Letting — and the Importance of Being Led

May 30, 2013

On Earlham’s website now is the Baccalaureate Speech given earlier this month by Biology Professor Bob Rosenberg, and it is very much worth reading. Each year at the college, the graduating seniors choose a member of the faculty to deliver the baccalaureate address. (That is, there is no outside speaker parachuted in for the occasion.) These addresses are consistently wonderful, and many of them are available to read.Bob Rosenberg

Bob Rosenberg’s speech is entitled “Conformational Change.” Bob speaks out of being a teacher of Biology; his remarks are honest, wise, and loving. I won’t try to summarize it, but I was especially struck by something he said about the importance of “letting:” of being led by evidence or by the spirit. Here’s the passage, and I hope you read all of his remarks.

It’s good to have a plan and it’s good to let yourself find the plan.

[An] example is Maya Lin’s sculpture at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. The names of dead Americans are carved into a sheet of polished black rock that extends for a long way. You see the names, thousands of them. But when you step close you also see your face reflected behind the names, and you see the reflections of other people around you. You can focus  on the names of the dead and the faces of the living. You can’t focus on them both at the same time, but they’re both right there. You have to choose which to focus on.

Sometimes it’s not so easy. You may have to work at it. You may make mistakes and see only one way for a while. Let me tell you about a mistake I made until just a few weeks ago, related to the Earlham College Mission Statement. This is a beautiful synopsis of Earlham, and it attracted me to Earlham four years ago. It includes, among other things, “pursuit of truth, wherever that pursuit leads; letting the evidence lead that search; rigorous integrity in dealing with the facts.”

If you’re like me, you tend to focus on words like “truth” and “pursuit,” “evidence” and “integrity,” and even “facts,” no matter how slippery they may be. Those are big, meaningful words. As a scientist I know I obsess about “evidence.” I’ve focused on that word for a long time.

But another important word in that piece of the Mission Statement, a word that I only saw clearly as I was preparing for today, a word you might not focus on, is “letting.” Not pursuing, but letting evidence guide the search, letting a moment show you the way, letting your mind see the names carved in and the faces reflected back, letting yourself consider the possibility that you might be wrong, that you might be seeing only one side. Of course you also must also act, you can’t only “let.” You must take action for yourself and your family, for your friends and your community, for the world. But while acting it’s important to let yourself consider other actions.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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