Circle member and Brescia Alumna, Sister Margo Ritchie was conferred a Doctor of Laws, Honorius causa (LLD.) in recognition of a life dedicated to service. The following post contains the reflection given by Sister Margo to the graduates from King’s University College and the School of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies at the Tuesday, June 11, 2013 session of Western’s 301st Convocation. We would like to thank Margo for her permission to publish her inspiring words.
Sister Chancellor Rotman, President Chakma, Principal Sylvester, distinguished faculty, graduates and many family and friends here today,
First and most of all, congratulations to each of you today. You each know the financial choices that you and your family have made, the moments of self-doubt and feeling overwhelmed, the joy of learning something new with others. And you are here today…at both an ending and more interestingly, a beginning.
Recently, as I was driving somewhere, I heard a CBC interview with Shin Dong-hyuk, a 26 year old political prisoner inn one of North Korea’s harsh prison camps. He was born in the prison camp and knew nothing of another way of living. This was the full extent of his world for 19 years. Amazingly and against all odds, he escaped when he was 19 years old. The book, Escape from Camp 14, was written by journalist Blaine Harden in collaboration with Shin. It tells Shin’s story in the camp and the process of returning to a world he did not even know existed. At present, he is involved in human rights work in South Korea.
Here is the piece that caught my attention and made me think of you today. Through translation, Shin said that the biggest task for him was learning to be human. He described trying to cry and trying to laugh to see if he could mimic what he thought being human might be, if he could translate the crying and laughing into an actual emotion that he could experience. He described that he had a long way to go. Ever so slowly and painfully he was coming to know that other people were more than competitors for food as he had been taught. He was adamant that the biggest life task for him when all was said and done was learning to be human. It took my breath away. It got me thinking.
I think this might be our most significant task also. From what I know so far, becoming human means knowing in our bones that we belong to each other. It means experiencing that relationships are the deep connective tissue of life. Fundamentally it means, especially in this complex world, learning to live in the shelter of each other. Perhaps some of you grew up in neighbourhoods in which you knew the neighbours on your street. I recall my mother going door to door to collect money for flowers when the relative of a neighbour had died. One step beyond that, we see expansive outpourings of simple human community when tragedy strikes as in thee Boston marathon or flooding in Winnipeg. And now, the relatively new awareness for us is that we live in one neighbourhood called planet earth. Our real task, if we are to become human is to get to know this neighbourhood. It is to discover each country, each person, and each species as a neighbour with whom we quite literally share common ground.
Knowing in our bones that we belong to each other. Fundamentally, this is what the Truth and Reconciliation process in Canada is really all about. Today, June 11, 2013, marks the 5th anniversary of the Government of Canada’s official apology and seeking reconciliation with indigenous peoples in Canada. We, indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, share a common history fractured by the refusal to see otherness as essential to a vibrant culture. This refusal manifests as the domination of one group over another and the loss off human connection that blinded us to the often devastating consequences of residential schools. I am part of a local Truth and Reconciliation group where I am learning that truth is both painful and healing and that reconciliation is not a once and for all affair. This is absolutely the moment to write with our lives, our policies and our deepest common humanity a new story in Canada of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. As our aboriginal friends passionately and with considerable exasperation remind us, this history is not only in the past. It repeats and replays today in a thousand different iterations. It is time to say with our lives that this matters to us. Perhaps this is where some of your brightest and best energy will go. Find the hinge place in your own experience that connects to the whole because this is how real change happens. Here is what I mean. On our committee, as we try to piece together a contribution to Truth and Reconciliation, is a Jewish woman whose great grandparents were part of the holocaust. She has found the hinge place in her own experience that makes working too heal the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples in Canada connect in a way that deepens her commitment. Another man who moved here not long ago from Yemen is playing a vital role in this committee. He could easily say that he is not responsible for the broken history in Canada since he is a newcomer. Don’t pin this on me. This is your problem not mine. Yet, he does not go there because he finds the hinge place in himself that recognizes how indiscriminate use of stereotypes can marginalize whole communities of people. As a Muslim he has experienced this since being in Canada. It resurfaces in many ways. He knows that the history of discrimination that aboriginal peoples experience and that Muslim populations experience is distinct and unique. However, in his hinge place he knows that they are a common human problem. They are our common human problem. Who knows but that some of you in this room will use your social work, political, educational, business and systemic justice skills to make a difference in rewriting our common history in Canada? Seeing change as about relationship gets to the heart of the matter.
Being human means knowing in our bones that we belong to each other. Our culture is not so kind to people who, from one point of view, cannot quite make it. I would feel very confident in betting that all of us in this room have experienced the confusion and feelings of helplessness surrounding mental illness. Maybe it is with a friend whose depression will just not end with a little encouragement. Perhaps it is in your placement work where someone your age is learning to live with schizophrenia. Perhaps it is in the eyes of the people who are homeless who grow weary of invisibility. Maybe even you get glimpses of it when you look in thee mirror. Mental illness is one of the most painful labels to carry and closes so many doors in a culture that is unsure about how to be with vulnerability probably because so many of us live close to that edge at various points in our lives. Perhaps you will put your energy into practice and policy that refuse to let people be on the margins of life as if it were a preordained fact. Perhaps in your role as educator or parent or life partner you will have the compassion and stamina enough to change the story of how our culture views people who have a mental illness. Find the hinge place that connects your personal experience to the good of the whole because finding this hinge point is how real change happens.
It is so easy to be cynical and incapable of trust these days. Read the newspaper. Listen to our own conversations. It is easy to move to a place of “no trust.” Sometimes our very starting place is the assumption that our political, religious, educational leaders are not telling us the truth. I was making good on a Christmas gift a few weeks ago at an olive oil tasting bistro. The owner who has an extraordinary passion for olive oil told us that most of what we buy in the grocery store is not really pure olive oil. It flashed through my mind that even olive oil cannot be trusted. But here is the thing. This is what really matters. Listen carefully. Perhaps you will be the ones who let integrity grow within you so that the inner of who you are and the outer of who you are keep intertwining in a way that in the end the strands of the two are indistinguishable. Perhaps you will be the ones to say with your lives that integrity in my home, at work, in my relationships matters to me. They matter to us. And, truth be told, if they matter to us, we will begin to see more integrity mirrored back to us than we ever imagined…and perhaps from unlikely places.
How do we live our ordinary, extraordinary personal lives in ways that express depth and love and initiative, that show that we value relationships? And the question that sits right beside this one? How do we create a global neighbourhood in which the actual experience of each nation, each person, each species is that we know in our bones that we belong to each other? A very wise teacher that I had at university said to me in the middle of some research that I considered disturbing at a personal level, “Always follow your questions all the way down to their end, until you meet a new question that demands your attention and your love. Follow it as if your life, our life depended on it…because it does.” That small tidbit of advice is worth its weight in gold both at a personal level and at a collective level. It is an intriguing and demanding way to live our lives.
And the last thing I want to say is that I hope you learn joy. Right in the midst of all that seems hopeless from one point of view, we just hunker down in the moment and learn joy. Learn to look around…not to mention within… and see beauty. Cultivate an eye for seeing goodness in its myriad large and small forms. Cultivate a heart that leans toward compassion and largesse of spirit and tilts away from judgment and smallness. Learn the exquisite joy of throwing one’s lot in with others who are going for broke in their desire to create a more hospitable world, who dare the exhilaration of what seems so impossible that it makes it worthwhile. And always, always, cultivate compassion for yourself as you learn your way into being the human being you most deeply want to be.
Such soul-sized questions we face together. How can we live interdependently on the planet with 7 billion people and a whole host of other-than-human species when on any given day it can feel like a heroic act to live interdependently with 1 other? Such heart-felt questions we each live with. Will my life make any difference to others? We each hope to be in relationships that nurture the best off who we are and to know the fullest range of our own capacity to love another and to contribute to the whole.
Barbara Kingsolver, a writer from Arizona seems to say it just so…
“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is to live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides”
My deepest desire and prayer for you is that you live inside that hope in all the moments of your life, with whatever life throws at you, with whatever choices you make. Show with your life what matters to you…and make it about relationship because only relationship contains the energy and largesse to express our deepest humanity.
Congratulations to each of you and to your family and friends.