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Commencement Speech

September 29, 2008

This address was given at the Goddard College MFA in Creative Writing Program graduation ceremony in June, 2008. (The audio recording was made especially for qarrtsiluni, and is not a recording from the actual ceremony.)

I like days like this. I like any occasion where people who care about one another convene. I like the opportunity to celebrate the work of our graduates and to sing the praises of the faculty who work with such love and care to develop the next generation of writers. I like the opportunity to address a community that is conscious, and by that I mean people who are aware of who they are beyond the things that separate them from one another.

When I was in my 20’s, most of my friends were dying of AIDS, or at least it seemed that way. And I was absolutely terrified of dying as well. I suspect this fear, as much as anything else, was the reason I began to study energy healing. It was a way to ensure my own continued well-being as much as it was a way to care for those friends of mine whose bodies were beginning to unravel and waste away before me. I began to study healing, I think, because it was a gesture that was gentle, and while some friends of mine were marching in the streets, fighting for change, I found myself studying in a seminary, because I had begun to believe that all change occurs first within the individual, and that it is out-pictured — manifested — in form only after it’s been given form in the mind.

I suspect that I bring this up to you as a way of explaining that prior to this time, I was a deeply unconscious young man. I valued career over just about everything else, and I suppose that if, in those days, I believed in God at all, I would have believed in a deity that favored one man over another.

I’ve been through a lot in the last 20 years, and while I do not feel that I have come into consciousness, I do feel that I have woken up a bit, and that this allows me to say that things I am going to say to you now.

Now, I want to talk a bit about unity and separation. I am actually of the belief that we are all connected in a vast and outrageous way, and that part of our task here, in this life, is to remember that, and not in an intellectual way, but in a way that’s completely experiential and profound. Our job is to get to that actual place where we can walk down the street and bear witness to the creation that is before us, to the true magnificence that is inherent in each man and woman.

I believe that the struggle of our time is in the remembering of this, in pushing up against the resistance that demands that we remain in the illusion of separation, in the duality of right and wrong, red and blue, black and white and any other way that separation out-pictures itself in our world. I believe it is our duty, finally, to witness the divinity or the humanity or whatever you want to call it in our neighbors, because that is the only way that worlds can heal, and I believe that it is our duty as artists to enter into those places that are kept most secret in ourselves, and bring them to light not so much that we may be healed, but so that others might.

I found myself in an odd conversation several months ago with someone who was asking me how our program was progressive, and how it related to the mission of the college, which is a progressive school with a firm commitment to social justice. And I found myself becoming frustrated by my own lack of agility in the rhetoric of progressivism because I was not able to articulate the obvious, which is that the role of the artist is to reflect humanity in order for humanity to be able to see itself, to feel itself, and consequently to accept itself and thereby change itself.

We are the agents of change. We have always been. We have always been the alchemists who brought forth the Word into manifestation.

What happens here at Goddard is, in my opinion, alchemical. And the reason that people leave this program so profoundly changed is because Goddard requires the whole person to come to her learning, and as the whole person is taught, the whole person is then engaged, and the whole person leaves, transformed, more in command of her craft and more aware — that is to say, more conscious of herself as an artist in the world.

I want you to have left this place more awake. More awake to yourself as an artist, more awake as a co-creator of your reality and more awake to the limitlessness that is your consciousness. I want you to be aware that the only separation that exists between you and the person sitting beside you in that which exists at the most superficial level, that in our essence, we are all connected and unique and magnificent in our being. I want you all to understand that the charge you have now, as a graduate of this place, is to bring your work forward into the world and to demand that it be work that matters to you, and that it calls others to it, so that they too may become aware, or conscious, or awake.

Now I want to tell you a little story that I like. It’s a true one, and it speaks directly to the role of the artist as a social activist, and, perhaps, to the mission that we all have before us.

A number of years ago, a woman I knew, the literary manager of one of the most important theaters in the country, was having a spiritual crisis. She felt that the work her theater was producing was meaningless and the only people who could afford to attend it weren’t the people she wanted to reach. And she was afraid of all the choices she had made, because she believed that theater had become an elitist art form and she had become one of its de facto gatekeepers. And Mother Theresa happened to be coming to town and this literary manager had always harbored a secret wish to be of service.

So she took the train and stood with the crowd outside the U.N. where Mother Theresa was meeting with delegates, and when she came out, my friend shouted to her from behind the barricades, and Mother Theresa stopped, called her out of the crowd, and asked her what she wanted.

And my friend said, “I want to come work with you — I want my life to matter!” And Mother Theresa looked at her and asked her what she did for a living here, and my friend, embarrassed, said “I work in the theater.” And Mother Theresa smiled and said, “In my country, there is a poverty of the body, and that is the work that I do. In your country, there is a poverty of the spirit. Stay in the theater.”

I believe that this is a time of great and finite change, and that we have been called, as artists and as teachers, as those in touch with the Greater Creative Mind to call into being the forms and the stories and the lessons that will assist this planet in transforming itself into what it’s desiring to become, which is a conscious world, one that is fully awake.

So I give you praise now, for your work here, and I give you to the faculty who will present you, I am sure, with far more eloquence than I have addressed you with today. If you don’t know you are valued here, you are, and if you don’t realize how magnificent you are as you stand before us, we are very proud to be your witness.

by Paul Selig

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  1. October 1, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Thanks so much for posting the wonderful speech! It was my graduation and I was so grateful for Paul’s inspired and inspiring words.

  2. Karen Engelmann
    October 3, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    For those of us at Goddard who missed the speech, this posting was a gift. It came at the perfect point in the hard work of the semester—a reminder of the Why. Many thanks!

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