Carol Annette Petsonk 2003 - Colorado College

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Time, Precious Time

Remarks of Carol Annette Petsonk
Opening Convocation
The Colorado College
September 1, 2003

I am deeply honored and privileged to have been invited to share this podium with Doug Obletz today. Let me extend my congratulations to Doug on his honorary degree and to Governor, Ambassador, President Celeste and the College on Dick’s appointment. President Celeste’s ideas and philosophies, and the tremendous career experience and warmth and humor he and his family bring to the College, make it a great match.

I want to join with others here in welcoming all of our new and returning students to Colorado College. Just last Sunday, the College was deeply honored to have Mrs. Coretta Scott King give the Capstone Address, at the time of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s defining “I Have A Dream” speech. It was here at CC that I first heard the Holly Near song, “It could have been me, but instead it was you, so I’ll keep doing the work you were doing as if I were two, because if you can work for freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom, If you can work for freedom, I can too.” Coretta Scott King, in her person and her work and her ability to inspire, is America’s pre-eminent national emblem of that devotion. Take her words and her life example into your hearts.

What I want to speak to you about briefly this morning is the precious gift of time. I am going to put before you three challenges for how you spend your precious time at this remarkable place called Colorado College.

My first challenge to you is to take every moment of your waking hours at this extraordinary place and live it to the fullest. Every moment of every block, and every moment of every block break too.

I came to this wonderful school completely by accident. I left Harvard in my sophomore year to go on a cross-country trek in search of the ideal liberal arts education. In Limon, Colorado, it started to snow and I turned south. By the time I got to Colorado Springs it was snowing pretty hard. I asked a man at a gas station, “Where’s the College?” He said, “go to the statue of the man on the horse, hang a right, and you’ll run right into it.”

A group of students living in an arts cooperative in Jackson House welcomed me and told me I could set up my sleeping bag in the living room. The next morning I awoke to find a group of students and a professor sitting in a corner of the living room discussing William Carlos Williams’ poetry. I looked outside and saw Pike’s Peak with fresh snow and a crystal blue sky and knew I had found it - The ideal liberal arts education.

The Block Plan changes your sense of time. In this age of “multitasking,” the opportunity, the luxury, the privilege, of spending an entire month, or two or three, focusing your entire being on one question, is utterly rare. The Block Plan can bring forth in you a whole new approach to exercising your mind and your body. This school, like no other, links these in a continuum. The complete concentration you need to climb a rock face, or win a soccer game, is what you will use when you spend a month studying the desert ecosystems of the Southwest, or immerse yourself in the study of the origin, nature, and rise of fascism in 20th century Europe.

Developing the discipline to focus in that extremely concentrated way is the test that this place puts to you. I urge you to embrace it. Even though you may have to pull some all-nighters to get papers done, you will find great joy in it.

My second challenge to you is to consider very carefully how you spend your precious time at CC. You don’t have any – not a moment – to waste.

You may have heard about the geology professor who brought to class a large jar and a box of fist-sized rocks which he carefully placed, one at a time, into the jar. When no more rocks would fit, he asked the class, "Is this jar full?" Then he dumped in a bucket of grus – the pink weathered granite you’ll find on Pike’s Peak - and shook the jar so that the gravel worked down into the space between the big rocks. He asked again, "Is this jar full?" Then he poured a bucket of sand into the jar. The sand worked into the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Again he asked, "Is this jar full?" Then he took a pitcher of water and filled the jar to the brim. Then he asked the class, "What have we proven?"

One student said, "The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard you can always fit some more things in it!"

"No," said the professor. “The point is: "If you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never get them in at all."

So I am asking you to think: What are the 'big rocks' in your life? Your family....Your friends…the friends you’ll make here at CC. My closest CC friends have come from various places around the country, through incredible personal challenges of their own, to share this honor with me today. Thank you, Lili, Peg and Linda.

The big rocks in the jar are your dreams....Always challenging your body and your mind to be stronger, healthier, treating your body and your mind as the sacred temples they are. Always learning, always stretching. Big rocks are the person you choose to fall in love with. Your life’s work. Doing things that you love.... Connecting with the great out of doors that surrounds you here, valuing it, protecting it. You need to figure out what the big rocks in your life are and make sure they are always first. CC is a great place to take up this question.

It’s also a great place to explore the spaces between the rocks. At so many other schools, where preprofessionalism is rampant, you’re pushed continually to narrow your focus. Here, you have the opportunity, in both courses and block-breaks, to broaden your view. It’s in that quiet space-time that even more important insights may flow to you. The conversations over hot tea from metal mugs on a cold night when you’re camping on the Kaibab Plateau over the Grand Canyon under a million stars. The realizations that hit you when you come up from the underground of the Moscow subway and confront in one time-space the vast changes sweeping across Russia.

For me at CC the interstitial realizations shaped my entire career. As a biology major, I loved the field classes. But CC also allowed me to broaden my view. In Bob Lee’s class on Middle East Politics, I wrote what I thought was a great paper laying out an elegant, scientifically rational peace plan. Prof. Lee skewered the paper. As I sat in the living room at 1123 North Weber, trying to figure out how I’d done so badly, I realized that Prof. Lee was pushing me to tackle a question that scientists don’t usually think about:

How can one convince sovereign nations to surrender, voluntarily, some of their national sovereignty? That’s the prerequisite for international agreements.

It’s a question I keep before me every day in my working life, as I try to develop the incentives for nations to join an international treaty framework to cut greenhouse pollution and curb climate change. CC gave me the chance to explore what was, for me as a Bio major, the interstitial space of political theory. CC professors pushed me – and they will push you - to learn new ways of thinking critically, across a broad range of disciplines. It’s a tremendous asset.

My third challenge to you is to use your time at CC to make the world better.

Whether in your community, where Doug Obletz has done so much great work, or at the national or global level, or in your own family and neighborhood, I challenge you to break the “spend now and pay later” attitude that is rampant in our country. The attitude of, Gorge now on burgers and sodas, and figure out later how to handle the epidemics of obesity, heart disease and stroke. Gorge now on tax cuts for the rich, and figure out later how to deal with the staggering budget deficit. Gorge now on gas-guzzling SUVs and over-airconditioned conference rooms, and figure out later how to stop global warming.

We have to do better than this. You have to take the lead. Use every drop of insight you can glean here at CC to help you do that. It’s incumbent upon you. Go take Marc Snyder’s and Ron Capen’s ecology course in Belize. Tropical coral reefs are the canaries in the coal mine – global warming and a whole lot of other threats are killing them, and in another ten to twenty years, they may be gone. Take a semester in France or Brazil or Tanzania and broaden your worldview. Study the roots of the religious divides that are rippling across continents.

The preciousness of time is very much on my mind in my own field, climate change. The world is now in a critical time window. The time window is the next five to ten, or if we’re lucky, fifteen years. If we don’t begin limiting emissions of greenhouse pollution in this time window, and cut pollution sharply after that, it may be not be possible to avert dangerous warming. Every day that we delay makes the job tougher.

The great science education and critical thinking that CC gives you can help you understand the global warming forecast, and see past the media campaign that Exxon-Mobil and American Electric Power and the Southern Company have financed to convince Americans that global warming is really uncertain. Your CC education will help you realize that the pollution from your cars, from the big coal-fired power plant in south Colorado Springs, from the College’s own gas plant behind the ice rink – once that pollution goes up into the atmosphere, it will stay there for a hundred years, warming the Earth. With your broader CC worldview, you will appreciate why other nations are so angry at President Bush for backing out of the Kyoto treaty. You will realize that if the Kyoto treaty doesn’t take effect, or if the President continues to block new treaties, America might just lock the entire planet into a future of stunning and irreversible consequences.

Your CC perspective will help you realize that this is a total abdication of our nation’s legal and moral responsibility. We have to change it. We have to bring America back to leadership on this vital challenge.

Many times students say to me that they want to but they don’t know how to get started. Let me tell you a quick story.

A man was walking along a riverbank and he saw a baby floating down the river, drowning. He jumped in and pulled it up on dry land and began doing resuscitation. The baby started to cough and cry and just as it was getting good deep breaths, he saw another baby floating down the river. So he jumped in and grabbed the second one and started working on it. And then he saw another one. Soon he had a whole mess of these babies.

Another man came walking along the river and asked him, “What are you doing?” He said, “Can’t you see, I’m jumping in the river and grabbing these babies and bringing them out on dry land and saving them!” The other man asked, “Why don’t you go upriver and see who’s dumping them in?” The first man said, “I would, but I’m too busy saving them.”

Your challenge while you are here at CC is to figure out where along the riverbank you are best suited to work, where you like to work, and where you and your family and community will be most fulfilled. The tremendous professors here have an unparalleled dedication to teaching. Take it. Learn from it. We need you everywhere along the great river.

I want to close with the words of George Bernard Shaw:

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.

“I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Take the splendid, precious torch that CC gives you. And make each and every moment count.

Thank you.

These remarks are the personal views of the author. Any errors or omissions are solely the responsibility of the author.