If tomorrow was your last day on Earth, what would you say today?
That is the question Benjamin Rifkin, dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, discussed in the second annual “Last Lecture” on Wednesday, March 27.
Rifkin gave his lecture with inspiration from his beloved golden retriever, Webster, who passed away last summer.
He said that he learned “the six C’s” from Webster: curiosity, communication, compassion, community, caring squared and carpe diem.
“We don’t have to understand everything, but let’s try to be curious. Marvel at the cultures of the world,” Rifkin said. “No matter what culture you are in, a smile is still a smile. A tear is still a tear.”
Webster did not understand many things during his time here on Earth, but Rifkin said that he never stopped being curious.
Rifkin went on to explain that Webster often communicated to him by howling with happiness.
“I think we need to do that too,” Rifkin said. “Howl with happiness. Whether you’ve fallen overwhelmingly in love or you’ve made a new friend that you know you will have for life, howl with happiness!”
Rifkin compared compassion to an overflowing sink and encouraged the audience to “keep it running. Let your compassion overflow onto those around you.”
He recalled one particular example of compassion demonstrated by students from the College that brought him to tears.
When a group came to campus with a giant sign reading “WARNING TO GOD HATERS, FORNICATORS, HOMOSEXUALS,” students reacted by peacefully surrounding the group and holding up rainbow flags.
“Our students responded to anger with compassion and love,” Rifkin said. “I wept.”
Part of Webster’s lesson to Rifkin on community came from spending countless hours with students from the College.
“I used to bring Webster to campus once in the fall and once in the spring,” Rifkin said. “Then, I started bringing him around during exam time, so students could stop by to pet him to relieve stress.”
Soon, other faculty joined in and the movement grew from a few students to a dozen dogs and over 600 students.
Finally, Webster taught Rifkin that he needs to seize each and every day as if it were his last.
“Find your inner tortoise,” Rifkin said. “Slow down. Recognize what’s unfolding right in front of you and you will find happiness.”
He ended by explaining that to his family, Webster was not a golden retriever.
“Webster didn’t like to fetch,” Rifkin said. “He wasn’t going to fulfill the ‘retriever’ part of his name because it didn’t make him happy.”
Webster was simply the Rifkin family Golden.
“Give up the thing that people expect you to do if it doesn’t make you happy,” Rifkin said.
*This story was originally published in The Signal.