Isaac Olson, Convocation Speaker

Everything's Broken: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Love the World

In a few weeks, my youngest sister is going to leave our ancestral home in the Colorado highlands and move across the country to a small, residential, nationally ranked school in the Pacific Northwest. I'm talking, of course, about Seattle University. She couldn't attend today, as she is busy preparing herself for her own graduation from high school, her own entry into what we in the Religion department called the limnal state. But we've been doing some talking, her and I, about what exactly our respective graduations mean. Panicking and complaining together, both relieved and terrified, trying to, as best we can, pass along what we can to each other. For an 18 year old, she's got a lot of good advice. It's always humbling to hear, for example, "Americans are really good at complaining, but that's ok, because that's usually how things get fixed" or “you'd probably be a lot better at Arabic if you spend less time complaining about it and more time making flash cards.” She wasn't wrong about those, by the way.

During one recent flurry of text messages, I was, as usual, giving unsolicited advice, and I told her that if she is happier, more content, and feels that all is well in the universe after she graduates, well, she didn't get herself much of an education. (that's what I thought it might be) Immediately after I said it, I realized that it was true. Because when I think back on my four years at UPS, I'm sorry to report, they were not as sunny as the brochures promised they would be. I should mention, briefly, that I have also had countless, joyous, wonderful times at UPS that were, miraculously left unscathed by my critical tendencies. I'm actually a big believer in the Kurt Vonnegut school of happiness, encouraging everyone to look around at small moments, and think “if this isn't nice, I don't know what is.” But I am not focusing on that whole song and dance, on those happy moments, here for reasons that I hope I can make clear shortly. I just wanted to prepare you. 

During my time at UPS, there were times when I felt utterly and completely alone. There were times when I came into violent conflict with ideas that shook me to the broken foundations of whatever self I had left. I had my privilege checked and re-checked, and I have had cherished beliefs torn away and amputated. My critical thinking skills were sharpened to the point where they drew blood; I now know, for example, that my ability to critically interrogate belief systems that are foreign to me or that I disagree with is secondary to my ability to critically interrogate my own. This, I should mention, makes life difficult. I fell in love with books, ideas, thinkers, Tacoma, and people. As a result, I also had my heart broken by them. And I wouldn't trade any of that for the world. I consider myself lucky to have had my heart broken; and I believe that this is what my UPS education was really about. I learned more, I think, from those difficult and uncomfortable times, from those dark nights of the soul, dark nights of the body, and dark nights of the intellect, than any of those lazy and happy days without rain. There were some long silences some nights, To paraphrase James Baldwin, I could only be helped in a certain way because I was hurt in a certain way.

Because ultimately, as difficult and painful as it is to see the cracked and the trapped in your own beliefs, and in the systems you have trusted, I believe that is the only way to truly learn to love. I realize that the word love is kicked around these days by salesmen and politicians, but I think that we can take a minute here to reclaim it. If you've ever been in love, you know how traumatic it is. The realization that someone, or something, else is real and ultimately beyond your capacities to fully understand, and the decision to keep trying anyway is one that, by its nature, calls into question, your own comfortable ways of going about the world. The realization that the object or objects of your affection are not static, and are always changing tests your ability to remain complacent and uncritical of your own life, secure in your own habits and beliefs. Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher, once put it far more simply and clearly than I can:

“What is love? Love is not idealization. Every true lover knows it. If you really love, a woman or a man, you don¹t idealize him or her. Love means that you accept a person with all its failures, stupidities, ugly points, and, nonetheless, the person is absolute for you, everything that makes life worth living, but you see perfection in imperfection itself. And that is how we should learn to love the world.”

As if to drive the point home, he was giving an interview in a landfill when he said that.

That is what my UPS education, both formal and informal, in the classroom and outside of it, has truly taught me; and that is what I will be forever grateful for: learning how to love the world. This was a priceless gift (Well, maybe not exactly priceless...I'll be paying loans on it for a while).

Again, speaking to the lovers in the room, we know that the trauma of love inspires action; that love is a verb, not a noun. That to love the world is to, with openness and humility, with honesty and without idealization, with the willingness to have your heart broken again and again, engage in it. To be open to being consumed by it, rather than just being a consumer. I'm still learning, and will probably always still be learning, how to engage, and work with this stupid, broken world that I love so dearly. I'm not sure exactly how I'm going to go about that in my life. I've got some ideas, but, I know that whatever sort of jobs I end up taking after I graduate, I won't be content to just sit there in the shadows with an aching heart, watching the world tear itself apart. That love gives me the courage, and the means, not to get cold feet about the universe.

I realize that this got a bit long-winded (another thing skill I honed at UPS), so, as always, there is someone else out there who can put this more succinctly than I can. What did I learn at UPS? I learned, in the words of Bob Dylan, that “I've been loving you too long, but I know you ain't no good. Don't make a bit of difference to me, don't see why it should. Ain't no use jivin, and ain't no use joking. Everything's broken.” But, to quote another grumpy old Jewish singer/songwriter, Leonard Cohen, “Ring the bells, if they still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. But that's how the light gets in.”