Remarks by Former Faculty Director, Andy Hoffman at the 2015 Erb Institute Graduation dinner

Mark Twain once said, “the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”  Here at the Erb Institute, we know we had no involvement in that first day.  But we hope we had everything to do with the second.

Here in your years at Michigan, you took classes and learned about the issues we face and the models and tools for addressing them.  But the key to this second day is that it is not what you learn in class; it is developed in the “in-between” time.  It is not something you can intellectualize; it is something you have to feel in your heart.  It is not what you know; it comes down to what you believe. It is about learning the conviction of your beliefs.  Finding a purpose that goes beyond a job or a paycheck, beyond what you want for yourself, and leads you towards a devotion to something bigger.  And, I believe, this is what will make all the difference in your years ahead.

You develop this by first putting yourself in the company of others who think and feel deeply about the same things that you do, and second by taking the time in reflection to discern what you truly believe.  The opportunity to do that here is, I believe, something you cannot get elsewhere – this community and this culture to lay the foundation for your calling or your vocation. It is what will get you out of bed every morning and what will get you through the tough times.  And you will have tough times.

There are days when I get tired of this stuff and have to turn off the radio when I hear another news story about climate change.  And there are days when I get discouraged that change is just too hard…when a US Senator throws a snowball on the Senate floor to “prove” that climate change is not real, or the State of Florida can ban the use of the words “climate change.” But I keep trying.  Let me offer three of my own beliefs that keep me going.

  1. I believe that there is far more to the natural world than what we know or can detect through our senses and empirical models. For example, I have done a lot of work at Yellowstone National Park and what they are learning about the natural environment continues to amaze.  The reintroduction of wolves has changed the entire ecosystem in ways they never imagined; from changes in animal life to subsequent changes in plant life, to even changes in the stability of river beds now that deer and elk no longer wander out in the open.  Or, in studying how red foxes catch mice in the winter, sometimes as much as 20 feet away and under 3 feet of snow, they have recently discovered that they catch 75% more mice when they are facing north and they have even begun to speculate that the foxes triangulate off the magnetic field of the Earth.  It is these kinds of phenomena that convince me that there is something sacred and mysterious that compels us to protect it for its own sake.  This is what gives me purpose to do what I do, and this quote from Rachel Carson  captures it for me:“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp. What is the message signaled by the hordes of diatoms, flashing their microscopic lights in the night sea? What truth is expressed by the legions of barnacles, whitening the rocks with their habitations, each small creature finding the necessities of its existence in the sweep of the surf?  And what is the meaning of so tiny a being as the transparent wisp of protoplasm that is a sea lace, existing for some reason inscrutable to us – a reason that demands its presence by a trillion amid the rocks and weeds of the shore?  The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit, we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.This quote comes from Carson’s book, The Edge of the Sea, and was read at her funeral. And if you look closely at her text, you will see that she has capitalized the word Life.  She is calling forth something that demands our respect.  So, while I may teach that we have to convince others to protect nature through self-interest, financial incentives and pragmatic reasons, I believe we have to protect it for reasons that evoke words like sacred, divine, reverence, and love.  We protect and devote ourselves to what we love. If we don’t do this, I believe that we are doomed, both as individuals and as a species.
  1.  Not everyone has to have this reverence for nature. Only a few have to possess it.  This is what gives me inspiration and hope. I look at it like I look at hiking.  I am always shocked, amazed and angry when I see garbage that a previous hiker has carelessly thrown along the trail.  But I pick it up and believe that for every hundred people that may be so thoughtless, it takes only a small handful of us to make their carelessness right.  And so, with the bigger causes to which we devote ourselves, I am reminded of the adage that a person who believes in something is a majority of one. I might add, the cold truth is that many people don’t believe in anything.  They simply follow the world as it exists without questioning the beliefs that they are fed.  This is a particular concern when people don’t challenge the continuous call for unrestrained consumption that we receive in every moment of every day in every medium.
  1. In my faith tradition it is said that, “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”   I look around this room and see people to whom much is given: intelligence, opportunity, passion, wisdom, and vision.  And I believe we have an obligation to do something with those gifts to leave the world better than we found it.  This is what gives me persistence, especially when I get discouraged or tired. It forces me to look deep inside and keep trudging forward, keep working and keep trying.

These are three things that I believe.  Now I ask you; what do you believe? Do you know?  Do you have the courage to say it out loud and to act on it? This is what will make all the difference in your life.  A calling is something that will take hold of you; it is something inside you that you can’t shake; its something you have to do.  Because once you come to believe in your purpose, in the reason that you were born, it is very hard to unbelieve it. That is the power of what we hope you have gained from your time here.  It will lead you towards a life that is about far more than wealth, pleasure and ease. It will lead you to a life of meaning. That is what I hope for you.  Find out what you believe; find your calling; don’t just live the life you want to live, live the life you were meant to live.