Stop, Look and Listen

Commencement Address

President Nathan O. Hatch
Monday, May 20, 2019

Matthew Dicks is a fantastic storyteller. He is a frequent guest at The Moth in New York, an organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. He is six-time GrandSLAM Champion.

The stories of Matthew Dicks are all about his own experience. He is not a famous or remarkable person, but his stories are honest, vulnerable and funny. The first story he told was about learning to pole vault in high school. In that story, he revealed his secret desire for his teammate to fail so that he would look better. He bared his soul and told the audience about the ugly truth that resided at the center of his 17-year-old heart. He made them laugh, feel deeply, empathize and, in the end, be drawn to him.

Matthew Dicks believes that storytelling can actually change your life. His book, “Storyworthy,” challenges people to take five minutes at the end of every day to review the day and identify one incident or experience about which one could tell a story: As benign and boring and inconsequential as it might seem, what was the most “storyworthy” moment from my day? The challenge is not to craft the story, just jot down what experience might have meaning or significance. Matthew Dicks calls this daily assignment, “Homework for Life,” and he thinks the practice can be transforming.

Why so? Because “Homework for Life” helps him stop and listen to his life. By doing so, he begins to take random experiences and weave them into meaning. His is a call to cultivate the inner life, to tap into deeper veins of meaning and purpose, amidst the ever-accelerating rhythms of daily life.

My theme today is that we need to stop, to look and to listen in a world that seems more pressured and disjointed than ever before. The pace and clutter of our lives tend to squeeze out meaning and significance. It can dull our senses to what is really important, beautiful and lasting. The ordinary in your life is remarkable if only you have eyes to see and ears to hear.

We live in an age that is not friendly to silence and reflection. Few of us take enough time to hear that still, small voice that can detect meaning in ordinary routines or see the wonder and great potential in people around us. Too often, we skim along the surface of things, packing our schedule and striving for better time management. Even our leisure becomes hyper-organized. Matters of real consequence often get buried under the everyday debris of routine and distraction.

“The press of busyness is like a charm,” Søren Kierkegaard once wrote. We are drawn to hurry because it makes us feel important. It keeps the adrenaline pumping. It staves off loneliness.

Studies show that we, as Americans, work about 25% more than Europeans. Workplaces today call upon us to do more and more and always to be connected. And the most hip companies in the tech world even provide lavish arrays of food for lunch and dinner — clearly a strategy to make constant work even more inviting.

New York Times writer Judith Shulevitz has become a sharp critic of a culture that pegs status to overachievement.

Her own bitter experience as an ambitious writer in her 20s led her to the conclusion that our relationship with work is seriously out of whack. To her, everything felt like work — even socializing, reading or exercising. In time, she sought some release from this nagging workaholism and its inner murmur, which always whispered, “You are not doing enough.”

Shulevitz’s answer was to bring back the Sabbath of her Jewish youth, not so much for its religious observance, but to take a day to provide space and freedom in a rat-race world. She commends the “art of stopping” so that we can “de-clinch the muscles of the mind.” For her, it has taken organized nonproductivity to restore a sense that life has meaning and wonder beyond the marketplace.

The pressure of work is certainly one reason we need to find ways to push the pause button. Surely, another is our unceasing connectivity —our Twitter-saturated minds. American adults spend more than a third of each day watching, reading, listening to or simply interacting with media, according to a new study by market-research group Nielsen. Applications Web tools like Google Mail, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat are amazing ways to connect, but they are also engineered to be addictive. The software nudges us never to leave the device. After examining these trends, Sherry Turkle concludes: “We are forever elsewhere. At class or at church or business meetings, we pay attention to what interests us, and then when it doesn’t, we look to our devices to find something that does.”

The result, Turkle concludes, is that we are losing the capacity for solitude. Solitude is the ability to be contentedly and constructively alone. In recent years, psychologists have written about how much we need silence to restore our mental wellbeing and refresh our creativity. A rich imagination requires solitude.

We need solitude to recognize, to bring to the surface, what is latent, forgotten, overlooked or suppressed. We need solitude to think about to whom we should be grateful. We need solitude to assess what we believe and whether our current actions align with those beliefs. We need solitude to read and reflect on texts that open our minds to beauty and truth: poetry, art, novels, biographies, philosophical and religious classics. We need solitude to replenish the wellsprings of our imagination and creativity.

So, what can be done? The writer Eugene Peterson explored what it means to stop long enough to nurture eyes that see and ears that hear. He uses the example of how he and his wife learned the art of birdwatching.

“Ten years ago, Jan and I decided we wanted to become birdwatchers. So much grace and melody and color — beauty — was swirling around us, and we were oblivious to it. We decided to be oblivious no longer. Early in our new enthusiasm, a young friend who was an accomplished birdwatcher visited us for a few days. We made him pay for his supper by teaching us what we needed to know.

“One day we were driving south along Flathead Lake, driving a piece of road along a marshy area just south of Elmo. Elmo, Montana, is a very small town in a poor, depressed place. There is nothing in Elmo: a few flimsy houses, each with a rusted-out 1951 Ford disintegrating in the front yard and a door-less refrigerator on the porch. A few men and women are sitting around here and there. There are no gardens in Elmo, just a few cattails at the edge of the lake, two or three cottonwoods. That’s it.

“After we had passed through this quarter-mile stretch, our friend David asked, ‘So how many different birds did you see?’ We hadn’t seen any. ‘I counted nine species,’ he said. Nine species? In Elmo? We were astonished.”

Peterson says that gradually, through the years, his eyes became much sharper to spot birds where he could never see them before. The change came about because he was taught to stop, look and be attentive.

Thus it is with our lives. Our day-to-day routines may seem as uneventful and uninspiring as a day driving through Elmo, Montana. But there is much going on if one has eyes to see. In Matthew Dicks’ words, there is much that is “storyworthy.” But it takes time and listening silence to hear and discern, to detect the patterns, the mystery, the wonder. How many species of birds have you seen today?

Amidst the hustle and bustle of our work-dominated and connected culture, what around us are we most likely to miss? Beyond the gift of solitude, I think the most likely thing we ignore is deep human connection: seeing and feeling the worth and dignity of our neighbor. The real casualty of life lived on the run is that we don’t stop long enough to take people seriously — for who they are. C.S. Lewis relates these two things. He said that “a world starved for solitude is also a world starved for true friendship.” Afraid of being alone, we struggle to pay attention to others.

Sherry Turkle notes that in the last 20 years we have seen a 40% decline in markers of empathy among college students. This crisis of empathy is related directly to the new presence of digital communication. We connect in dribs and drabs but do not take the time and energy to develop deep empathetic relationships — which are rich, messy and demanding.

But that is exactly what we need: deep human connections that flow out of love and mutual respect — especially at a time when we see too much resentment, personal attack and flippant dismissal of those with whom we disagree. “There are no ordinary people,” C.S. Lewis reminds us. Each of our neighbors is of infinite worth — even those we are most tempted to dismiss, snub or criticize.

My charge to you today is to embrace and respond to life within and around you. “The world is charged with the grandeur of the divine,” the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins exclaimed. But its signs come to us as a gentle whisper, not a mighty wind. Pay attention to what is storyworthy in your day-to-day experience. And take seriously your neighbor. Each person we encounter daily has infinite potential. Do not ignore that awesome opportunity: to know them, to learn from them, to invest in them, even to love them. The ordinary in your life can be made remarkable. Stop. Look. And listen.

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