November 02, 2006


by Martin Marty
April 25, 2004

Note: The following text is a general outline of Marty's speech and is not a word-for-word transcription.


Dear graduates:
I have a request for you: please remember one word from this talk, namely, the title term: disponsibilité. I know that, with all the distractions of Commencement Day, remembering one word is one word more than most of us who hear such addresses, and even some of us who deliver them, can recall. The title is therefore a mnemonic device, a memory-aid. Choosing such a word is part of a strategy. My commencement addresses are often weirdly titled: last year it was more barbaric: Horizontverschmeltzung.

Obscure or exotic words do stick in the brain more than ordinary ones do, and they often convey what cannot easily be translated. All traditions have such. For example, the tradition behind this university, the Mennonite, favors the word Gelassenheit, something I learned from advising dissertation writers. Translate it? I was always told that it was not translatable, but it was explainable. Don't ever lose it.

We in the Lutheran tradition have a less positive untranslatable term, the only non-English word my publisher allowed in my new biography of Martin Luther: Anfechtungen. It refers to the bone-deep doubt, the terror of conscience, the three-in-the-morning agony, the temptation experienced not as that of world, flesh, or devil, but from God—all as background to the receipt of grace.

Your word, disponsibilité belongs to no great tradition. It was popularized by the French existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, who has prompted many commentators to do some reflecting.

Now, if you already know that term, you either had a course in the philosophy of Marcel or are a widely read genius or someone who at least deserves a summa cum laud honors diploma. And if you do not know the term, you soon will.

A Marcel scholar (Seymour Cain) says that it is easiest to define disponsibilité by looking at its opposites: "unavailability," "a holding-back, self-adherence, closed-in-ness," Kierkegaard's Indesluttedhed (in Danish), or "shut-in-ness." The "disposable" person opens freely and gives herself unreservedly in a mutuality of presence, "the indisposable person is self-preoccupied, encumbered, self-enclosed, incapable of giving himself, of opening up, of giving out. If he listens to me, he gives me only his ear, the outward attitude, but he refuses me himself, for he cannot 'make room' for anyone else in himself."

Being available is thus not only a habit of expression but a deep focus on personal philosophy. It is not only a matter of psychology or bodily posture, but of the spiritual life. Marcel sometimes used a kind of economic metaphor, "opening a line of credit" for someone else. "I put myself at the disposal of, or again I make a fundamental engagement which bears not only on what I have, but on what I am." You give credit to another, and you are giving a gift to yourself. Marcel: "To be unavailable is to be in some manner, not only occupied, but encumbered by the self."

A theological or ethical dimension appears: Marcel speaks of "self-presence:" "the portion of creation which is in me, the gift which from all eternity has been given me of participating in the universal drama, of working, for example, to humanize the Earth, or on the contrary to make it more uninhabitable." And "from the very beginning there must be a sense of stewardship: something has been entrusted to us," and we are responsible to the Giver of the trust, the "Other," God. What is the whole drama of God visiting the world in Israel and the prophets and, finally, in the divine Son, in the life and death and resurrection of a Jesus who "condescends" and is a "com-presence," a shaper of community, available to us and through us, in prayer and work.

Think of God being available as was the father of the Prodigal Son, or Jesus in his suffering, to the criminal on the next cross.

Now let me explain why I chose this term and why I picture that it is most useful as you receive your diplomas and make your next steps in your vocational walk.

First, it provides a way of looking back on your family, churches, friends, fellow-students, staff, and faculty here. You know that in even the most generous and friendly communities, there are people who are "unavailable," abrupt, capable of giving bureaucratic answers, not trying to answer your questions, not willing to give you the time of day no matter what. And there are, and I picture here, in the majority, those who are "available."

They are probably not people who are available because they have nothing better to do. Decades ago there was a comic strip, Li'l Abner, in which there appeared a character "Available Jones." He was always available, but always for a price. He performed weddings, mixed Kickapoo Joy Juice, and would do anything that others did not want you to do because he had nothing else to do. No, for disponsibilité, "the other" has to be a person who has a full life, someone we would not lightly interrupt because we respect their schedule or know enough about them to know that we profit from what they come up with when, undisturbed, they do assignments or give assignments or have their own virtuous and exciting lives to live.

You remember, don't you, from among them the roommate who could look up from books or computer and diagnose your situation when not the computer but you were "down." You recall the coach who interpreted what you could not, on a day when, while others strove for excellence, you were physically or mentally "down." You will not forget the chaplain or pastor or counselor who knew that you needed extra time or a professional's ear. Certainly you will never forget the professor whose study door was often open, or at least whose ears and heart were, when you knew you just had to knock. I've dealt with alumni in several colleges, who sooner or later in every communication—often attached to the alumni contribution which I hope you'll start making each year!—with word of such a faculty member, librarian, or staffer. They are the "soul" of a college.

If that is true of the past, in your recall, look at the future, and the person you are—if you let your learning, your faith, your preparation, your commitment, your philosophy, and your personality to overcome "closedness" and self-centeredness. But letting that "are-ness have priority demands that you reflect on the meaning of your life-in-relation. You will have to make some resolves, undertake some disciplines, work to make your outlook and your habits coincide, and know the grace that lets you be open and available to others.

If in a few years you are a teacher and I bring the troubles of my grandchild—no, now it's of my great grandchild—to your attention when it is not even "parents' night," I'll know whether you are available to her and to me. And I'll know that you are probably the busiest teacher around, the one with most reason to be preoccupied.

If you are a parent, I'll notice that your child has learned to let you have your own life, a life that does not demand hovering or swarming-all-over the young one with solicitude, but that the same child will know when the tug on your belt (or ear, if the situation is bad) will lead you to engage in what I call "creative schedule interruption," and become a model of empathy.

If you are a minister, and I hope some of you are, I'll know that while you are studying—and I'd hope you'd study—or preparing a class or a counseling session, or a sermon, you will not let engagement with a text keep you from responding to my properly placed urgent phone call.

If you are a scientist or in a medical profession, I want you to be engrossed in the laboratory, making the rounds on too many patients, filling out the forms that you and I hate but which authorities demand—so when I ask you to look up from your microscope and help me with mine, or when you slow the rounds to address a spiritual need in me, you will do so, even if briefly.

If you are in politics or public service, disponsibilité will be evident not only during baby-kissing time of campaigns, but when you show that I am not only a vote to be won, a contribution to be solicited, but a citizen with passions and interests whom you address in the collective and, now and then, individually.

Those who are available, who learn to be at the disposal of others—may they grow in number—are the most sympathetic with other busy people. They will best know when not to ask for that ear, that interruption, that distraction. Thus they have won credentials to do the asking and bidding when it matters.

Disponsibilité has nothing to do with grimness, sourness, unsmiling determination to be of service to others. I mean being available to a God of grace who bids you to make yourself available as a player in the game of life and in the games of life. Much recreation today is so purposeful, so programmed, that participants only compete, try to outdo, try to be "in-your-face," to be neglectful of others that the play element disappears.

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is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He's authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.