a blinding flash of sanctified light … a new kind of man … just a kid from the southern sticks … split the world in two.”

The revolution had been televised right under the noses of the powers that be - and remarkably, those powers had not shut it down. The fateful event took place on a Sunday night in 1956 and young Bruce, living somewhere in nowhere New Jersey, suddenly knew that there was more - “more life, more love, more hope, more truth, more power, more soul.”

It was Springsteen’s Elvis moment. And he didn’t waste it. 

 “I listened, I believed, and I heard a mighty call to action.”  

College is a little bit like Elvis.

James Carville, the political commentator, once said that America never tasted the same after Elvis.

The same is true for college. If you did it right, your life should never taste the same. You will have had a set of experiences, collected a group of friends, read a stack of books, had a million arguments, failed a zillion times, written a paper or two, succeeded often enough that you made it to this day …

Congratulations.

I hope your time in college was full of Elvis moments – moments when the world feels new and full of possibility. Moments when you listened, believed and felt a mighty call to action.

It has been a quarter century since I was an undergraduate, and yet my own such moments feel fresh as if they were yesterday. The first time that I read the poetry of William Carlos Williams, the first time I heard the name Dorothy Day, the week I made my first gay friend, the moment I heard the story of Ruby Bridges, the class where my professor posed the question: is Christopher Columbus really a hero?

I’m in the full-swing of middle age now, but those moments from my undergraduate years are the deep waters in my spiritual well. I find myself returning to them over and over - for guidance, for nourishment, for a reminder of what it felt like when a poem/a story/a question/an insight could be like seeing Elvis on a Sunday night in 1956 - and feeling like the world had just been split in two.

How do you keep that feeling after you cross this stage and gather your degree? What lessons and themes will you carry with you from your years at Augustana? Here’s my list.  

First, I hope you learned the electric combination of imagined possibility and disciplined work ethic. Irish Murdoch wrote, “Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble those pictures.”

I hope that all of you got a glimpse of a future you here that could never have crossed your mind in high school.

You as someone who starts a global company, or a protest against one.

You as someone who writes novels, or an essay that argues the novel is dead.

And then comes the discipline – the work required to become the picture you just made of yourself.   

Remember the seven-year old Springsteen headlining that first concert in the backyard? All the whooping and dancing and shimmying? Well, he never actually plays the guitar. Elvis had made it look so easy. When Bruce held his first guitar in his hand, he kind of hoped it might play itself. He thought his job was just to look cool.

But once he realized that he wasn’t satisfied with the picture of being a musician, he actually wanted to be a musician, Springsteen started to put in the real work. He spent Friday nights watching local bands play gigs at YMCAs and high school dances, stood in front of the lead guitar player to see what he was doing, then went home and tried to play what he’d seen. 

The secret to being Bruce Springsteen has two parts – imagining a character for yourself, then putting in the work to become it.

I hope somebody shared that secret with you while you were in college, and that you bring both parts with you into the great beyond.

Second, I hope that you remember that nothing we either love or hate just drops from the sky or rises from the ground. Everything comes from somewhere. Everything has a history.

Think about Elvis. 

Here’s a guy who grew up in the poor neighborhoods of Tupelo, Mississippi. His daddy went to Parchman Prison for writing bad checks. As a teenager, Elvis winds his way to Memphis and works as an electrician. He spends nights and weekends listening to music in churches and nightclubs in the black part of town.

When he finally gets his shot at Sun Studios, the owner Sam Phillips takes one look at him and thinks he is just another pretty white kid trying to be Frank Sinatra. As the engineers set up the recording equipment, Elvis tools around on his guitar, hits a blue note or two.

Sam Phillips said, “What was that?”

“Ahh, nothing, just messin’ around.”

“Tell me what you were you playing,” Sam Phillips says.

“That’s music I really like,” Elvis confesses.

“That’s the music I really like,” Sam Phillips said.    

“Black music is the black response to being terrorized and traumatized. We will share and spread some soothing sweetness against the backdrop of a dark catastrophe.” That’s how Cornel West describes black music. And that’s what Elvis absorbs as a kid.

A new chapter in American culture began in Sun Studios that day, but it was part of a much longer story. You see those Delta bluesmen that Elvis loved and learned from, well they got some of their inspiration from the field chants of slaves. Many of those slaves came from Muslim majority nations where the sound of the Islamic Call to Prayer would have rung in their ears and settled their souls five times a day.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The poet can see a cloud in a piece of paper.”

If you remember that everything comes from somewhere, you will hear the Muslim call to prayer in Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”

Knowing that everything has a history means not just learning about that past but reckoning with it - and deciding what role you are going to play in the next chapter. It is never a straightforward narrative. Of American history, Springsteen says that all of us have to struggle with “the blood, and the confusion, and the pride, and the shame, and grace, that comes with birthplace”.

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 is 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 back pocket 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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