Graduating teens urged to approach the world as parents

Carolyn Moynihan
7 Jul 2011
Reproduced with Permission

Here is a high school commencement speech with a difference -- a great difference, in both senses of the word. Asked to address the Class of 2011 at Providence Academy, Minneapolis, Dr Jennifer Roback Morse encouraged the graduates to think of themselves not just as individuals about to carve out a path for themselves in society, but as parents.

Every one of them, said the Ruth Institute founder, was called to be a person who takes responsibility for others:

It is customary for commencement speakers to talk about what you are going to do with your lives. But you are all going to go in different directions. I can think of just two things that truly apply to all of you.

The first thing I know about you is that each of you is called to become a mother or a father. How can I say that with such assurance? Each and every one of us is called to give of ourselves and to be a gift to other people. Giving birth and taking lifelong responsibility for the care of children is only the most obvious way in which people make gifts of themselves to others. And some of you no doubt will do exactly this: get married and have children. But even those of you who never give birth to or father a single child, have the opportunity to act as spiritual parents to those around you.

By spiritual parents, I mean people who care for the young, as well as the helpless and the needy of any age or station of life. Your teachers are the most obvious examples of people who have acted as spiritual parents to you. They have done much more than just deliver knowledge to you. They have provided you with guidance, direction, limits and dreams. They have given their hearts to you.

You may have already acted as spiritual parents to your younger siblings, to friends in distress, to teammates trying to master a skill. If so, you know that giving of yourself in this way is one of the most satisfying things you can do. Teaching the lesson to a struggling classmate can be more rewarding than mastering the lesson yourself. If you have had experiences like these, then you have already experienced spiritual parenthood.

Actually, I shouldn't use the generic, gender-neutral word, "parents." There is no such thing as a generic parent, any more than there is such a thing as a generic person. There are only men and women, mothers and fathers. You are not a gender-neutral, generic person and you won't become a gender-neutral, generic parent either. Male and female are two different and complementary ways of being human. And mothers and fathers are two different and complementary ways of caring for the young, and the needy of whatever age...

Far-fetched? Not at all:

Thinking of physical parenthood allows us to see some of the differences between spiritual mothers and spiritual fathers. Our mothers give us life. Our mothers are our first connections to the rest of the human race. They nurture us, feed us, comfort us, and encourage us. Our mothers let us know that we are loved. When we women do this for others, no matter who they may be, we are acting as spiritual mothers.

Our fathers protect the life they have planted within our mothers. At times, it may seem as if they are more distant than our mothers. But they have stepped back, to allow our growth. They protect us, both physically and spiritually. Our fathers hold us accountable for our behavior and performance. When men do these things for us, no matter how old they are in comparison with us, they are acting as spiritual fathers.

We can think of some of the iconic figures of manliness in our culture: the Marines storming the beach; the sheriffs in the Old West; the firefighters running into the crumbling Twin Towers on Nine Eleven. These men are not just performing random acts of aggression and violence. They are heroes because they are standing up for what is right, keeping order in the community and defending the weak. I think every young man, in his heart, wants to be a sheriff in this spiritual sense, courageously standing up against evil and protecting the innocent.

You can read the whole speech here.