The Dignity Tour: Penn State Laureate's final reflection addresses 'choosing'

May 22, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Susan Russell, the 2014-15 Penn State Laureate and associate professor of theater, took her "Dignity Tour" to Penn State campuses, high schools and other locations across Pennsylvania during the 2014-15 academic year, discussing "various languages of creativity, and how these languages can bridge communication gaps between diverse cultures and disciplines."

She also maintained a website, dignity.psu.edu, where her students posted videos, images, music and texts intended to inspire people to thrive for their highest personal and collective goals as global citizens. Russell has reflected on her laureate experiences through a series of essays. Her final essay appears below. Previous essays and posts about her travels are archived at http://laureate.psu.edu/Susan_Russell.

Dedicated to my Leadershape Family, Wind, and the Stone House Busters
-- Susan Russell

I did something crazy last week. I stood five feet off the ground and fell backwards into the arms of 10 Penn State students. This was not an uncontrolled activity. Everyone involved spent the morning learning how to fall, catch, stand, and trust, and then we had to handle our own fears about falling, catching, standing, and trusting. Fear is a powerful thing. It shuts you down, shuts you up, and shuts you off. Fear makes easy things hard, hard things impossible, and impossible things unimaginable. Ancient wisdom and present life experiences tell you that whatever frightens you controls you, and I had been controlled by a fear of falling for a very long time. In fact, my greatest fear as an actor was of stepping on my costume and falling backwards. I would actually see this backwards fall in my mind while I was standing still on a stage.

I bet you have an image of yourself at your most vulnerable — an image that pops up at challenging moments, one that you have protected yourself from for a very long time. I did something crazy last week and it wasn’t falling backwards into the arms of ten Penn State students — it was choosing not to listen to the voice telling me to be afraid.  

A Vision requires that we look past what has been so we can see something new.

When I fell into the arms of the students, their arms gave way for my fear, but did not give in to it. Their arms were strong and confident and impossibly supportive, and these arms showed me, in an instant, that my fear had been self-imposed, self-regulated, and self-actualized. As I was placed gently back on terra firma, I knew right away that something had shifted and I also knew I had to figure something out — and fast. I realized that when a fear is met, challenged, and processed out of your heart, that fear leaves a hole that must be filled with something new, and if you are not vigilant, not proactive in choosing what comes next, you might just fill that void with another fear. I made a decision. I chose something new, and after 57 years of falling into fear, I did the impossible — I chose to let ten Penn State students stand me upright, right into joy.

I got schooled last week, and now I realize that we are all in class together. There are vast amounts of people standing around ready to fall and ready to make a catch in return for being caught. We are strong, confident, and supportive people, and if the Penn State students, faculty, staff, administration, Board of Trustees, and alumni will choose to let go of whatever we are afraid of, we will start imagining the impossible. And if we can do it at Penn State, then we can begin a movement that will sweep the planet. That’s called a Vision.

A Vision requires that we look past what has been so we can see something new. If you can’t do that right away, that’s okay. Just figure out what are you afraid of. Give it a word. Give it a moment. Then let it go. Now fill that hole in your heart with love, or joy, or forgiveness, or faith, or strength, or peace, or bounce-back, or inner beauty, or passion for life, and let’s start building a place where everyone is safe and secure and cared for and supported. That’s called a home.

And if Penn State Lives Here, there is nothing we cannot achieve. We are the means to a peaceful end of the story. All we have to do is imagine it. That’s how it works. That’s how it’s always worked. So let’s get busy. 

Last Updated May 29, 2015