GRADUATION SPEECH, 2017

DOUGLAS C. BREUNLIN, MSSA, LCSW, LMFT

                Dean Copeland, President Jones, Professors Chambers and Giordano, Faculty, Graduates, Families and Friends. Today we are gathered here to celebrate the class of 2017 and to pay tribute to your many accomplishments. Like every class you are special, maybe even really special. You are talented, committed and passionate. You will all distinguish yourselves both in the profession of marriage and family therapy but also in all of life’s endeavors.

                I have just six minutes to send you forth into your professional lives remembering graduation, a little more excited to be a marriage and family therapist, and, I hope, to give our guests a glimpse of why you chose this wonderful profession.

                I am embarrassed to confess just how I found the inspiration for my remarks. I still pay my bills by mail. Something about the ritual makes me feel I control my life. I know that is not entirely true.

                Anyway, during one of my bill paying rituals, as I affixed a forever stamp to an envelope, I took note of a quote on the stamp that was dedicated to Maya Angelou, the famous poet, author and civil rights advocate. So here’s the quote: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Once more: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

                The quote rattled in my head and for several days, I pondered its meaning. I even googled it to read what other people thought it meant. “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” What do you think it means? I finally decided the quote means that birds sing solely because they must express the song that emanates from within them. This interpretation is consistent with American culture’s dominant value of individualism. This value places the person at the epicenter of existence; hence, what we express, our song if you like, is the essence of who we are. Individualism gave us the “me” generation and more recently the ubiquitous selfie. Plain and simple: birds sing to express themselves.

                Further pondering led me to conclude that the quote, notwithstanding Maya Angelou’s brilliance, is in fact somewhat boneheaded because it establishes a false dichotomy between singing as an answer and singing as a song. As trained family therapists you know one of family therapy’s most important adages: that which is expressive for the individual is communicative for the group. The bird, therefore, sings both because it has an answer and because it has a song. After all, any ornithologist will tell us that birds sing to attract or ward off other birds.

                OK, lest you begin to think this talk is “for the birds,” allow me to make explicit the connection between the quote and you, our graduates. All 28 of you flocked here to The Family Institute at Northwestern University and nested in its branches for the past two years. You came here to become marriage and family therapists. You wanted to develop your innate talent to help people in distress. You wanted your singing to answer that distress. But you also quickly learned that to be an effective answer, you would have to find your voice, to listen to and develop your unique song. You learned to sing the song of your true self and to sing it in the service of helping others.

                Here we arrive at my thesis:that being human is fundamentally about finding a balance between the self and the other, the answer and the song. What Martin Buber called the “I and thou.”  Life is richest when that balance between self and other, the answer and the song, is well tuned, or should we say attuned, to yourself and the needs of others.

                You have become marriage and family therapists and your passion is working with relationships. This work always includes a struggle to balance each client’s individual needs with the needs of spouses or partners and family members. You learned how to help clients find answers that produce a healthy balance between self and other. This is no easy task, but you approach it with a systemic and integrative perspective that enables you to collaborate with clients to develop solution sequences and to lift constraints when they are impeding progress. 

                 Let us return to the quote: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Scratch that, try this: “A bird sings because its answer is a song.” You will spend your life and career striving to balance the answer and the song. You will never yield to our society’s penchant to glorify the self because you have chosen a life of service to others. At the same time, you leave the Family Institute and Northwestern with a level of self-understanding and maturity that few will ever achieve.

                Today, as you prepare to leave the nest and to take flight on your own, you do so with full confidence that your song will be heard. It is waiting to be the answer to the many distressing relational dilemmas you will encounter and heal.

                Your professors sitting on this stage, your colleagues, alumni and supervisors sitting in the audience will attest that despite its many challenges, very few marriage and family therapists turn away from this career. Why? There are a myriad of reasons but one of the most important is that family therapists are experts at balancing the self and the other.

                Go forth and yes do take that selfie and marvel at the self you have become. Then turn your camera outward to your fellow graduates, to your loved ones and families to remind yourself of the important others in your life. Compare the pictures. Relish the amazing self you have become and the blessing of your connection to family, friends and loved ones. A bird sings because its answer is a song.

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