Susan Russell, associate professor in the School of Theatre and 2014-15 Penn State laureate, was a speaker at the "All In at Penn State" kickoff event in October 2016. This is the final installment in a six-part series that is part of the University's ongoing focus on diversity and inclusion. To read the fifth installment, go to:
A culture is like a house.
Houses are constructed out of materials like wood, concrete and steel, and once the construction is completed, the interior of a house is finished with caulk and paint and cabinets and hinges. Once all those foundational elements are in place, you fill the house with furniture, dishes, clothes and pillows and people. If you are designing a house for everyone in your family, you must take everyone into consideration when designing it. If you end up with a house suitable for only a few members of your family, your design was flawed or you used the wrong building material or you made the wrong pillow choices. Everything can be fixed. All you have to do is find out where you went wrong and ask people to help you in the fixing. Everybody wants to come home at the end of the day to a place where they can live in peace and make great meals and have fun with their family, and everybody wants to live in a house where they feel loved. That’s pretty much the human condition.
We all need food, shelter, love and a purpose, but we keep designing houses that are too small or houses that you need to know a certain handshake to get into or houses that have crazy upside down furniture we can’t figure out. We need to ask each other for help, now more than ever, but before we ask for help we have to make one decision: we are all members of the same family. If you reject that idea in any way, take a breath and realize you are making a decision that someone somewhere does not want the same things you do, or you are making the decision that someone somewhere does not deserve the same things you do.
The first thought is just wrong. So fix it. All you have to do is say, “I thought I was the only one who wanted to live in a place serving great meals, great fun and great love. I guess I was wrong. Oh.”
The decision to change your mind about the basic needs of every human being on the planet will change the way you live your life, and that change will open up the personal, local and global possibilities for Peace. The second thought — that only certain people deserve the same things you do — that thought takes a little bit more work, but everything can be fixed. The thought that only certain people deserve certain things is a thought based in fear, and if you put fear in the center of your house it will start designing rooms that shrink, doors that lock and windows that shut, and no matter how cheery the paint choice is and how cute the towels in the bathroom are, you will be trapped inside a ghost story.
Fear likes it dark and scary, and fear likes to tell ghost stories about itself. Fear is very egotistical. Fear wants you to believe in the ghost and the ghost’s name is fear. Once you decide to believe in fear, fear starts eating your house from the outside in. Your house starts coming down around you, which pleases fear immensely, because fear does not want the house to stand, it wants to destroy it and you. That’s what fear does and then it moves on to the next house and the next and the next until there is nothing left. Talk about a ghost story. Yes, lets talk about fear because once you start talking about a ghost, it doesn’t look so scary, and let’s look at fear because once you get some light on it, fear looses its appeal. Fear is fun sometimes, but as a belief system… not so much. What if all it takes to send fear packing is to change your mind? What if all it takes to build a solid open house for everybody is the decision to put love in the center of the house? You remember how sappy the kids thought love was? It turns out that they were wrong. They’re not the only ones …
If we make the decision that everyone who walks onto our campus is a member of our family, that one decision will put love in the center of our house, and that belief, that Moral commitment will help us build an Ethical framework that everyone can understand and put into practice in everyday life.
What if the Penn State community decided to make a courageous leap into love? We can’t help but be afraid of some stuff, but we can talk about it, we can bring the fear into the light and maybe even teach fear a thing or two. If we make the decision that everyone who walks onto our campus is a member of our family, that one decision will put love in the center of our house, and that belief, that Moral commitment will help us build an Ethical framework that everyone can understand and put into practice in everyday life. The Ethical framework of our house will help us design the open floor plan needed to define all of us, and the day the members of the Penn State communities, students, faculty, administration, alumni, State College, Centre County, Penns Valley and maybe be even all of Pennsylvania show up with paint and pillows and towels and food, that will be the day we create love’s best ally, which is Faith. When you have Faith in someone you trust them, and when you trust them you feel like part of the family.
Great thing about building a house with love at the center, is that if you make a mistake or get fearful or don’t know what to do in a situation, all you have to do is say, “Is the decision I’m about to make a decision that shows love for my brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, Nanas and PawPaws?” When you are standing inside a house defined with Morals, Ethics, Actions, Faith and Love, the answer won’t be hard to figure out. What do you say? Are you up for it? Shall we run the greatest cultural experiment of them all? Shall we decide that we are in it together?
I have Faith in you because I see endless possibilities of Peace everyday. That’s what family looks like to me, and Family is what its all about. Everyday. Everywhere. Always and in all ways. I know I’ll see you at the painting party! I’ll bring the hummus. Oh, and I love cake. Bring lots and lots of cake.
Much Love, Susan