On Finding Meaning & Creating a "World House"

Thank you! And good afternoon! It is a great joy to be here. Greetings to graduates and families. To distinguished guests and faculty. And to members of the Goshen College community. I’d like to thank President Stoltzfus, and the committee who invited me to speak. I had the experience of being seen and nurtured at Goshen College and am here in gratitude.

When I graduated from GC, I had no idea what my future held. But in hindsight I’ve realized that the values that were instilled here were core to my success. And they’ll be core to your success, too. Because Goshen College is unique.

I was recently thinking about a class I took here which had a real influence on me. It was taught by Professor Ruth Krall and was called ‘Liberation Theologies.’ It was the first time I had read the book A Theology of Liberation by Dominican Father Gustavo Gutiérrez. His book gave the social and political movement its name—and it interprets Christ’s gospel through the lived experience of the oppressed. Professor Krall didn’t want us to only have an intellectual understanding of the movement. One of the goals was developing an appreciation for what it feels like to live on the margins and without resources.

It was with this goal in mind that we were given the opportunity to visit a larger city and experience for ourselves what it would feel like to be homeless for 24 hours. I’d never previously thought so much, in a practical way, about how you live when you have no money, no documentation and no network.

It was a disorienting experience—as we figured out how to eat, where to sleep, what seemed safe, how to stay warm, and how to spend the hours. Of course, we all recognized that 24 hours of living in this way is exceedingly—even laughably—short. But for those of us who opted to go, and I went to Indianapolis with two classmates, that tiny peephole was humbling, and illuminating: a reminder of the inherent dignity of all life. And a reminder of one’s privilege. I’m grateful to Professor Krall for offering this class, and think this kind of meaningful creative praxis—this mini SST—could only happen at Goshen College.

I’ve come to realize that one of the most important tasks in life—perhaps the most important one—is figuring out what gives your life meaning. Some of that meaning might be provided by family or faith or community. Or it might not be. And, of course, sometimes circumstances beyond our control force an additional search for meaning which can be challenging.

I’m fascinated by how we use what happened to us to motivate ourselves, and to create meaning. In other words, I’m interested in how we use our past and our stories—especially the hard ones— to find direction. To find strength. To find something a little remarkable and transcendent inside that is just uniquely us.

Here’s an example of someone whose story was excruciatingly difficult. But through it, he made an extraordinary discovery. The man’s name is Viktor Frankl and he wrote a memoir called Man’s Search for Meaning. This book happens to be published by Beacon Press, where I’m Editorial Director, and it’s our best seller every year.

Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor. He was actually in four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, between 1942 and 1945, during which time his parents and pregnant wife died.

After the war, Frankl, who was a psychiatrist, came to a realization. And he came to it based on his own experience, as well as the experience of those he treated in his practice. His realization was this: while you can’t avoid suffering, you can choose to find meaning in it; you can choose how to cope with it and you can make the decision to move forward with renewed purpose.In Frankl’s words: “Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones…We have freedom to find meaning in what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.”

Frankl ended up creating a psychotherapeutic approach called “logotherapy.” And the premise is that more than anything, we human beings crave meaning. That more than anything we are most motivated to create meaning in our lives.So, ask yourself: what kind of meaningful existence are you most motivated to create? And isn’t it remarkable that Viktor Frankl had this epiphany as a result of his profound suffering?

I have to be honest that it took what seemed like an awfully long time to find the meaning in my own life. This might have been because I found my circumstances, which included displacement, extremely confusing. As you know, I graduated from Goshen College but I’m actually not Mennonite—though I always joke that I could Mennonite-my-way with the best of them! But what actually brought me here is a remarkable and remarkably humble woman I met when I was a child. Her name was Ruth Esther Yoder and generations of her family attended Goshen College.

I’ll share more about Ruth in a minute but to give you some context on my life: When I was seven years old, which happens to be the age my son, Matthew, is now, I came to the US with my maternal grandmother, my Nani. And it turned my life permanently upside down. Like many immigrants, coming here was a shock to the system. In my case: I didn’t speak English, had never interacted with white people, had only eaten Indian vegetarian food, was Hindu, had never encountered snow, but most profoundly, I was coming to meet my mother and older brother who I simply had no memory of.

My parents separated when I was a baby, and my mother came to the US on a university scholarship, and brought my older brother with her. I stayed with her mother, my Nani, in New Delhi for several years so when I came over, I knew who they were to me but I didn’t know them.

It was a surreal landscape in every way. After a few months, my beloved grandmother returned to New Delhi and I was, as the saying goes, a stranger in a strange land.

In the midst of this stressful time, I met Ruth and Alva Yoder in rural Grantsville, Maryland where we lived. Grantsville was founded by the Amish and Mennonites in the 1800s and was a small town with under a 1,000 inhabitants. My first year of elementary school was at Yoder School, which was a quaint four-room, white-framed schoolhouse. Ruth taught 3rd grade and her sister, Esther, was principal.

As was the case with much of my life at the time, I really didn’t know what to make of Ruth and Alva in the beginning. Obviously, I knew we weren’t related to them. In fact, I don’t know if we had anything in common with Ruth, her family or her community. But we spent many weekends and holidays with them through the years and became close. My older brother and I consider Ruth as a grandmother—our Mennonite grandmother—and I can’t overstate the profound and lasting impact that her presence has had on us.

During my time at Goshen College, Ruth moved to Greencroft and, of course, I’d visit her. On one visit I finally asked her a question that I had for years: why had she made such a commitment to our family? After all, she and Alva, after raising four children and working incredibly hard, were close to retirement. They were also busy in the community and, of course, had their own grandchildren. So, I said to Ruth: “We weren’t your family or from your community. We weren’t Mennonite or even Christian. We weren’t American. Why did you extend yourself in the way you did?”

Ruth didn’t look surprised by the question and she didn’t take long to respond. She said, “Before you came to America, I was playing with your brother one day, and I heard God say to me: ‘Take care of this family.’ And so I did.”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the saying: ‘Blood is thicker than water.’ But by her actions, Ruth taught me a variation of this which is: ‘Love is thicker than blood.’ I also learned that you can experience profound loss but also profound abundance, at virtually the same time. And I learned something about grace.

Ruth Yoder embodied the values instilled at Goshen College to heed the call to serve. She’s also an excellent example of global citizenship because although she never left North America, she never let borders get in the way of loving or reaching out to people.

Goshen College’s profound and historic commitment to global citizenship is one of the most distinctive and, I believe, life changing aspects of being educated here. As you know, last fall marked the 50th anniversary of SST, and I’m just struck by the foresight and wisdom of making international education a required part of the curriculum.

Becoming a global citizen reminds me a little of the ripples that happen when you toss a stone in the water. There’s a kind of expansiveness that occurs simply by being immersed in another culture. And contending with the language, food and customs. There’s the experience of having to see yourself as an outsider, perhaps for the first time.

It forces introspection, a new perspective, and quiet sparks of revelation. Perhaps you get a glimpse of how the US is perceived there—and why that is. Apart from personal transformations, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of global citizenship. The environmental crisis, our linked economies, the migration of people are just three ways that we are, and will continue to be, profoundly interconnected.

SST has given you the tools and experience of being a global citizen and I hope you’ll use it. Because being a global citizen is truly a mindset— and a commitment to a vision of inclusivity. You don’t have to leave the country to have that expansiveness. As Ruth taught me, how you choose to live your life can exemplify global vision and action.

One of the most inspiring examples of global citizenship for me is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, you might know, spoke at Goshen College almost 60 years ago now, in March of 1960. Of course, Dr. King is recognized for his crucial role in advancing civil-rights through nonviolence in the US but I so wish King’s world vision—his global footprint—was better known because he was truly prophetic.

One of the privileges I’ve had at Beacon Press is to delve into Dr. King’s speeches and writings. About a decade ago, Beacon became Dr. King’s official publisher and one of the thrilling aspects of this was that we were allowed access into his archives. And were able to create entirely new books from his writings. We published a book on his global vision of justice, called “In a Single Garment of Destiny.” One of my favorite pieces in this book is an essay King wrote called “The World House,” and in it he talks about a famous writer who had died. And apparently this writer had been working on a new book when he passed. The plot was that a widely separated family inherits a house in which they all have to live together. And King said that we, also, have inherited a large house—a great “world house” —in which we, too, all have to learn to somehow live together in peace. Because King understood our inter-dependent web of existence.

King talked about “the beloved community” and he believed the beloved were both within and beyond our borders. And the issues he identified are still the ones we confront today: the legacy of slavery and racism; segregation; colonialism—and neocolonialism; the devastation of war—and the inequalities of wealth and opportunity between nations and withinnations. If King had lived longer, I like to think that he, like his wife Coretta Scott King, would have added sexism and LGBTQ equality to the list.

When I graduated from GC, I had a lot of anxiety. I wish someone would have told me:if you keep moving towards what moves you, you’ll find it in the end. Have confidence in your journey! And know that the search is just part of the process and is a good and necessary thing. Follow your instincts about what moves you, and where you find meaning, because it won’t lead you astray.

For me, after graduating from GC, I got a Masters in Cultural Anthropology from The New School for Social Research in New York. I wrote a master’s thesis which took me to India and I ended up writing about girls forced into prostitution in Bombay. I also wrote about how the Indian government was dealing with the AIDS pandemic. I suspect the Indian government has a different response now but 25 years ago the official response was literally one of denial—that AIDS and HIV were “Western afflictions” and simply not an issue in India.

As meaningful as working on my thesis was, when it came time for me to commit to a Ph.D. in anthropology, I wasn’t quite there. So, I tried other things including working at ABC News for a while but it wasn’t a fit for me. Then I tried an internship in book publishing which I enjoyed. And I ended up working at 3 different publishers in New York over the course of a few years. But it wasn’t until I found Beacon Press, or maybe Beacon Press found me, that I realized I’d landed in a place where my heart and head had aligned because I had realized that I didn’t want to publish just any books. I wanted—or needed—them to be progressive and to reflect a mission of social justice. I also found that one of the interesting parallels about book publishing and anthropology is that both endeavors take you out of your own skin. Every book is truly a journey, and it’s an indescribable feeling to find and shepherd books that you feel make a difference in the world. Especially today.

In his time Dr. King talked about “the fierce urgency of now” but that seems to be the right phrase for the unprecedented challenges that we, too, are facing in this nation. And beyond. Sometimes I can’t imagine these times being any fiercer. Luckily for us, there are some newly minted Goshen College grads on the way!

Today is a day to celebrate you—and all you’ve accomplished on the way to earning your degree. I hope in the days ahead you’ll reflect on your own story, and think about your own ‘world house.’ Most of all, I hope you’ll remember Frankl’s insight about gravitating towards what gives your life meaning—and will use that as a guiding principle, both personally and professionally.

The philosopher Archimedes famously said: “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the earth.” Know that Goshen College hasn’t merely given you a multi-dimensional education. It’s given you a moral center, a global vision and an extraordinary place to stand. Now it’s time to move the earth. And I can’t wait to see what you do. Congratulations!!

About the Author

Gayatri Patnaik

Gayatri Patnaik is Editorial Director of Beacon Press and was Goshen College’s commencement speaker for 2019. Patnaik received her B.A. in English Literature from Goshen College, her M.A. in Anthropology from The New School for Social Research in New York City and, after a Random House internship, began her publishing career at Rob Weisbach Books, an imprint of William Morrow. She then moved to Routledge, where she was promoted to editor, and subsequently worked as a senior editor at Palgrave-Macmillan. Patnaik joined Beacon Press in 2002 where she acquires books in US History and on race/ethnicity, immigration, LGBTQ issues and gender/women’s studies. Her authors including Kate Bornstein, Charlene Carruthers, Imani Perry, Marcus Rediker, and Cornel West. Patnaik's award-winning acquisitions include: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis, winner of the NAACP Image Award (2014); Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, an American Book Award recipient (2015); and Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry, winner of both the 2019 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld award for Biography and the Publishing Triangle's Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction.