Religious studies professor delivers “Last Lecture” with advice for Lawrentians

On Wednesday, Feb. 19, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Connie Kassor delivered a lecture titled “Anger and Sticks; Compassion and Fire-Pits” in Briggs Hall, hosted by Lawrence’s Mortar Board chapter. Mortar Board is a national honor society for seniors that “elects members at the end of their junior year on the basis of outstanding leadership, scholarship and service to the academic community,” according to their description on the Lawrence website. Kassor’s lecture is one of a series of lectures hosted by Mortar Board called the “Last Lecture Series.” Anyone who gives one of these lectures imagines what they would want their last lecture before they die to be and shares that with the audience.

Kassor’s lecture included stories she learned in her study of Buddhism (something familiar to those who may have taken classes with her on the subject) to offer advice to busy Lawrentians. The lecture’s title comes from two Buddhist folk tales, one involving anger and sticks and one involving compassion and pits of fire that she used to help contextualize her advice.

Kassor noted Buddhism’s applicability to Lawrentians because of how major Buddhist thinkers have addressed life’s endless stream of tasks that need doing. She called attention to the “Lawrence busy” where people get stressed out over everything they have going on and anticipate relief at the end of the term — just to have the cycle of stress start up again for the next term and the next job and so on until death. Ancient Buddhists have thought about this “treadmill-like” nature of life for centuries (a phenomenon identified by modern psychologists as the “hedonic treadmill”).

She pointed to Buddhist teachings as evidence for why we ought to acknowledge how treadmill-esque our lives are. She argued that rather than stressing out to achieve goals that will only relieve us until it is time to stress out about the next goal, we would be better off making the whole cycle less stressful in the first place. To recognize the big picture struggle allows us to address it.

Kassor recommended meditation as a practice that can help students make their lives less stressful. She has practiced meditation for years and helped explain meditation and the benefits she feels it has brought her to students alongside Associate Professor of Psychology Lori Hilt in a co-taught class during Fall Term, as well as in a yoga class this Winter Term. 

The folk tales Kassor referenced illustrated the Buddhist teachings that people ought to have compassion for everyone and assume that everyone has reasons for their actions. While some of the Buddhist scholars she referenced had extreme takes on these points — one said that if a friend came out of nowhere and beat us with a stick we should start by asking ourselves why they might do that; one said that we should all feel compassion for others with the same intensity as a mother watching her child fall into a pit of fire — the extremity of the examples used helped make the points memorable. The development of such compassion and understanding is said to be aided by a meditation practice.

She also used her own origin story to encourage students to take classes outside their majors. After starting in the biology department at the small liberal arts school she went to for her undergraduate degree, Kassor’s first philosophy class lead her into extensive study of Buddhism and an eventual career in religious studies.