“Called Together in Hope” Prepared remarks by Dr. Curtis Gruenler, Professor of English and Director of General Education.
Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016
Dimnent Memorial Chapel
President Knapp, Provost Nordell Pearson, Dean Johnson, colleagues, and most of all, members of the class of 2020: Welcome again to this college called Hope! And welcome to this event we call “convocation.” One of the subjects I teach is the history of the English language, and I want to take this word “convocation” apart and look at what it’s made of. “Vocation” comes from the Latin word “vocare,” to call. You may have heard “vocation” used to talk about a person’s profession, but we use it a lot around here to talk about one’s calling in life in a larger sense that includes all the other commitments that give a life purpose and meaning.
The first part of “convocation,” con-, is a prefix meaning together or with. You have been called together here. But beyond that, I want to suggest that vocation, finding and living into your callings in life, happens through con-vocation, your calling to be with others. Our convocation here marks your entrance into a new community. I want to explore with you how Hope College as a community can help you find a stronger and clearer sense of your own purpose.
I have some specific advice, but first it will help to think a little about why we need good communities in order to be our best, happiest selves. We are all shaped by the people around us more than we like to admit. We want to think of ourselves as independent, self-determining individuals, free to be whatever we want, moved by desires and preferences and dreams that are uniquely our own. But this is mostly an illusion. In fact, humans are the most imitative of creatures. We learn everything by imitation, especially what to desire. We have basic needs and appetites, but the ways we try to fulfill them are formed by unconscious imitation of the desires others. This is why two children in a room full of toys will both want the same one and end up fighting over it. Or why our whole culture is focused on just a few models of what it means to be successful or fulfill the American dream.
The great thinker René Girard, who died last November, calls this mimetic desire, and the point of the term mimetic is that the imitation is unconscious. Neuroscientists are even finding that our brains are full of something called mirror neurons that constantly simulate whatever we observe. We don’t usually follow through with imitating the actions and expressions we see, but we pick up the desire behind it. Desire is like the needle of a compass, constantly spinning around to point at different things. What moves your compass needle, though, is not the magnetic attraction of what it is pointing at, but rather what the compass needles around you are pointing at. What you think of as your own desires are really a lifetime accumulation of desires imitated from others: from the people you are close to, from famous people you admire, from Facebook and Instagram, from the shows you watch and the stories you read.
Now, mimetic desire sounds like a sort of inner slavery to the desires of others, and it can become that. But it is also what makes possible the freedom of loving relationships formed around empathy and shared desire for what is really worth wanting. In order to understand this true freedom, and how a community like Hope can lead you further into it, we need to press a little further into how mimetic desire also leads to most of the conflict and misery in the world.
Two children fighting over the same toy are not much different from two teenagers in love with the same boy or girl, or two people competing for the same prestigious position. Mimetic desire for a pair of shoes is pretty harmless, except perhaps for the people on the other side of the world whose labor is exploited. But it’s worse to choose a major out of mimetic desire for prestige or possessions. And rivalry goes deeper as we grow up. Anger over a toy turns to envy of a rival for love or popularity. Mimetic desire for something out of reach, like an ideal of beauty or success, can breed obsession, feelings of inadequacy, and resentment.
The worst part of the frustration and conflict that comes from mimetic desire and rivalry is that we tend to blame someone else for our pain. When people agree on who to blame, they feel a comforting bond. This blame, the pointing finger, also spreads mimetically. We call it scapegoating, and it gets more powerful the more people join in. The presidential campaign is pulling the whole nation into rivalry and scapegoating. But no group can completely resist the trap of building its unity over against someone it excludes and considers somehow unworthy or troublesome. This kind of unity is shallow and temporary, but it’s easy.
How can we escape these traps? How can you make choices that will really fulfill you? How can we build a better sort of community? It’s really important to be able to make choices based on principles rather than unconscious imitation and to resist the forces of rivalry and scapegoating. But what if you are really much less of your own person than you think, constantly steered by the desires of others? You are built to imitate. Freedom lies in choosing who to imitate and placing yourself where you can be formed by their influence. You need to be a part of communities formed around desires that will lead you beyond toys, status, and other possessions and toward what is really worth desiring—what can’t even be possessed but grows as it is shared.
Hope College is that kind of community for me, but my most formative experience of it came during my undergraduate years at Stanford University. I well remember the sense of independence and possibility I felt when I set foot on campus. I pretty much lost interest in my girlfriend from home, which was good because I was stuck in an isolating version of romantic love, one of our culture’s most powerful models of desire. Meanwhile, a student knocked on my door during my first week and invited me to a Bible study. Through Stanford Christian Fellowship I found friends, a vision of community, and a sense of purpose that still inspire me. This budding sense of vocation even led me to switch recklessly from planning on a major in physics to declaring an English major. And that ended up working out okay too.
How can Hope College be a community that helps you toward your vocation? Let’s start with the name, hope. As a virtue or character trait, hope is a habit of directing desire and trust toward something good in the future. Hope College places its hope in the Christian God, the God who is proclaimed to be three persons in one. This doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God is relational, or, as the biblical book of First John puts it, God is love. In this view, the human destiny, the universal human vocation, is to participate in the love that moves eternally among the three Persons of the Trinity. Even our propensity to imitate is part of our special human capacity to enter into the love that is God’s creative and healing work. The virtue of hope tries to imagine how this ultimate goal can direct and shape every aspect of life, that is, all the ways we relate to each other and to the non-human world, all of our work and all of our play. At the heart of this is worship, where we join each other in directing the compass needles of our hearts toward God. The song we just sang, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” and the choral anthem both give a glimpse of how all of creation can join the harmonious order that will be fulfilled in the next life.
Hope, as a Christian virtue, also acknowledges that the reality of God’s loving action in the world is bigger, deeper, and more intricate than we can imagine. All truth, beauty, and goodness are signs of the mysterious God who is not in rivalry with anything in creation, though we can’t help but imagine God in ways that try to pull God into our own rivalries. Hope College aims to be Christ-centered because it takes Christ to be the center in whom the love and truth of God are fully revealed, but there is no boundary to God’s loving action and no one can own the center.
Okay, let me be more practical about how Hope College can work for you. The college is a community made up of many communities, formal organizations like sports teams and clubs as well as informal groups of friends joined by shared interests and delights. In each one people are committed to a common purpose and to each member and what each member has to offer. Find communities with purposes that inspire you, and join in. Make a commitment and keep showing up. Or invite people to join you in trying something new. Either way, take opportunities for leadership. These will challenge you in ways that help you discover what you bring to a community, which is a key to finding your vocation.
There is one kind of community that you are all called to here: academic community. When Hope was chartered 150 years ago, every student even had to take all of the same courses, starting with algebra, Latin, Greek, rhetoric, and hygiene. We still have a common core, General Education, that makes each individual part of a community fed by a full range of different kinds of learning. Each subject cultivates a disciplined kind of attention that can show you something about the world, about yourself, and about how to live well together. Each discipline, from physics to dance to social work, joins you to a community of people seeking to find truth, make beauty, and do good. So whatever you are studying at a given time, give it your full attention. Give it a chance to captivate you, and learn to enter a wide range of conversations.
Each class you take is also a learning community. The great thing about learning communities is that they direct their desire toward something endless that grows as it is shared: the exploration of knowledge and wisdom. Now, this pursuit also involves some more measurable and gradable things like the acquisition of information and skills, and sometimes it’s hard to look beyond these because they lead to more immediate rewards. But try not to get stuck competing for the measurable things. Look beyond your successes and failures to the deeper learning that is happening beneath them. Let yourself be playful about learning. Playfulness actually helps learning. It may seem like the opposite of being purposeful, but play lets immediate purposes like status go so that deeper purposes and understanding and community can emerge. Plus cooperating, both inside and outside the classroom, actually makes learning more efficient as well as more fun.
Academic departments and programs are also communities. One outstanding student academic community is here today, the writing assistants of the Klooster Center for Excellence in Writing, ready to welcome you into a culture of peer-to-peer help. There are also departmental clubs to join, opportunities to collaborate on research outside of courses, and other ways to get to know your professors outside of the classroom. We faculty love it when you do.
Two more things. Because we are so mimetic, with our compass needles always spinning, it’s important to make space for solitude. Cell phones and social media have made solitude more scarce and more necessary. Solitude allows creative thoughts and longings to bubble to the surface. Take time to be alone and unplugged in places you like. Walk places without using your phone. Detach from electronic media for a day. I sometimes give students credit for doing this and writing about it. They often find it hard, but almost always refreshing and worthwhile.
Finally, Hope’s strategic plan, Hope for the World 2025, says a lot about both embracing a global focus and being a community, a body, in which each member can flourish. The passage our Dean of the Chapel read gives St. Paul’s vision of what it means to be a member of the body of Christ. St. Paul focuses on how to deal with the diversity of the body, especially its most vulnerable parts. Understanding and appreciating diversity of all kinds is another key to understanding who you are and finding your own purpose. College gives you lots of chances to encounter unfamiliar people and perspectives, but it’s up to you to take advantage of the opportunities. It might be someone from a different culture or background or someone who seems a lot like you but has different views. It might be an old book. Take one of the many great opportunities to study off campus. Give whoever and whatever is strange to you your best attention. Ask questions. Enter into dialogue. Become friends. Look especially for those who have been excluded or scapegoated or have suffered in other ways. Listening to them and honoring them will be one of your most valuable learning experiences.
I believe that you have all been called, together, to this community at this time. I trust that hope, the college and the virtue, will lead you to a better future and purpose than you can yet desire or imagine. Thank you for the honor of your attention.
 See Simone Weil’s essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” published in the collection Waiting for God.
 See C. S. Lewis, “Membership,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, revised and expanded edition.