Hearts on Fire

Commencement Address by the Hon. Pamela Shell Baskervill ’75

May 19, 2013


President Fox, esteemed faculty and guests, graduates, parents and friends:

How very humbling to be standing before you and also what a true pleasure. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this wonderful celebration of your graduation.

According to the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, life must be lived forward but understood backward. Thirty-eight years ago for myself and nine years ago for my daughter, I stood where you stand. Since that graduation day 38 years ago, to borrow from Dr. Seuss, oh, the people I’ve known and the places I’ve been and the fun I’ve had! Marvelous! But what I wanted to know most when I was standing there was what do I do now?  Not physically so much b/c I was going to law school in the fall but more so, how was I going to find my way?  It was a chaotic time of the women’s movement, the ending of the Vietnam War, Watergate convictions. The world was opening up for us and we had tough choices as to how to engage it. That is no different from what faces you today. As I reflect backward, it is fairly easy to see that there are some basic principles that guide us and help us live forward.

First of all, find your driving force. The comedian Lily Tomlin once said, “I always knew I wanted to be somebody. I wish I had been more specific!” Now is the time. What kind of somebody do you want to be? What drives you?

I know that you are already on your way to finding the answer to that question with your class theme, Hearts on Fire. You see, the heart rather than the brain was viewed by many ancient cultures as the source of human wisdom. When you act on what you feel in your heart, you are true to your driving force. Maybe for you, the driving force is to make the world a more beautiful place with music or art, a healthier place with nursing, research or therapies, or a safer place through law enforcement, the military or forensic. The list goes on. For me, the driving force has always been justice and peace. As a child, I was fascinated by the stories of the Salem Witch trials. How could society go so far astray and no one stand up for justice?

Be forewarned:  the heart never dreams small. This leads to the obvious question of balance—when your heart is on fire, how does one find balance and not be engulfed by all the seemingly  impossible tasks to achieve what our heart yearns to be achieved? Our generation has been accused of doing younger generations no favor when we led you to believe we could have it all. To that, some in my generation say that you can have it all, just maybe not all at the same time. Yes, that is certainly a good response— be patient and at any one time, you will be working on a piece of the puzzle of your life. I would, however, take it one step further. For me, balance requires a life where you never give up on your driving force but accept that it will play out in different ways at different times and in ways you do not always anticipate.

For example, when my children were small, they were my priority as they have always been so they went with me to feed the homeless;  after all, will there ever be true peace until there is social justice and basic needs are met for the most vulnerable of our society?

Dr. Seuss said,

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

You’re on your own. And you know what you know.

And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You just have to know what is in your heart and be true to it in everything you do.

Secondly, face your fears.

Even in children’s literature, we recognize this necessity. Dr. Seuss goes on to talk about

Whether you like it or not, alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance

You’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.

There are some, down the road between hither and yon

That can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

Fear. This is what you find when what sets your heart on fire meets the resistances of life;  when  you find out what you are made of — how strong is your moral compass? How important is it to you to follow your driving force? Your heart? Would you stand up to the people burning witches at the stake?

It seems to me that much of our world is seized by fear and from that fear comes a need for security that translates to people thinking there are simple solutions possessed by only those who think the way they do. Fear can be a good thing but we have to acknowledge that it exists. Think for a minute about my profession, the law. When you are charged with a crime that involves your life, who do you want to defend you? I can tell you that you want somebody you can trust, someone capable of feeling love and pain, someone who is perfectly willing to admit that he or she is afraid, the one who knows who he or she is and who walks into the courtroom believing and caring about his or her client and believing that justice is the most important thing in the human experience. Trust me on this one, if you can’t feel fear in the courtroom, you can’t feel anything else. But when your heart is truly on fire, you will have the courage to face those fears, standing alone if you have to, because what sets your heart on fire is more important than your fears.

Once you have found your center and acknowledged your fears, how do you tackle the challenges presented to you as you move forward?

Thirdly, welcome the opportunity to grow and change to meet new challenges while always embracing the enduring human values of civility and professionalism. You have to look no farther than our college for a wonderful example. Mary Baldwin has continued to educate but changed with the time and remained relevant without sacrificing the values that has brought success to it and its graduates. Its graduates today include not only those from the residential undergraduate program from which I graduated, to include the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted and VWIL, but also those who receive Masters of Letters and Fine Arts, education, and teaching;  we are looking forward to the College of Health Sciences.

Let me tell you what Mary Baldwin also taught me. I know of no finer faculty today or then. Dr. Lott who is here today taught me freshman English, and thank goodness he graded on improvement. From him, I learned to communicate well and clearly and not to ramble and bluff my way through anything. In my honors colloquium, I learned that just because someone says something in a book does not make it true. I learned it was a good idea to watch those people who were older and more experienced than I to decide how to comport myself. I learned that the friends I made here are treasures who have travelled all these years with me and that good friends will stick by each other no matter what. I learned how to acquire information from which I could form my own opinion and to express it in a manner that was not adversarial so that I could learn from my colleagues and they could learn from me. I learned it was acceptable to fail as long as I had tried. I learned to thank people who took the time to help me and that manners and civility always make life easier and richer for everyone. After all, what good is finding your center and facing your fears if you cannot connect to others in the process? Your class president in describing the bonfire pit your class donated to the college said, “[the concept] is to melt away the barriers that divide us.”  It was well said.

There is something deep inside each of us that allows us to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that triumphs over conflict and justice that is more powerful than greed. When your heart is on fire, you leave something positive of yourself every time you meet another person.   You have learned in this short time how much I value the simple basic principles of life often voiced best by those who relate well to children. One of those people is Fred Rogers, known to many of us as Mister Rogers. He said that in times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers. It is a lifetime’s work to discover the truth about ourselves and what sets our hearts on fire, to develop the strength and moral compass to face our fears, and to implement in some small way in some small corner of the universe positive changes that make the world a better, kinder, place where the barriers that divide us are melted away, but it is worth it.

To close, I again quote Dr. Seuss:

Congratulations! Today is your day.

You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away.

Best wishes, Class of 2013, for every happiness and success that life has to offer.

Thank you.