On Gratitude: Sara Morency ’16 [Honors Convo address]

Posted by Centre News in Academics, Anthro/Soc, News 04 May 2016

Sara MorencyView the entire 2015 Honors Convocation here.

Sara Morency ’16 and Dexter Horne ’16 provided the keynote addresses at Centre College’s annual honors convocation on May 3. Remarks from the speakers, who are selected by tallying votes from the senior class, are always a highlight of the annual celebration of student achievements.

Morency, a sociology/anthropology major from Lowell, Mass., is both a Bonner and Posse Scholar. During her college career, she has served as a resident assistant, philanthropy chair for Centre’s Delta Delta Delta chapter and secretary of the Student Judiciary. Morency is considering a professional career path in non-profit administration or school guidance counseling.

Morency and Horne were also selected as the 2015 Homecoming Queen and King and have served as senior interviewers in the College’s admission office.

On Gratitude

It’s strange to think that just under four years ago, I got hypnotized on this very stage. For those of you who don’t know, a hypnotist comes during the first week of student orientation. Apparently, I thought I had 11 fingers, sang the national anthem as a segment of American Idol and led a group of my peers on an imaginary expedition down an imaginary river. And, when I say peers, I really mean complete and total strangers at that point.

It is an honor to be up here again (hopefully not hypnotized) to address everyone. When I received the email with the nomination to speak at Honors Convo, I cried for two hours. This may sound extreme, but, for the life of me, I cannot understand how or why recognition like this keeps coming my way.

But, I am honored and incredibly overwhelmed by this opportunity; so, thank you. In fact, this is what I want to talk about tonight—the act of gratitude. I want this to be an opportunity for us to reflect on the importance of thankfulness and vulnerability and how these two practices have the power to lead to being mindful and present in each passing moment.

First of all, I am so grateful for my family. When I received this nomination, my mind zoomed to Lowell, Mass. To my older sister, who dropped out of high school and was out of the house at 16. To my father, who can fix just about anything but barely finished middle school. To my mom, who graduated from a vocational high school and has always worked so hard to make sure we’ve had enough. And, to my little sister with special needs, who will never have the opportunity to go to college even though she wants to so, so badly.

You see, my family continues to affect how I think, just as they have since I arrived here.

My first spring semester, I took Dr. Beau Weston’s Race, Gender and Class course, where we learned all about socioeconomic status and how this can inform a person’s identity. One of the assignments asked us to talk with our parents and inquire about family finances. This is the first time I’d ever asked my mom about our financial situation; she’d always promised the money would come, and it did. But after this long and emotional conversation with my mom, I was ready to leave Centre.

Dr. Weston, an incredible mentor to me and a brilliant asset to our Centre family, sat with me for over an hour at the Hub that day and let me cry out all of my concerns: my self-doubt; my guilt; my guilt over being here, over feeling like I ought to be home earning money to support my family; my guilt in recognizing that Centre was going to change my perspective and, in turn, going to change my relationships with my family. College felt like a privilege I was not cut out for.

Throughout our conversation, Dr. Weston listened with compassion and acknowledged the weight of my worries, but he wasn’t going to let me walk away without some wise words. He said something along the lines of, “You need to honor those that have helped you get here. You cannot let this guilt inform your experience. Instead you need to be grateful.”

Little did I know that morning at the Hub would change my outlook forever. His insight offered me a new practice—one of transforming guilt into gratitude.

And, here I am four years later talking to my peers, professors, mentors, friends and Centre family, and I am so incredibly grateful.

Another component of my life that has helped me focus on gratitude is this poem, of sorts, that’s been posted on my wall for about six years. I read it from time to time in an effort to remind myself what it means to be fully present in gratitude. While I read it now, I want to encourage, particularly the seniors, to keep in mind that this college journey is coming to an end. And, as we transition into this next phase of our lives, we ought to hold onto every moment. We cheapen this experience if we do not reflect, so I invite you all to be present with me as I read.

Be Present

Live. And Live Well. BREATHE. Breathe in and Breathe deeply. Be PRESENT. Do not be past. Do not be future. Be now.

On a crystal clear, breezy 70-degree day, roll down the windows, and FEEL the wind against your skin. Feel the warmth of the sun.

If you run, then allow those first few breaths on a cool autumn day to FREEZE your lungs, and do not be alarmed, be ALIVE.

Get knee-deep in a novel and LOSE track of time.

Feel the SATISFACTION of a job well done, a paper well-written, a project thoroughly completed, a play well-performed.

If you’ve recently experienced loss, then GRIEVE. And Grieve well.

At the table with friends and family, LAUGH. If you’re eating and laughing at the same time, then you might as well laugh until you puke. And if you eat, then SMELL. The aromas are not impediments to your day.

And TASTE. Taste every ounce of flavor. Taste every ounce of friendship. Taste every ounce of life. Because it is most certainly a gift.

The author of this piece, Kyle Lake, paints a picture of being present, but laced throughout the language we understand that, to feel satisfaction, to lose oneself, to laugh with company, to breathe, to do all of these with intention, requires a conscious state of thankfulness.

This is no easy task. Like I’ve said, I’ve had this hanging on my wall for about six years, and I still do not understand how to do all of these things all of the time. But I don’t think “getting it right” or “getting it perfect” is part of it. I think being in a constant pursuit of appreciation leads to a shift in intention, which may even lead to a shift in character.

Mindfulness is practiced in many ways. At Centre, maybe this means going to Get Centred, maybe it’s breathing in silence for a minute before a test or maybe it’s even the practice of listening to an hour-long lecture—without your phone.

But maybe a different avenue towards mindfulness is to focus intently on one person, place or thing we are grateful for. One moment, or one interaction, in our day that has really set the tone for us. What if we did this in the classroom? In life? In graduating? I wonder if we would be better at holding on to excitement this way. Perhaps instead of wishing the time away, as it becomes so easy to do in moments of stress, maybe we should pause and be thankful.

As a matter of fact, I need to take a moment to thank my mom. Ever since I made high honor roll in third grade, she would always joke around saying that I’d be up on a big stage one day, thanking her for giving me her brains. So thanks, Mom, because for years we’ve joked about something like this happening, and I’d deny that it ever could or would. But it is happening. Right now. And, this is me, thanking you publicly and formally for being my biggest cheerleader and for your brains.

You see, gratitude requires an honest and authentic vulnerability. Which is so terrifying—and emotional! Because, in being vulnerable with ourselves and those around us, we are opening ourselves up to both hurt and love. But if we refuse this vulnerability, or neglect the opportunity to be honest with ourselves and others, then we deny the gifts that others are opening themselves up to offer us.

If we refuse this, then we are robbing everyone involved the chance to love and to be present in that love.

Acting out gratitude may be as simple as sending a text or a letter to someone, or calling someone on the phone and letting them know how much you appreciate them and why. Gratitude can also take the shape of simply being present, as Kyle Lake suggests, listening to the birds, the wind, the trees shivering—and thanking them. So, again, thanks, Mom.

To go along with this theme, there is a quote that I love by a woman named Sarah Ban Breathnach, who emphasizes the importance of the little things, stating, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”

How beautiful is that? To potentially have our lives molded by a deep sense of gratitude. To exercise a consciousness that recognizes small moments as immensely transformative. That we might understand the present moment as an appreciation for where we are, whether in solitude or surrounded by a sea of people, is incredibly profound.

I believe we are the habits we practice. We are our unspoken thoughts, we are our quiet moments. And, if these moments with ourselves are steeped in an authentic vulnerability, then we are well on our way to living lives full of gratitude.

Which may even lead to a life of joy.

We’re leaving soon (the seniors, anyway), and, although it is terrifying to leave a place many of us have called home for the past four years, it is exciting! I am trying my hardest these days to harness this excitement, channeling it into an emotion that will keep me simultaneously moving forward and present—and grateful for moving forward. And I encourage you all to do the same.

So, after graduation I am going home. I want to shadow some school guidance counselors when the fall rolls around and work with some local non-profits. I plan on swimming with my five-year old nephew. I might get a motorcycle license, maybe even get a motorcycle.

But I need some time to be grateful for all of this—for all of this. I need to remember to hold this excitement in my heart and let each moment seep into me so that I might be grateful beyond measure, filled to the brim with joy. So that I might be able to extend the gift of gratitude.

This is no easy task. I don’t expect it to be and it shouldn’t be.

But I will most certainly reflect on gratitude as a journey, an authentic journey that requires great vulnerability. And, although it looks different for every person, it may be the most important journey we take. Not a job, not moving to a new place or letting go of an old flame. Gratitude is the essence of our next step.

I want to ask you all to close your eyes, especially if this helps you be more mindful. I promise not to hypnotize you! But I will leave you with these questions:

How do you receive present moments?
How do you offer the gift of gratitude?
How do you receive gifts of gratitude?
How do you acknowledge and accept authentic vulnerability in your own life?
To whom are you grateful?
Have you told them?

Thank you.

by Sara Morency ’16
May 3, 2016