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Good evening, everyone! First of all, hearty congratulations to my fellow graduating students of class of 2017! Secondly, I would like to thank the teachers, staff, and trustees of GTU for all that you have done for us, and for being the guardians of intellectual freedom, integrity, and creativity at GTU. All my life I have dreamt and aspired to get a doctorate, and today I am getting one, and that itself is a dream come true. But to share a few thoughts on this occasion makes it even more special, and I am deeply humbled and profoundly thankful for this opportunity.
I offer a special word of thanks to all the families and friends that are here to celebrate their loved one’s achievement. Yes, today is the day of celebration of the accomplishment of the graduates, but it is a celebration of you and your support as well. Without you, we wouldn’t have been here. So, a big thanks to you! Before I go any further, let me acknowledge the presence of both sets of my parents – one from India and one from Alabama, and my friend Shalom from Seattle, and my church families and friends.
The title of my talk this evening is "Hope for the Future." A couple of months ago, the Student Advisory Committee at GTU arranged a meeting for the students to meet with the newly appointed Dean Uriah Kim. The purpose of the meeting was to get to know the Dean and his vision for the school. In that meeting, one of the students asked Dean Kim what his happiest moment was when he was a graduate student at GTU. Without much hesitation, Dean Kim said that there were many happy moments, but the happiest one was when he submitted his dissertation. He said that on that day he felt like a heavy burden was lifted off his shoulders and that he could fly.
As I was listening to the conversation, I was thinking to myself, “How I wish I could be done with my dissertation and experience that kind of feeling?” As you can imagine, at that time I was working on my dissertation. Lo and behold a few weeks passed by, and the day had come for me to submit my dissertation. I have gone to the office of administration and submitted my dissertation. I exactly felt that same feeling that Dean Kim was talking about – a heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders and I felt that I could literally fly. It was such a relief and the graduating students can relate to what I am talking about. I started walking back to my home, and I could feel the refreshing breeze on my face, I could notice the lovely flowers next to the sidewalk, I could acknowledge the beautiful people all around me, and what a day it was! The world couldn’t have been any better!
That’s a great feeling, but here’s the sad part: it didn’t last for long. The feeling that I could fly started to fade off, and I could feel the burden on my shoulders again. Now it is not because of the process of writing my dissertation, it is rather because of the subject of my dissertation. My dissertation was on Climate change and intergenerational justice. It is about how we can save this planet for future generations.
Even as I was researching for my dissertation and started learning more about climate change, everything started to seem bleak. The information was overwhelming, and the opinions were scathing. More importantly, the reality of it all was frightening. It was like sitting by myself in a dark room and watching a zombie movie at full volume. The fact that 20% of our Carbon dioxide emissions remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years didn’t sit well with me. The thought that the island that my friend Kosi, who is graduating today, comes from, will potentially be under water in the near future saddened me. The fact that at least 10,000 species are becoming extinct every year and that our ecosystem is being strangled is disheartening. The reality that our children and grand children, who haven’t contributed to the climate crisis, will have to bear the brunt of our actions and inactions is very unfair. The global climate problem seemed insurmountable.
Given the enormity of the problem, at that juncture, I had two options: 1) to despair or 2) to hope – to hope in the midst of hopelessness. Since the environmental crisis is so complex and humongous, it is easy to fall into the trap of despair. Moreover given the cuts in funding for the environmental programs in the US, it is hard not to despair. But I do remember what Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, said about despair. He said that despair is sickness unto death. It is a sickness of the spirit. In other words, despair is like a cancer – it can grow and stifle our lives from within. In despair we will become helpless and immune to the crises around us.
On the other hand, there is hope. Hope that gives life. What is this hope like? Imagine yourselves to be present on the earth three billion years ago. On the one hand you see huge volcanoes erupting from the core of the earth, and earth quaking all around you, on the other hand at the edges of water, you have protoplasm, the first living material, microscopic, invisible, fragile and quiet. Hope is like the protoplasm at the edges of water [Analogy adapted from one of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s 1952 Earl Lectures at PSR]. If my analogy doesn’t make any sense to you, just understand that hope is like a hot bowl of chicken soup (or corn soup, if you don’t eat chicken) on the day you are suffering from severe cold.
Between these two options of despair and hope, I choose hope – hope for a better future, hope for a better humanity, and a hope for a better response to the impending climate change. Before I conclude, I will briefly share with you, three signs of hope that I have noticed in the recent past.
The first sign comes from a conference I have attended a couple of weeks ago here at GTU. I am sorry but I have to bring Dean Kim into my talk again. It was in the introductory session of that conference that Dean Kim talked about three new initiatives that are going to start at GTU. He had these cute titles too: 1) iMASS@ GTU – i.e. Interreligious Master of Arts in Sustainability Studies; 2) ICEG@GTU - i.e. Interreligious Collaborative E-search Group – E stands for Environment, Ecology, Economics, Equality and Equity; and finally 3) E-Lab@GTU, it is Entrepreneurial laboratory for Impactful Religious Knowledge Wisdom and Practice. The idea is to develop a space where students and practitioners can collaborate on developing ways for “Impactful Religious Knowledge Wisdom and Practice.” To have the initiatives at GTU is very strategic and important because, as I see it, human-made climate change is a spiritual and religious issue. At the core of climate crisis we have misplaced priorities. I am sure these new initiatives will help in setting up new priorities and having our existing priorities set right and help combat climate crisis.
2) The second sign is this: During the Lent season, the Methodist Church where I work at did a series on climate change. At my church, for quite some time we have been unsuccessfully trying to sort our waste correctly, and recycle properly. On one fine Sunday morning, a deacon of the church challenged the church to think of installing solar panels on the roof. The council took the deacon’s words seriously and wants to think about it. Of course, we are not there yet, but at least we had a positive response. That’s a big deal for our church and that is very hopeful to me.
3) Finally, what gives me immense hope is us - those of us who are gathered here. We have the potential to instill hope to a despairing world. Those of us who are graduating, we have an added responsibility. An important characteristic that we as graduating class of 2017 possess is resilience. In order to address the problems such as climate change, which in many ways is like a hydra, we need to be resilient. We have proved it to ourselves and to the world that we are resilient. We have toiled through 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and even more years to finish this program, and we do have the grit and resilience. To change the soul of the world, we need such resilience and we need us. I am hopeful that together we can struggle to solve the world’s problems and succeed. Thank you!