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BRUCE COCKBURN > News > Award Presentation > Bruce Cockburn receives honorary Doctor of Music Wilfrid Laurier University’s 2024 spring convocation ceremonies

Bruce Cockburn receives honorary Doctor of Music Wilfrid Laurier University’s 2024 spring convocation ceremonies

14 June 2024

Bruce Cockburn receives Doctor of Music - WLU - 14June2024

Watch the Laurier Convocation Award & speech here. The processional with Bruce starts at approximately .55 and the degree presentation and Bruce’s speech start at approximately 1:17.

“Madame Chancellor, Madame President, honored guests, and all of you, good morning. Congratulations to my fellow graduands here, and I’m honored and grateful to be in your company today. You are here to celebrate the completion of years of intensive labor. I’m here because I’ve had a long career which has gained me some notoriety and I’m not dead yet.

“The songs I write come mostly out of an emotional response to things that confront me. Could be a sense of the presence of God, could be love, could be the beauty of a desert night sky, the darkness in the human psyche, or just the day-to-day dilemmas we all find ourselves in. Sometimes that is meant writing about the unconscionable things we humans inflict on each other and on the planetary systems that give us life. Some of those songs are the ones for which I’m best known. Because of that, there’s a question that pops up now and then when I do media interviews: Given the content of some of my songs, how and where do I find hope? How do I sustain it? Good question. Actually though, it’s not a conscious choice. How do I know when I’m hungry or afraid? I’m filled with hope, but I don’t think I do anything to build it within myself.

“A quick glance around the world scene, especially if you have any knowledge of history, will present an array of terrifying possibilities that is likely to induce cynicism, even despair. But the fact is, no matter how irrational it may seem, I am filled with hope. I can’t shake it. My generation grew up with the everpresent imagery of nuclear destruction, where now there are ‘active shooter’ drills in grade school. We had air raid drills – “When you hear the siren, the nukes are coming, so curl up under your desk.” What was left unsaid was, “… and kiss your ass goodbye.” Past Grade 3, it was hard to take the procedure seriously, but the adults felt compelled to put us through the charade.

“You have all survived your teens, when your angst and despair are likely to have been at their most bleak. When I was old enough to question the principles that seemed to hold up my parents’ universe, I came face to face with the notion of “Why bother?” If it’s all going to be chaos anyway, why strive for anything? If our lives are all going to disintegrate in a flood of gamma rays, what’s the point? Thing is, alongside the expectation that everything will sooner or later go bad, there has always been a little voice going “What if it doesn’t? What if the moments of beauty outweigh the terror?”

“Talking one day with my dad, who was born at the end of the first World War, about these things he pointed out that in its aftermath everybody thought that if there was another conflict like that it would be the end of the world. Then came World War II, and here we still are. So the message is, we have to leave room in our existential panic for the possibility of a good outcome.

Bruce Cockburn receives Doctor of Music - WLU - 14June2024

“We’re here to celebrate your graduation. In global terms, that’s an incredible privilege. Definitely a good outcome, definitely something to be celebrated. I expect for some of you at least it might be a little scary – you’re standing on the threshold of the next phase of your lives, you’re about to take a swan dive out of the nurture of academia into whatever life has in store. The social groups you’ve been part of will disperse, the connections you lose will be replaced by new ones that you’ll have to navigate through. Now is when you get to really start growing into who you are. Doesn’t happen overnight – for some of us it takes a lifetime. There will be a lot of pushing and pulling this way and that. You will encounter people who want to use your energy and talents to further their own agendas. There will be times when compromise is required and other times when you have to hold hard to what your heart tells you is right.

“Those of you who are headed for a music career will have to figure out how to be a commodity at the same time as you follow your muse – not always an easy balance to find. Those of you going into education will have the challenge of balancing your sense of autonomous personhood with the dictates of the institutions you find yourselves working for. By now we should have all learned to think rationally and critically – if that hasn’t been part of your experience then a broader deeper education still awaits! You’ll be faced with many decisions, big life decisions that must be made from a place of reason but also of humility, compassion, gratitude and love. To love someone else we have to have a degree, however tentative, of love for ourselves. To have that love of self we need to understand where our feelings come from, need to be able to examine critically our own reactions, to screen them for bias, for the way we put project those biases onto others.

“So, thinking these thoughts, it strikes me that meaningful hope is a product of love and vice versa. They’re kind of inextricably entwined. Our 21st century culture tells us over and over again that as individuals we will never measure up, while at the same time offering us a phony and twisted vision of community without soul and without genuine support. We’ve got a million “friends” and a million distractions from the elements of life that matter. Maybe those friends will send condolences, even send money if we’re in need, maybe even total strangers will. Will they show up when we’re sick or injured and the groceries have to get upstairs? Will they hug you while you weep? That’s the community we have to nurture.

“Hope: you can’t manufacture it. You can fake it, but the version you can fake is fragile, melting easily into puddles of despondency. We’ve all heard the aphorisms: “Where there’s life there’s hope,” “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” These are cliches for a reason. That hope is a gift from the Creator, baked into us the species survival is tough though not indestructible. Hope is about imagining that there’s somewhere you can be other than where you are now. If you think hope is beyond reach, that’s an illusion. It’s been in you for a million years, along with the urge to make music and love, along with cunning and fear and the capacity to feel one with the deep night sky. Can’t find it? Close your eyes and let it find you.

“Hope: you can’t instill it in yourself but you can sure spread it, hope and comfort to the soul. The dazzling architecture of a Chick Corea piano solo, the graceful geometry of a Bach chorale, the way a Japanese shakuhachi piece delineates mystery, even a shredding death metal guitar rant, can open in our minds the possibility that there’s somewhere else we can be. As educators you have the potential of inspiring your students, of showing them that something exists outside their perceived limitations. It doesn’t matter much what information you’re trying to get across or how constrained you may feel by the policies of those who write the checks, the enthusiasm you show for sharing whatever it is and the energy with which it’s delivered will be felt by your students, your community, and potentially carried with them for life.

“May we all stand firm against the winds of orthodoxy and conformity, the seeming need for authority to reduce people to numbers and language to slogans and epithets. May we all maintain a skeptical distance from the profit-driven pronouncements of political interests, Big Pharma, the weapons industry, the billionaire lords of the new feudalism, all of whose tentacles curl around the structures of democracy, of culture, of education, to separate us, to distort how we understand the world.

“Though each of us has our own road to walk I believe that for all of us the end of that road is the understanding and acceptance of how and where we truly fit in the cosmos. Sisters and brothers, the twists and turns that await you will lead to both better and worse than you can imagine. I hope for you that the deepest hopes you hold will be fulfilled. God bless us everyone, thank you.”

Bruce Cockburn & Bernie Finkelstein 14June2024 - Laurier
Bruce Cockburn & Bernie Finkelstein -14June2024