Rev. Tony’s Baccalaureatte Speech – Hopedale High School – 5/29/2019

My son graduated from college a few weeks ago. The commencement speaker was The Rev. Dr. William Barber II. It was a rousing, inspirational sermon-esque call to action grounded in his Christian faith. Basically what you’d expect from a well known preacher and activist. In great old time revival style, he kept returning to the phrase, “Graduate today, but get up, get together, and get involved tomorrow.” Amen. Advice for all of us in this season of graduations. In the days following the graduation, I spent some thinking about what I would say to a graduating class because I was going to be giving a similar but shorter address to the students of Hopedale High School at their Baccalaureate service. I share some of what I told them because I think we all need to be reminded of these things, just like we all need to be reminded to “get up, get together, and get involved.”

As you graduate from high school or college or graduate school or as you enter the next phase of your life, whatever that may be, I invite you to remember two things: 1. Don’t Be Afraid and 2. Stay Curious.

Right now fear is being weaponized not only in our American culture but around the world. Politicians the world over, from America to Hungary to England to Israel to Saudi Arabia to India are using fear to assume and hold onto power. Preachers of fundamentalist religion in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and perhaps most especially Christianity condemn non-believers not only as wrong, but as evil. Writer Anne Lamott says, “The surest sign of idolatry is when your God hates all the same people you do.”

Don’t be manipulated by fear or by those who want you to fear others. There are enough things we need to actually fear – such as catastrophic climate change, people who don’t vaccinate their children, antibiotic resistant bacteria, and an epidemic of mass shootings of schoolchildren – for us to bother with manufactured fears about immigrants, people of color, gun control, who’s using the bathroom, and non-believers.

In her 2016 book “Conflict is Not Abuse” author Sarah Schulman’s presents the idea that at “many levels of human interaction there is an opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake internal anxiety for exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve” conflict. In other words, she suggests that fear causes us to over-react and make things worse. For examples she uses the policing murdering Michael Brown – for whatever reason Black men instilled such fear in the officers that they killed the black man who was not actually a threat. But actually had his hands up begging “Don’t shoot.” We see this fearful overreaction dynamic play out in our immigration policy. We are so afraid of brown people speaking Spanish that we put them in prison and take their children away from them by force.

This dynamic of overreaction to conflict happens a lot with white people engaging racism. If even discussing the topics of white privilege, white supremacy, and racism bother us and make us defensive, this is called “white fragility.” White fragility encompasses thinking such as “How dare someone think I’m racist?” or “I’m a good person. I don’t hate Black people.” Getting offended and emotional whenever our own personal white attitudes and behavior are called into question shifts the issue at hand to our white feelings instead of the reality of racism experienced by others. Racism isn’t individual acts of discrimination, it’s a system of attitudes, behaviors, norms, and even laws that are discriminatory. If white people are offended that we might have bought into unjust ways of speaking and acting we’re offended at the wrong thing. We haven’t been wronged, we have been asked to engage the conflict of race and that’s uncomfortable – for everyone.

Try to replace fear with Curiosity. When the politician and the preacher wants you to be afraid – first ask “Why?” and then “Who benefits, literally, who makes money and gets the power, if I am afraid?” Creating fear escalates hate. Hate escalates violence. Who benefits?

One of my favorite YouTube Channels is the sex positive sexuality education channel Sexplanations. The host, clinical sexologist Dr. Lyndsey Doe, ends each episode with the slogan, “Stay Curious!” The short videos on Sexplanations cover a wide range of topics from oral sex and anal sex to dating, consent, kink, kissing, gender identity, STIs and even basic hygiene. No matter what the topic, Dr. Doe ends each video by saying “Stay Curious!” She even sells T Shirts to fund the channel with the slogan written across the chest in rainbow colors.

Stay Curious! It’s great advice, not just for sexuality, but in any area of human endeavor and relationship, especially where fear, shame, guilt, ignorance, misinformation, and avoidance are major obstacles. And these obstacles show up in so many parts of life that curiosity may be the most underdeveloped adulting skill there is. Curiosity comes in handy in just about any situation in which we find ourselves. I’m beginning to think curiosity is the ultimate life hack. Master curiosity and you have one of the keys to living a happier, healthier, more fulfilling life. Practicing curiosity helps us be less emotionally reactive, l less anxious, and less afraid. Curiosity helps us learn, fills us with wonder, inspires courage, and improves our relationships. Curiosity requires us to listen more attentively, pause before speaking, and ask questions instead of offering answers. Curiosity is a spiritual practice of kindness, compassion, and acceptance. Curious centers the other instead of the self. Curiosity manifests most readily when, as St. Francis taught us, we seek first to understand rather than be understood. I know most things in my life would be better if I was better at putting that into practice. I imagine that’s true for you, too.

As we age curiosity dies at the hands of assumptions and projections. We form opinions and assume attitudes toward people because of the way they look or speak or the way they dress or their religion or where they’re from or who they love. Instead we become afraid of what we don’t know and what is unfamiliar. Everything from your personal relationships to world diplomacy would benefit from ditching fear in favor of curiosity. There was a study in England a few years ago that showed four year old girls ask an average of 300 questions a day. Adults ask about 10? What happens to curiosity? It doesn’t go away because we know everything, surely that is not the case. Rather it loses out to fear such as you can’t talk about sex in a church – but surely you can, in fact we need to talk about it openly and honestly and with accurate scientific information. It’s something we shouldn’t fear.

Everything we know about ourselves and the universe around us we know because someone at some point was brave enough to ask who? why? What? How Come? Why is that? As you graduate class of 2019, remember – don’t be afraid and stay curious!

Below is a link to Rev. Tony’s recent sermons “Stay Curious” that was the basis for the Baccalaureatte speech: