All In: 'Leaping into Faith,' part IV

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 fourth installment in a six-part series that is part of the University's ongoing focus on diversity and inclusion. In it, Russell talks about working with middle school students. To read the third installment, go to: 

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?

To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

The kids and I were at a crazy, hard and in a really real place. I didn’t know much about these kid’s lives, and they didn’t know much about mine, but we knew we were doing something important together. All of us wanted to figure this thing out, so we started with the simple stuff.

Hamlet had money, but he didn’t have peace, Hamlet had education, but he didn’t have hope, Hamlet had power, but he didn’t have love. All the positive stuff — money, education and power — weren’t making him happy, and it was beginning to look like all the sappy stuff was what he really wanted. So what? No really… so, what?

What were these kids supposed to do with all that? I mean, who cares about some rich, spoiled, ancient English guy when these kids have real life stuff to deal with? Why should they care? Hamlet got dissed again by a group of 13 years olds, but we kept working the Hamlet problem because we were determined to get through those 12 lines.

We had to make it simple, so we tried to figure out what we had in common with the rich, spoiled, ancient English guy. Hamlet was tired, his heart hurt and all he wanted was to go to sleep. The kids understood that because their hearts were hurting too. These kids would have liked to press pause and take a nap, but they were afraid that nobody had their back. Hamlet was afraid nobody has his back too. Hamlet was afraid and these kids were afraid. Maybe everybody is afraid, and figuring out the Hamlet problem might require figuring out what everybody, individually and collectively, is afraid of. Maybe that is the question. Oh.

It’s hard for all of us, Hamlet included, to remember what the world was like before the facts and falsehoods and fights about who is right, before the arguments and violence and the fears about tomorrow. Hamlet’s problem feels familiar today because looking for a moment when we feel safe and free and full of hope feels like chasing a dream down a long dark tunnel. Dreams are lights inside those tunnels, and if you can’t find those little lights here and there, you get tired, your heart hurts, and you stub your toe against those rocks that came down in the latest avalanche.

Hamlet is just stumbling around in the dark, and the saddest part of that story is the fact that nobody passed him a flashlight. That’s what we do best as human beings; we share our dreams with each other, and the greatest thing about sharing dreams is that when you tell somebody yours, you can sometimes help them see their own.

Today, even if only for a few minutes, press pause, take a deep breath and ask yourself that question. Once you ask the question, just stay still and listen. If you don’t get an answer that’s OK, don’t worry, you can ask yourself again later.

Maybe part of being human is asking ourselves what we are afraid of until that moment when we are not afraid. Maybe that’s where peace begins. Maybe that’s Hamlet’s dream: a life defined by peace instead of fear.

Talk about “devoutly to be wished.” The greatest story ever told is the story of you becoming the most loving, peaceful and powerful human being you can be, and the greatest story ever told begins with you waking up to your dreams. All you have to do to begin your journey is find or borrow a dream, turn on its flashlight and look in amazement at all the people walking beside you. You are not in it alone. We are in this together. 

Last Updated February 24, 2017