David H. Bost, professor emeritus of modern languages and literatures at Furman, delivered the speech for the summer commencement exercises Saturday, Aug. 11. Bost, who joined the Furman faculty in 1981, retired this summer as the Carey Shepard Crantford Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures. During his career, he received the Alester G. Furman, Jr. and Janie Earle Furman Award for Meritorious Teaching as well as the James H. Smart Award from the Cothran Center for Vocational Reflection. His speech is below.
First and foremost, congratulations to the graduates, and lots of praise also to the family and friends who walked with you along your journey giving you encouragement, support, and maybe direction. You all have accomplished a lot in the past several years, and I hope that you feel the pride that this institution has in each of you. Well done.
I feel a kinship with today’s graduates. As you might guess, this commencement address will be my last official duty while serving as a member of the Furman faculty. In a few days, my contract will end and my responsibilities, not to mention opportunities, will also end. When Dean Peterson asked me to offer these remarks, he promised me that he would never ask me to do anything ever again. How could I resist? Of course, it is a tremendous honor for me to share this momentous occasion with you, and I thank you for indulging me for the next few (very few!) minutes. To my knowledge, no one ever complained that a sermon or commencement address was too short.
The kinship that I feel with the graduates is that we are all in a transition period, moving from one space in our life to another.
Some of you have clarity about where you are going; some do not. Those who don’t are about to venture out into the world with only a vague notion of exactly what you will be doing, where you are heading. Frankly, I might include myself in that group.
As we transition, together it seems, from one life phase into another, I think it is important always to keep in mind one principle: above all, know who you are. While this principle may seem simple and obvious, in reality, self-knowledge is not always that easy to achieve. In the last third of my Furman career, I worked in the Cothran Center for Vocational Reflection with an amazing team of faculty and staff.
One of the Center’s primary missions is to help students, faculty, staff, and alumni identify their core identity, the first step, we always thought, in living a life of meaning and purpose.
Perhaps some of you participated in one of the many workshops, retreats, or events that the Cothran Center sponsored. In nearly every gathering, we always kept in mind three fundamental questions:
Who am I—most authentically?
What do I believe—most deeply?
Finally, what does the world need from me, that only I can provide?
As you ponder my one and only charge to you this afternoon—to know who you are—let me offer some general guidelines about how you might discover that identity or refine your understanding of self that we all strive to achieve.
The lexical engine that powers nearly all of the programs in the Cothran Center, and that is also present in many aspects of the Furman Advantage through its emphasis on reflection, is the word vocation.
When we use this term, we don’t usually mean “job,” thought it might entail that, and I am sure that most, if not all, of you are really focused on either your current job or future employment, as you should be. I know many parents here are as well.
This term is often profoundly personal, possibly even sacred, and it can carry deep social implications. Vocation is something that every person can live into. We all have a vocation; it is who we are and what we do as human beings. To know your vocation is to acknowledge your deepest longings and see those longings in union and harmony with the needs of the world, to paraphrase Frederick Buechner, a writer and theologian whose work I revere. To know your vocation is to know yourself.
As I now use the word vocation, I am reverting to its original Latin root, vocare, to call. Those of you who come from the Christian tradition can understand this in an almost literal sense: God calls his followers who listen and respond accordingly. I think a calling can be this way, and I can relate countless stories to you of people I have worked with who are living out what they understand as God’s call to them.
I also think that a calling might be understood in a variety of other ways as well, by listening to what writer and educator Parker Palmer calls “the voice within.”
A calling might be a feeling, and inclination, perhaps intuition, about your general life direction. All I know is that callings come about in a diversity of ways throughout one’s life. Even at my age!
Another aspect of vocation is the recognition of your gifts. I like to think of this type of gift as what you have to offer to others, to the world. The world has deep and desperate needs, and we are all gifted in special ways to address these needs. Our challenge, it seems to me, is to both recognize our gifts and find ways to use those gifts to meet the world’s needs.
How do you know if you are living out of your giftedness? Think about those times when you feel most alive, as theologian Howard Thurman says, and it’s then that your gifts are probably being used to heal a broken world. It’s then that you are realizing your vocation, your calling. If what you are undertaking brings you nothing but sorrow or boredom, perhaps you are outside of your calling.
The third aspect of vocation might be understood as mission, but I would like to invite you to consider a broader sense of the word than you might be used to. The Latin root is missio, being sent out. Our missio is as varied and diverse as we are, but the common thread is that our mission is to bring our vocation into play in the world.
Our mission is what we actually do, our specific response to our calling. Our mission often unfolds as we engage what has been put in front of us to do. Obviously, no single path is appropriate for all. Some of us teach, others preach, others heal, others minister and serve in a variety of ways. Our mission often changes as we go through life. For example, as I end my 37th year as a faculty member at Furman University, to the outsider, it might appear that I had a single trajectory during that time. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have answered a variety of invitations over the years, and I have responded to them as well as my particular gifts have allowed.
So, while our calling and our gifts might be somewhat constant, how we live out our vocation and talents might change a lot through our lifetime. That’s certainly been the case for me, and I suspect for many of you as well.
For me, invitations always played a large part in discerning my vocation, and I urge you graduates to think about those times when you felt invited to engage in something meaningful, larger than yourself, that perhaps fulfilled you in ways that nothing else did. Invitations are powerful instruments. Invitations can change the course of a life, and this happened to me.
During the academic year 1973-1974, I was not unlike many college juniors I see every day at Furman: someone beginning to feel the rumblings of uncertainty about my immediate future. Would I go to law school? Go straight into the business world? Apply to the Peace Corps? Go on to graduate school? I was engaged in serious vocational discernment, but as Parker Palmer would say, “way” was not opening for me. Until one day in a conversation with Ed Hopper.
Dr. Ed Hopper was one of my Spanish professors at UNCC and to this day the most influential teacher I have ever had. Ed was a fabulous teacher who taught brilliantly in a no-nonsense kind of way.
He was also a tennis pro and coach, and sometimes I think he conducted class as he would a tennis lesson: very concisely and directly with absolutely no mincing of words.
I took my first college Spanish course and many of my major courses with Ed Hopper and came to appreciate his teaching style, vast learning, deep culture, and genuine concern that he felt for his students. The eventful day was when Ed casually asked me if I would be interested in filling in for him in one of his introductory Spanish classes. Actually teach for the master! Although I felt completely unworthy and ill prepared (after all, this was college), I accepted his invitation and prepared diligently.
Although I don’t remember at all the content of the lesson that I planned and conducted that day, I will always remember the feeling that I had the minute I walked into the classroom: elation.
Standing in front of a classroom teaching Spanish seemed as natural to me as breathing, and somehow that moment I knew that I had found my calling: to engage a life of the mind by teaching Spanish at the college level, and to try to do for those students what Ed (and others, to be honest) had done for me: guide and direct students not only in learning Spanish (and all that entailed) but also help young people along the way discover themselves and the passions that would enrich their lives immeasurably.
In hindsight, I now see that this initial invitation led to two of the most instrumental choices and practices that have shaped my life ever since, serving and teaching, two activities that are so deeply connected to one another that I suspect that they emanate from the same source.
I also sense that relationships play a powerful role in our understanding of our identity. Here are two vocational insights for you that seemed to work for me:
Lesson 1: when the voice within matches voices outside, pay attention. An invitation may just be a kind of echo of your own true self.
When Ed asked me to teach for him, he might have sensed something in me that was already there, and he helped me identify and extract an interest or talent that was embedded deep inside. I was invited to consider seriously engaging a life of the mind, and it is there where I discovered my true vocation.
Lesson 2: be aware of how things make you feel. The joy that I felt in the classroom the second I entered it was unmistakable and has been repeated countless times in the four-plus decades that I have proudly called myself a teacher. I’m not sure that your calling can always bring the same level of joy and delight that teaching has brought me, but I’m fairly certain that if the opposite is true, that if your life choices are bringing you sadness, it’s not your calling.
As theologian Miroslav Volf recently wrote, “joy is feeling good about something good.”
I hope that all of you, graduates and audience alike, have had a defining moment in your life when someone important to you invited you to imagine a path that you might not have seen, to embrace a life that you might not have envisioned for yourself. Likewise, I hope that you will all strive to be that person who invites others.
Know yourself. Be who you most authentically are. So clear and unambiguous, but often so difficult to achieve.
Self-knowledge and awareness of your talents will inevitably lead you to live a purposeful life, engaging the world’s deepest needs with your gifts.
Let me finish with a brief anecdote taken from Parker Palmer’s most well-known book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. A tale taken from the Hasidic tradition goes like this: Rabbi Zusya, when quite elderly, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
Again, congratulations to you all, best wishes upon the journey that now awaits you, and along this journey, always try to be true to your authentic self.