Dr. Sharon Shafer, professor of music and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, gave the keynote remarks to the newest members of Phi Beta Kappa, focusing on “Mindfulness.”
Address to the Phi Beta Kappa Initiates
Dr. Sharon Shafer, Professor of Music
May 13, 2008
First, let me offer my personal congratulations to all of the new members of Phi Beta Kappa. Your election to this honor society reflects your scholarly achievement, broad intellectual interests, and good character. We are very proud of you and all of your accomplishments. At this moment, you and I are sharing in the experience of beginning the next phase in our lives. You who are seniors will mark the completion of your baccalaureate studies and the beginning of your new lives, whether in the work place, graduate studies, or some other calling. To our junior: you will begin the final year of your work towards a bachelor’s degree. I am beginning a pre-retirement sabbatical.
We all know that commencement ceremonies mark the start of something rather than the end. You have probably been given a lot of advice and heard several speeches about that already, and we will hear more by the end of our Commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 18. I am asking you to take some time for reflection in the midst of this exciting, busy time in your lives.
I have heard recently about a custom in which retiring professors are asked to give a last lecture in which they discuss things that they care about very much. Writing in the April 6, 2008, Parade section of The Washington Post, Randy Pausch said that this is also an opportunity for audiences to think about what wisdom they would want to leave for others. I thought about this while reflecting on what to say tonight. What might we consider that weaves together the life being left behind and the life that is beginning?
One word kept recurring, as a musical motive might present itself at the beginning of a song, and that is mindfulness: a single word that relates to much of what I want to say. We know that the word means to be aware. But how do we practice mindfulness? We have had the privilege of working, and learning together at Trinity. We have formed bonds of trust and friendship in a community based on a commitment to honor. What have we learned from these experiences? What responsibilities have been placed on us to live our lives in a way that reflects the honor bestowed by Trinity? I offer a few models we might turn to as examples of mindfulness.
Writing in an Op-ed printed by The Washington Post, President McGuire said:
Ours is a world with extreme economic disparities in which a small percentage of the planet’s inhabitants consume almost all of the resources while billions lack even the most fundamental sanitation, shelter, food or education. The mission of Catholic higher education is to educate citizen leaders to enable them to address these grave moral and social challenges with conscience, conviction, and intellectual strength.
You have been engaged in the study of liberal arts and have received an education with all of the privileges and responsibilities that go with leadership. Mindfulness is the practice of using your leadership skills in a way that shows your awareness of others’ needs while you are shaping your own lives and careers. How will you respond with mindfulness in the work that you do?
How will you make others aware of those “economic disparities” and “social challenges” that face us in the world today? Speaking before the United Nations on April 18, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said:
What is needed is a deeper search for ways of preempting and managing conflicts by exploring every possible diplomatic avenue and giving attention and encouragement to even the faintest sign of dialogue or desire for reconciliations. (Boorstein and Lynch)
How can we give attention to this need?
In 1980, Trinity’s President, Sister Rose Ann Fleming, wrote in a publication called Trinity College Images, “Trinity students are women of their time; the women of today. They are women determined to make a difference in the world in which they live.” In 2008, as you prepare to leave Trinity, practice the mindfulness that enables you to know what that time is and what you are called to do today.
In that same publication there was a profile of Sister Margaret Claydon, who was President of Trinity College from 1959-1975. The writer, Barbara Sealock, pointed out: “Look Magazine once described her as being in the mainstream of the struggle against mediocrity and inertia” (9). When I recently reread that quote, I thought: That’s mindfulness at the highest level!
Sister Margaret became Trinity’s 10th President and, as Sister Columba noted in her book on Trinity’s history, was one of the youngest college presidents in the country at the time (134). When Sister Margaret was interviewed by Sealock for the profile in Trinity College Images, she commented, “I believe in sharing as much as possible with students what you believe and how you arrive at those beliefs” (9). Her practice of mindfulness has been a model for all of us. Although I’m not a Trinity alumna, I felt somewhat like an adopted one when Sister Margaret agreed to hire me as music department chair in 1974. I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at that institution a few blocks away. You know, … the one that rejected women as students for many years and wasn’t founded too many years before Trinity was in 1897. What a privilege it has been to be active in the Epsilon Chapter at Trinity with Sister Margaret as an esteemed member.
Practicing mindfulness means that we search for ways of increasing our capacity to accept the responsibilities of leadership. Max De Pree has written several books about leadership in which he discusses the process of becoming. In Leadership is an Art, he writes about the way that appointments and position titles offer opportunities to become leaders rather than proving that one is a leader. I especially like his concept of servant leadership which emphasizes our ability to understand and value others and their various abilities and skills. That is mindfulness in action.
I have noticed recently a growing emphasis in the media, in education, and the workplace on encouraging civility. In 2007, Dr. James Davis, President of Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA, published Rules of Civility for a Modern Society as a response to the version by George Washington, our first President of the United States. Washington’s list of resolutions was titled Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.
When I attended the April College of Arts and Sciences faculty meeting, I received a copy of an article from The Washington Post. It describes Howard County Schools’ use of Pier Forni’s book titled Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct as part of their curriculum. Trinity faculty members discussed the possibility of obtaining copies for entering first year students in 2008. The 25 short rules fit on a book mark, and “Choose Civility” magnets have been appearing as bumper stickers in the last few months. This is another type of mindfulness in action relating to the responsibility that each of us must accept in our interactions with others.
Finally, I ask you to apply the practice of mindfulness in your continued relationship with your alma mater. Trinity has given you and me a great deal. Let us continue to be mindful of the friends, colleagues, teachers, administrators and staff members who have generously offered their talents and leadership skills for our benefit. Reflect on the ways that you will maintain the bonds that you have established here in this community. Stay in touch with your classmates; be an active member of the alumnae association; keep your professors aware of what you are doing.
Don’t be afraid to communicate with professors that you have not had an opportunity to know while you were students. That is also an example of the practice of mindfulness. I will illustrate this with a personal anecdote. In 1987, The Alumnae Journal published a speech that I had given on September 1, at an Academic Banquet opening the 1987-88 academic year. A few weeks later, I received a letter from a Trinity alumna who had graduated more than ten years earlier. She responded to my title, “The Art of Listening and the Meaning of Silence” by asking if I had ever read Tillie Olsen’s book, Silences. In my reply to her, I indicated that I had not, but after reading her letter had bought a copy in a used book store.
That’s not the end of the story. Her mindfulness made an amazing contribution to some of the research I had been doing at the time on the silencing of women in music. Recently, I returned to some of Olsen’s work. For my reflections tonight, one passage seems especially relevant. Olsen was speaking of 20th century literary works when she wrote, “…for every twelve enabled to come to recognized achievement, remember: there would still remain countless others, still lessened or silenced – as long as the other age-old silencers of humanity, class and/or color, prevail” (44).
During his April visit to the United States, Pope Benedict spoke many times about bearing witness to hope. Perhaps a first step is the practice of mindfulness.
Congratulations, once again, to all of you.
Boorstein, Michelle and Lynch, Colum. “Pope Stresses Human Rights, Ethical Science” in The Washington Post, April 19, 2008.
Davis, James A. Davis. Rules of Civility For a Modern Society. Winchester, VA: Winchester Printers, 2007.
De Pree, Max. Leadership is an Art. New York: Currency/Doubleday, 2004.
McGuire, Patricia. “Freedom and Faith on Campus,” in The Washington Post, April 13, 2008.
Mullaly, Sister Columba, S.N.D. deN., Ph.D. Trinity College Washington, DC: The First Eighty Years 1897-1977. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1987.
Olsen, Tillie. Silences. M New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1978.
Otto, Mary. “Civil Obedience: Local Book Inspires Seminars, Classes,” in The Washington Post, April 22, 2008.
Pausch, Randy. “The Lessons I’m Leaving Behind,” in Parade, The Washington Post. April 6, 2008.
Sealock, Barbara. Trinity College Images. Vol. I, Number 1, 1980.
Shafer, Sharon. “The Art of Listening and the Meaning of Silence,” in Alumnae Journal of Trinity College, Fall, 1987.