Life is a Quilt, the Pattern Our Own Choice



The older I get, the more clearly I see that the most important lessons of life are in the form of questions. So what I would like to offer for your consideration this morning is a series of questions that are important for you to ask yourself all through your life. . . .

The main thing, it seems to me, is to continue to ask questions, never satisfied that you have answered or learned everything. Now, as soon-to-be graduates, you know about good questions, the kind that appear on tests. You will not be surprised to learn that my questions are not true or false or multiple-choice or even short identification, but, of course, essay questions. The answers will need lots of thought and creativity, and to be answered well they need to reflect your own insights and wisdom.

The first question I would like to offer to you is a ''how'' question: How can I make an impact on the world? How can I make a difference? This is the work question: Everyone needs work to give life a sense of purpose and meaning. And, of course, the world needs work from each of you in order to become a better place.

For each of you this work will take a different form. But for a moment this morning, please think with me about work in a way that may be a bit unusual. Think not about which profession you want to pursue, but rather, consider how different types of work are interconnected.

How can we connect the work it takes to make a home a happy and comfortable place, to the work it takes to make friendships prosper, to our work in the more public workplace? How can we learn to value all these kinds of work in order to give our lives coherence and balance? Women seem to have a special gift for connecting and integrating. We have had no choice but to cultivate this gift as we have balanced the demands of family and career. It is a gift we need to share with the world.

All of us sometimes feel, I suspect, that we have not been given enough talent or energy or drive to do the many kinds of work life will call upon us to do, or that life has handed us hardships that are unfair. But the important thing is how we use the talent we have and how we work to triumph over hardship.

Listen to this quotation from ''Aunt Jane'' of Kentucky, from a book about women's folk art called ''Anonymous Was A Woman.'' Aunt Jane was an accomplished quilter, and she said, ''How much piecin' a quilt's like livin' a life. The Lord sends us the pieces, but we we can cut 'em out and put 'em together pretty much to suit ourselves, and there's a heap more in the cuttin' out and the sewin' than there is in the calicer [calico].''

Life is a quilt -- the pattern our own choice -- the work never finished. There is always room for a more intricate pattern of patches, a need for more stitches to beautify and strengthen the work-in-progress that is our lives.

Next come the ''why'' questions -- important and at the same time vexing. ''Why,'' you used to ask your parents. ''Why is the sky blue? Why do birds fly? Why do I have to do my homework?''

And then there is the series of ''why's'': Why do we have to go home from the playground? Because it'll soon be dark. Why? Because the sun will go down. Why? Because the earth rotates on its axis. Why? And so on. This childish ability to persist and not accept a too easy answer, while often an annoyance to adults, is an ability to be cultivated.

Why? Because there are other series of ''why's'' that are more important than the playground example. Why are so many babies in the United States born with low birth weight and badly nourished? Because their mothers have not had good prenatal care. Why? Because they are poor and poorly educated. Why? And so on.

To keep asking these ''why'' questions reveals a restlessness and a refusal to accept the world as it is. The adult world needs more childlike persistence and refusal to give up on important issues. The harder these questions are for us to answer, the more important it is to try to answer them.

If ''why'' is an important kind of question, then ''why not'' is equally important. The ''why not'' question separates bystanders from doers.

A book I read several years ago made a tremendous and lasting impact on me. ''Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed'' tells the story of the villagers of the French town of le Chambon. During World War II, they saved thousands of Jewish people from certain death in concentration camps by hiding them and spiriting them away from the clutches of the Nazis. Led by a minister and his family, they acted with extraordinary courage in full view of the Vichy government and a division of the SS. When the author asked them about their amazing bravery, they protested that what they did was not unusual or noteworthy, but just something that needed to be done. They saw the need, saw that someone needed to step forward, and asked themselves, ''Why not? Why not me?''

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