Karen Tse ’86
"You Are Not Alone"
May 13, 2007
I wanted to start with a poem. The author is anonymous.
May we be reminded here of our highest aspirations,
and inspired to bring our gifts of love and service
to the altar of humanity.
May we know once again that we are not isolated beings
but connected, in mystery and miracle,
to the universe, to this community, and to each other.
It is a great joy and honor to be here amongst all of you today. I spoke just last week to a group of Scripps seniors, and I asked them, “What makes your heart sing about being at Scripps?” As I was talking to them, what I realized is that what makes my heart sing is remembering being at Scripps. Being invited back here today to participate in the commencement of such extraordinary women is really an honor for me.
Kimberlina gave an amazing, amazing speech, and I absolutely agree that together you have infinite power. Also, my hope today is to walk with you in this journey, to share some of my own experiences. Twenty-one years ago, I sat where you sat, and one of my friends encouraged me, “Well, why don’t you be the Scripps speaker?” I remember sitting at the computer, and I couldn’t think of anything to say. So, in some ways, this speech is 21 years in the making.
As I walk through this journey, I’m hoping I can share a piece of what I’ve learned together with you. And also, to invite all of you on this journey with me, and with courageous human’s rights defenders throughout the world, who are looking to end torture in the 21st century.
The first thing I want to say is, don’t worry about a thing.
I remember sitting there and feeling some excitement, and also a lot of apprehension. Apprehension, because I really didn’t know what was ahead. I wasn’t sure that my parents or other people would agree with what I was going to do. I wasn’t sure that I was able to sort of make it, or that I would make the right decisions. Only within the last ten years, I’ve started to realize that really, you shouldn’t worry about a thing, because there are chapters in your life. And there’s an ability to wake up to life, and realize that we can learn to tolerate ambiguity. There’s supposed to be a number of pieces to the heroic journey. The first piece is called leaving the known. That’s where you’re in a place, and you’re comfortable, and you have a call to adventure. You’re very excited at first when you get that call to adventure, you’re going to go out and do it.
The second piece is that you have to leave the known, leave something that you know already, and that can be a very frightening process. You might think, “Maybe I don’t want to go.” Now, in this case, you really have no choice—you’re graduating today, you’re going to leave.
The third is always chaos before creation. That’s a point where you could get depressed, it could be difficult, you may start or not start back a forth, but there’s some chaos involved in that. The important thing is to always remember there’s always chaos before creation. So, if you’re in the chaos place, that’s good, because then you’re about to create.
The fourth step is the courageous act, where you’ll actually decide, ok, I’m going to go for it. It’s kind of scary, chaos before creation, but I’m going for it. You do the courageous act, and then you find the treasure. After finding the treasure, you’re able to bring the gift back to the world. Now, this heroic journey, which all of us are called into (and we go through many heroic journeys, throughout every point of out life), is really of a cyclical nature. So you may be in one place, but you should always remember that wherever you are, you’re going to keep going through the steps, and it will happen over and over in your life.
I’ve also seen that when I was sitting there, thinking I have to decide between divinity school, law school, or going on a Watson Fellowship, or where am I going to go, or doing nothing, what should I do, because this is the right decision, I have to make it now, that it matters, but it doesn’t really matter. Because in the end, you’ll go through chapter three, and you’ll live through chapter three of your life. And then you’ll hit chapter five of your life, and you’ll think, “Gee, chapter five has nothing to do with chapter three,” but in chapter seven, all of a sudden, they connect back together. This is the piece that we have to remember: That it’s not just about the local story, what we see now, but there’s the greater picture, there’s something out that is maybe more than we can understand.
Now, all of us here have dreams, and who amongst us has had whole dreams, and wonderful dreams and dreams that we have fulfilled, but also shattered dreams? All of us have shattered dreams. But it’s really as you put your life together, looking at the mosaic of life, the tapestry of life, and realizing that you can put everything together in the mosaic of your life, that helps us in the understanding that it isn’t only the local piece, the small piece that we have to focus on, but a bigger piece. I’ve also come to understand and realize that it is important for each and every one of us to declare ourselves a contribution to this world, in whatever form it is. There are many times in my life where I have wondered about that, and I thought, should I really say anything? I remember being a Scripps student, and then actually this happened in divinity school, as well as law school, where I was absolutely timid, and I never wanted to raise my hand, so every class, I’d sit there and say to myself, “Ok, ok, ok. Raise your hand, raise your hand.” You know, like these seminars, these pieces, but I could never bring myself to do it, so each piece, every time it was a challenge. I will say it’s still a challenge for me in many ways.
One lesson that I learned really came to me through a four-year-old that I met some years ago in Cambodia. His name was Vistna. He was in Cambodia, born into the prison of Khan Dao Province. He was born there because his mother was pregnant at the time that she was imprisoned. Now, because Vistna was born in the prison, he had special privileges. Even the guards said, “Well he’s a baby, so let’s be nice to him,” and as he grew up, they let him slip in and out of the bars. By the time I met him, he was four-years-old, and what he would do is he would climb up on the bars, the first, the second, the third, and his head was getting bigger than the rest of his body, so he would have to slip through then really carefully turn his head, and then slip his head through, and then come back down the third, the second and the first. And the amazing thing to me about Vistna is that here was a boy that was born with very little material comfort and someone would say, “What do you have to contribute to the prison, to the world?” but he was a boy with an absolutely strong sense of his own heroic journey, his own heroic value, and that there was something that he could do. And I think that he thought, in his own mind, “I’m one, maybe I’m only one. I can’t do everything, but I can do something, so I’m going to do what I can do.”
So every day, Vistna would come out of the prison and come down the third, the second, the first, and he would run out and grab my little pinkie, and he would want me to take him to each of the prisons. Now, he didn’t always make it through the 153 prisons, but he’d want me to pick him up so he could poke his little finger through—there were a lot of dark cells—so he would stick his head down and put his fingers through, down, looking through the dark cells. And to many of the people in the prison, he was their greatest joy and he was their sunshine. What I’ve learned from Vistna is that this is absolutely true of each of us in this world, that we have something to offer. Each of us is gifted in a very particular way. It’s our own creative genius that is a gift to the world, and it is really about how we decide to unleash it and give it to the world and accept in ourselves that none of us are perfect. So you may have a strength, you may have a weakness, but you can embrace that piece of who you are and give yourself in the best way possible to transform the world.
In this day and age, I firmly believe that we are on the edge of a human rights revolution, that there’s never been before a time in history that we could really do what we can do for human rights. Only in the last years, last decade, countries throughout the world have passed new laws. The laws say you have a right to a lawyer, you have a right to be tortured, but as you all know, people are tortured everywhere in the world on a daily basis. Now, when I graduated from Scripps, most countries did not have these laws, and so what we could do was write letters protesting the government, saying this is what the situation is, let this political prisoner out. But in 1994, I walked into a prison in Cambodia, and I met a 12-year-old boy who had been tortured and was denied access to counsel. As I looked into his eyes, I realized that, for all the hundreds of letters that I had written for political prisoners, I would never have written a letter for this boy because he wasn’t an important political prisoner who had done something important for anyone. He was a 12-year-old boy who had stolen a bicycle. The irony of the situation is that in Cambodia, as in dozens and dozens of countries throughout the world, the laws are actually on the books that allow people to come in and help implement these laws. I believe that if each of us were to make this commitment, this world wide commitment to helping all of these countries—right now they’re still 130 countries in the world that still practice torture, and in the majority of these countries, the laws exist on the books—the governments are open to having us come in and help them. It is really a new day and age. There was a time, when I graduated from Scripps 21 years ago, where we really couldn’t go in because the governments were like, “No way, you cannot go in.” But this is a time where we can come from a different place, we can come from a place of love, we can say, “Can we work together?”
Now, I will admit that at the time, 21years ago, when I graduated, I was a different person in many ways than I am now. I felt that we should only be angry and we should only protest. I believe that there is a time and a place for protest, but I also realized something very profound a number of years ago when I was working in the prisons of Cambodia, and working with the police officers. At the time, I was training police officers, who tortured a number of people, and I couldn’t really figure out what we should do because they were continuing to torture people. I remember going to my boss, because I worked for the United Nations, and I said, “You know, what should I do? What should I do here? They want to keep torturing.” And they said, “Tell them what the laws are; it will be ok.” And finally I went to a sister at Missionaries of Charity, and her name was Sister Rose, she was from India, and I said, “Sister Rose, what should I do here?” And she gave me a very important piece of advice that has changed completely the way that I perceive human rights. She says, “You know Karen, whatever you do, you should look for the Christ, you should look for the Buddha in each person that you work with,” because she really believed in the power of transformative love, and through that power, people would shift and be changed. I took her advice, and I was amazed at the change within the guards, within the prisons. They let me in, they took out all the dark cells, they began to shift their own perspective. And I began to see that there was a strength and a power that went beyond the logical, that went beyond just the laws, just the way that we talk about it.
Today, I see that too, with many of you, as you go on into your brink, that yes, it’s true with great power comes great responsibility, and you will bring your knowledge forward, and you must also bring your love forward. You must bring your whole heart forward. You must bring the pieces of who you are, even when it’s difficult. I say that, and I think to myself, “I’ve got at least 50 percent of the audience laughing at me right now,” but I really believe that in order for us to transform the world, that it’s a huge piece of who we are and that in the transformation, it won’t only be the situation that’s transformed, but we ourselves who are transformed.
I remember in Vietnam one day being amazed as I walked through and saw a man who was working with street children. And these were the street children who you’d walk into an airport, and you wouldn’t want to be around them because they would probably be pick-pocketing you or doing something strange. But I saw him, and he had this great safe house where the kids were supporting each other and singing songs, and they were all street kids who had been in and out of prison. I said to him, “This is amazing what you you’ve done with the kids. Tell me how you started, what did you do?” And he said, “Ok, I’ll tell you,” because I was in great admiration of him. He said, “You know, a number of years ago, I was a heroin addict myself, and one day, I came out of prison, and I saw the police picking up these boys for stealing eggs. And I shook my head and I said, ‘You know what, it might be okay that I’m in prison, but these children should not be in prison,’ and at that moment, I turned, and I said to some of my friends, ‘Okay, I’m going to take off my hat, and I’m going to pass the hat. We’re going to do something for these children.'”
And so he said, “I passed the hat, we got a little bit of money, wasn’t much, but we decided, we’d do something.” What they decided to do was that on every Sunday they would gather the children in a park, and for that one day, the children would be children, meaning they would do haircuts, they played jump rope, they did different things. It was really an amazing process. After a number of years, they developed safe houses and began to transform the system for these children. But what the man said was this. He said, “You know, I thought that I was doing it for the children, but when I was doing it for the children, I realized that I myself was transformed by the process.”
As we in our daily lives go forward, be alive to the mystery and adventure of life, know that you yourself have the opportunity for rebirth and birth everyday, and that in the process of giving to the greater world, you yourself will be transformed. This is an absolutely amazing, amazing class. I am so proud to be here, and talking to some of the seniors, I realize that Scripps was wonderful 21 years ago, but Scripps rocks now—absolutely unbelievable. I really want to wish you the best as you go on in your journey in life.
I know that each of you is given a rose, and that rose, I think, symbolizes so much. It symbolizes a lot because of its beauty, but it’s also symbolic because each is individual, and each doesn’t compare itself to the other. Each sees itself and knows its own beauty. As you walk forward, I hope that you will always feel that sense of your own beauty in its own uniqueness, and if you ever need to, you should be able to buy yourself a rose if you don’t feel that sense of radical self reformation, or maybe call upon another.
Your road won’t always be easy. It’s one thing to be happy and joyful when things are going right, but when things are going wrong, that is the most important time for you to step forward with courage and realize that courage is also the ability to have radical self-affirmation in light of whatever else is going on in your life, that you can see yourself through and now that you’ll get through to the next level. It won’t always be an easy heroic journey for you, and it may be something that’s sometimes difficult.
In China, we have a number of Chinese defenders who themselves often are in danger. They’re standing up for the rights of clients who might be tortured, and oftentimes at the end of the trial, the judge or the prosecutor will point to them and say, “You yourself have obstructed justice,” order the lawyer handcuffed, bring the lawyer to jail, beat them ‘until they’re bloody. But the lawyers have begun to band together and be strong for each other. And one poem that we always read with them is by Wayne Armisen. It is:
Take courage friends
The road is often long
The path is never clear
The stakes are very high
But deep down there is another truth
You are not alone.
Thank you today for joining me in this journey. I hope you will open your hearts, too, to the many human rights defenders throughout the world, that you will give them and strengthen them with your courage, and that you will always look to each other as classmates to give courage and strength to each other in the years to come, and may you always be blessed.