It was 3:11 a.m. when a friend’s text reached me in a faraway place on the day before Thanksgiving. We’ve all ruminated for weeks now about what happened to now-outgoing University of Oregon president Richard Lariviere, but very little attention has been given to the man himself.
Through the fog of my sleep-interrupted stupor, my first thoughts took me back to May 11, 2010. Lariviere was the scheduled speaker at an event that Tuesday evening. He hadn’t given the planners any idea what his speech would be about, except he gave us its title: “What, Me Worry?”
Over dinner, the table conversation turned to state funding of public education and its uninterrupted decline. One civic leader speculated that the Democrats in control of state government hadn’t been willing to support an institution whose president for the past decade was also a politician himself. Too bad he was aligned with “the wrong party.” Others preferred to mix their dismay with silence.
As dessert arrived, I put the question of the state’s education disinvestment directly to Lariviere: “Doesn’t it sadden you?”
His reply was quick and strong. “Does it make me sad? No. It makes me furious.”
Then he stepped to the podium. He could have spoken about the risks to a state that neglects its flagship public university, or about the fundamental unfairness of the current situation. He could have spoken about his alternative funding model, mixing a private endowment with state bonds to reach a sustainable and predictable future. “The New Partnership” was unveiled the very next day, so it had to be fresh in his mind.
He spoke instead about a couple of Sanskrit words and Hindu concepts: dharma and karma. As if his scholarship needed any underlining, he used a chalkboard. What he taught us that evening must have reached a deep place in me if it popped up so easily at 3:11 a.m.
Circumstances are not what drive history forward; character is. Consequences and precedents can dissuade us from becoming true expressions of our unique and authentic selves, but they are always over and done with before we can act on them. Living in the past is not truly living. Better to look inward and onward, saying “What, me worry?”
I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita before, but always as an exotic text. I understood it better after 30 minutes of tutelage under Richard Lariviere. Whatever your role or identity or contribution to the whole requires, your first responsibility is to do it the very best way you can. You must almost literally pour your self into that responsibility. Dharma requires it.
Circumstances are provided to help us hone our understanding of that greater good and our role within it. But circumstances must not organize our energies or make our choices for us. The coherence that we call progress comes from authenticity and awareness, pursued with abandon.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, you can thank UO football head coach Chip Kelly. He never misses an opportunity to stress character over circumstances. “Win The Day” requires each of his players to know his role and pour himself into it. Whether it’s a practice or a game, whether the opponent is Portland State or Louisiana State, every moment matters. Every Saturday is the Super Bowl.
I’m sure these two powerful leaders have talked about this life philosophy and how they have been blessed with opportunities to shape young lives with it.
It didn’t surprise me to hear Lariviere say recently, “My employment situation is of very little consequence.” I hate to see this “What, Me Worry?” lesson played out so clearly in the headlines, but I can’t say I’m not also grateful. This Thanksgiving season our community and campus were given a rare gift of unity and resolve.
Those who are close to Lariviere tell me he’s sleeping well at night, confident that he played his role the best way he could, and that the greater good will have been served.
Many of us are saddened. Some are furious. But if we each play our part with authenticity and awareness, change will happen. I learned — and saw — that from Richard.
Don Kahle (email@example.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.