Be Curious, not Cool

And 16 other pieces of life-affirming advice to young people from Ken Burns

by J. Nicole Morgan

Young girl dreaming of flying to space. Illustrative concept.

photo by Marilyn Nieves /

Ken Burns gave the commencement speech at Stanford University in June. Addressing our current political climate, he began by explaining, "It is my job to try to discern patterns and themes from history to enable us to interpret our dizzying, and sometimes dismaying, present. For nearly 40 years now, I have diligently practiced and rigorously maintained a conscious neutrality in my work, avoiding the advocacy of many of my colleagues, trying to speak to all of my fellow citizens."

Yet for this election season Burns finds cause, based on his studies of historical trends, to betray neutrality, and he urged graduates to rise to defend The Union: "For 216 years, our elections, though bitterly contested, have featured the philosophies and character of candidates who were clearly qualified. That is not the case this year. One is glaringly not qualified."

Burns encouraged the graduates to pledge to fight for "the exquisite, yet deeply flawed, land we all love and cherish–and hope to leave intact to our posterity." And then, as all good commencement speeches do, he handed out the advice.

The advice is biblical in many ways—advice that echoes the work that ESA does: listening to people we disagree with, loving our neighbors and enemies, and standing up for the rights and dignity of those on the margins.

Burns addressed both the broad political sphere and the equally powerful sphere of the personal, calling young people to transform the world by centering their lives on what is most important.

Here's the advice Burns gave with some thoughts on how it lines up with our call to love God, love our neighbors, and love even our enemies.

I am the father of four daughters. If someone tells you they've been sexually assaulted, take it effing seriously. And listen to them! Maybe, some day, we will make the survivor's eloquent statement as important as Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

This poignant story of the way a police officer believed the story of two victims of sexual assault—even when it didn't seem that it would "matter"—is a testament to the power of taking abuse seriously.

We serve a God who is close to the brokenhearted, who does not break a bruised reed or extinguish a faint wick. When we listen to the cries of those who have been violated and react appropriately to their pain, we are closer to the heart of God. Whether those who cry suffer at the hands of a known person or from the implications of political policies, we better love our neighbor when we hear their cries and grieve with them.

Try not to make the other wrong, as I just did with that "presumptive" nominee. Be for something.

I have been very excellent at being against that nominee this year. After an adulthood full of presidential elections in which I did not fret about the election, I am all about the fretting this year.  But Burns is right, being for something is even better.

As Christians, we can be pretty clear on what to be for: Love God, neighbors, and enemies. Love mercy, do justice. Build true and authentic relationships, know their names and their needs. Be a peacemaker. Take care of creation.

Be curious, not cool. Feed your soul, too. Every day.

In Proverbs we read of the blessing of daily seeking Wisdom: "Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord." Our faith is curious when we seek to understand more than what our parents and pastors feed us, and Jesus promises that our search will be rewarded. Don't forget to seek beauty and  rest, too.

Remember, insecurity makes liars of us all. Not just presidential candidates.

Don't confuse success with excellence. The poet Robert Penn Warren once told me that "careerism is death."

As the rich young ruler learned when he approached Jesus, wealth, success, and even doing all the right things can't grant eternal life. But that doesn't mean working hard and succeeding in this world aren't worth doing. It simply means that the goal of our work should be deeper than success. Serving God through a "secular" job is just as important as doing "spiritual" work like missions. Whatever you do, do it for God's glory.

Do not descend too deeply into specialism either. Educate all of your parts. You will be healthier.

This is true for individuals, but it is also true for the collective Body of Christ–the church. Sometimes it's easy to love other parts of our Church body, and sometimes not so much. But we must learn to see and love what everyone brings to the body and what everyone contributes to making the church work, even those people with whom we disagree passionately. We will be healthier.

Free yourselves from the limitations of the binary world. It is just a tool. A means, not an end.

Perhaps my favorite way to describe the Kingdom of God is to describe it as the both/and Kingdom. It is justice and mercy. It is truth and grace.  It is tender and strong.  We can identify evil and sin in the world, but don't ever let that stop you from extravagant love for all.

Seek out–and have–mentors. Listen to them. The late theatrical director Tyrone Guthrie once said, "We are looking for ideas large enough to be afraid of again." Embrace those new ideas. Bite off more than you can chew.

We are exhorted throughout the Bible to have and be mentors (Prov. 27:17; Titus 2:3-5). Even with our instant access to anything we want to know, we still need face-to-face human mentors. We still need people who make time in their schedule for us. This happens best in the context of true community. Find someone to mentor you in what it looks like to live faith when the world seems upside down. Invest your life and time into someone else.

Travel. Do not get stuck in one place. Visit our national parks. Their sheer majesty may remind you of your own "atomic insignificance," as one observer noted, but in the inscrutable ways of Nature, you will feel larger, inspirited, just as the egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self-regard.

Creation is indeed a testament to the Creator–and a moment in nature can ground you in the truth of God's sovereignty and love. We need this centering and truth when we are tempted to despair. And caring for creation is the first step to being truly pro-life.

Insist on heroes. And be one.

The Bible is full of heroes. They are not heroes because they lived a blameless, super-human life. They are heroes because they took action when it mattered.  Esther saves her people. Miriam guards her brother and then years later leads the Israelites in songs of joy. Jehosheba single-handedly saves the Davidic line.  Be attentive to the reason you are in a place "for such a time as this" and be the hero God calls you to be. (The vast majority of God's heroes are never celebrated beyond their small circle of influence. This is not a call to celebrity but to the true heroism of walking in step with God's unique will for your life.)

Read. The book is still the greatest man-made machine of all – not the car, not the TV, not the smartphone.

I'd suggest the Bible. Really. There is good stuff in there. And if you take the time to read it slowly and meditate (or read it fast in large, sweeping chunks to see a big picture), you'll discover that there is not much new under the sun. God's got something to say about today in those words penned long ago. (If reading isn't the best way for you to learn, I recommend The Bible Project videos that offer beautiful animated overviews of the different books and themes of the Bible.)

Make babies. One of the greatest things that will happen to you is that you will have to worry–I mean really worry–about someone other than yourself. It is liberating and exhilarating. I promise. Ask your parents.

Invest in the future generations. Really invest. Whether they are your children or not. Care what happens to them. Care about how they see God and their neighbors. Pass on the lineage of faith.

Do not lose your enthusiasm. In its Greek etymology, the word enthusiasm means simply, "God in us."

The image of God, imago Dei, dwells in every human being. Including immigrants and foreigners and even that political candidate you really don't like. Don't give in to fear. Look for God in all you meet.

Serve your country. Insist that we fight the right wars. Convince your government…that the real threat always and still comes from within this favored land. Governments always forget that.

Start with your local government. This is where you can make the most immediate impact. Be a gadfly. Make sure your elected leaders know exactly what you want to see happen on behalf the economically disadvantaged, the imprisoned, the stranger. Advocate on the behalf of the marginalized so that we can start the path to peace from within this land.

Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of our country–they just make our country worth defending.

Believe, as Arthur Miller told me in an interview for my very first film on the Brooklyn Bridge, "believe, that maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful."

In Exodus 31 we are introduced to Bezalel who is one of the people appointed to be a craftsmen to design the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, and other related things.  Bezalel was filled "with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft."  Art is important. Don't treat it as a frivolous pursuit. God made beauty; it matters.  Take time to enjoy it. Celebrate it in your church. Beauty brings joy that will sustain you in your fight for justice.

And vote. You indelibly underscore your citizenship–and our connection with each other–when you do.

Even if you aren't excited about your vote, that connection to each other is part of the reason we vote. We are collectively making a statement that we are in this thing together.  We are accountable to our very physical, geographical neighbors in the next polling booth.

Good luck. And Godspeed.


Nicole Morgan lives near Atlanta, GA. She is a former Sider Scholar and Palmer Seminary alum. Nicole's work centers around body diversity in the church, specifically the way a fat-positive church is better able to love all of our neighbors. Find Nicole @jnicolemorgan and on Facebook at Fat Faith.

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