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May 04, 2007

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We have all heard the saying…

(Part of a key-note speech given at Lane Community College in the first week of May. Lane is experiencing drastic budget cuts. Programs are going away and people are losing their jobs.)

We have all heard the saying that the only two things you can count on are death and taxes. To that short list I think we can safely add the maxims, boys and girls will get together and change is inevitable. The ancient philosopher Heraclitus is credited with saying it first: There is nothing permanent except change. Let me say it again, Change is inevitable. Living creatures are certainly no strangers to change – in fact, we are products of change. We have come a long way from that one celled microbe that crawled from the primordial ooze. We are what we are because of our reaction to change. Change is synonymous to life. But SLOW change. Nothing in our genetic make-up has prepared us for the speed of change that we are now forced to accommodate. In many ways it is our struggle to deal with the speed of our changing life roles that is stealing our livelihoods, our communities, and our sanity. It can be devastating. But it can also be a new beginning.

The benefits of dynamic demographics, new technologies, and globalization of markets have come at a high price for many Americans. The price has been extracted in terms of additional stress and uncertainty about the future. Very suddenly, we have become citizens, not of the stable and caring community we were born into, but citizens of a new, foreign, and frightening global world. There is no such thing as provincial anymore – television and a few other sinister machines took care of that. Our regionally unique children have been replaced by generic kids in baggy pants, listening to iPods like all the other kids in the world. There is an unnerving pressure to commodify us. We are all subjected to the same irresistible marketing as everyone else, and like everyone else is often convinced that our future lives will be many times more affluent than their parents’ lives. Modern life has affected us in many ways, not the least of which is to raise our expectations of the material things we will someday possess and to blind us to non-material things that will need. I am not one that preaches frugality, though I do believe it is a virtue. I do not believe that a simple turn away from excess — will right many wrongs. I believe that the dye has been cast, materialism is among us and we will have to ride that rocket until it fizzles between our legs. All of us and all of our children will want to drive the same powerful, shiny new pickups that everyone else who watched the Super Bowl will want to drive. While it is good to resist excess, it is silly to pretend that those material things are not out there, that they don’t interest us, or that we don’t need them to compete. Most of us have been forced into an American middle class that is ruthless, shifting, and cold. Individuals and families are under pressures that previous generations could hardly imagine.

There are a million things to blame this situation on: credit, globalization, materialism, market concentration rampant conservatives, silly liberalism, and I don’t pretend to be smart enough to back track this monster to its lair. I prefer to identify the doorstep where the blame does NOT belong. That doorstep is OURS.

None of this is our fault. It is merely the fault of change and while I urge you to fight all change that is unjust. I implore you not to fall into a defensive mode and advocate that our society and culture should stand still. Because it will not stand still. It will change and the world will need people like you – people with common sense, and experience to help determine what those changes will be. Though we all pine for the life we may have had, things will change and we have no way of knowing quite how they will change. We will need people used to adversity, people comfortable with thinking on their feet. We will need people like you to direct what we will do on this next lap of civilization.

The best and perhaps only defense is a constructive attitude. We will never untangle the circumstances that have brought us to this moment – to this place in time and history. There are injustices and corrections that we must work on, of course, but there is no real villain in this play except time. The untangling, the placing of blame is not important anyway. What we do is not as important as how we conduct ourselves. I know about this because I have been to the mountain. The story of my enlightenment is in my book, Buffalo for the Broken Heart and it begins with an appraisal of myself. Who was I, why was I living on a ranch, and what did I REALLY want?

I found it easier to begin with who I was not.

Each of us has to ask the questions I asked and each of us has to be as truthful with the answers as we can be. For me, the answer to the question: What do I really want? was simpler than had imagined. I wanted to be able to continue my connection to the wild things that lived on my ranch. Maybe your answer is a continued connection to a community, something to do with serenity, home, family, solitude, even God. Maybe, if you answer the question of what you really want truthfully, that job at the credit card company will suddenly look good. Your answers will vary, but, whatever your answer is, there is a way to obtain what you want, if you are willing to use the skills you have learned and if you are willing to think creatively and if you are willing to change. Think how life has changed since you were a kid. Use your imagination when considering what it will be like in the future. As I said: change is going to happen. That is a given. Now here is what I really want to say today: Don’t fight change. Look for the opportunity. GET OUT FRONT AND CREATE CHANGE!

I was basically a farmer and I would argue that operating a bed and breakfast, or a hunting preserve, taking people out early in the morning to watch birds or raising and selling buffalo in a way that has never been done before is more like the farming I was raised around than what is happening today in many fields in the center of this country. What is it that you really want? It could be that the answer to the question of what you really want might lead you away from what you have always known. And that is okay, too. Never in the history of the world have the choices been more diverse. Who said farmers or anyone have to strive for maximum profit? What about connection to place and community and nature? What about finally writing that novel? What about peace of mind, a simple meal, grandkids? What about putting on a clean shirt at four-thirty in the morning? What does any of that have to do with the actions of others?

Most of us do not have Ivy League educations, trust funds, or global connections. But we have something that is every bit as good and that can not be taken away from us – we have an identity. We are whatever we are, but more specifically, we are people with dignity. We have connection to a place and bed-rock, American values and skills. Our own lives have shaped us and prepared us for what is to come. Trust yourself to know what to do. Our challenge is to not allow our identity to be compromised. We are constantly caught up in circumstances that were not determined by us. We are caught up in a play and our part is to be ourselves. We were bred for hardship and trials and it is our duty to play our own part. But YOU get to define what that part really is. It has very little to do with material things. It has more to do with your view of yourself, more to do with endurance, adaptability, integrity, and perhaps, above all, a little humor and love for the world that surrounds us.

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