Friday, March 25, 2016

In Memoriam: Elizabeth Breysse

June 23, 1995 - December 31, 2015

From Professor Seth Weinberger

Normally, when I get up to speak before a lot of people I’m excited, because I’m about to talk about something fascinating and awesome…like war, or terrorism, or targeted killing. But never have I wanted less to talk about something and never have I been less prepared to talk about something than at this moment. No one ever teaches you—nothing ever prepares you—to talk about the death of a student.

I’ve been lucky in my life. I haven’t experienced much loss. The closest I’ve come to experiencing true grief has been losing my dog Sierra, my faithful and loving companion of 14 years. I was holding her when she died, and I remember the moment that the life went out of her body. One moment I was holding my dog, the next I was holding something that was no longer my dog. It was her physical form—her body, her eyes, her fur—but it wasn’t her anymore. Her soul had left and what remained was no longer Sierra. Because it wasn’t her physical form that defined her being, but rather her soul and her spirit.
Liz’s body may no longer be with us, but her soul and her spirit remain. These are the things that make a person. That make Liz Liz.

I use the present tense because, as Plato argued in The Republic, the soul is immortal. Liz’s soul and spirit were the things that made Liz so beloved by so many in the Puget Sound community and elsewhere. We experience the souls of other in two ways: Through our interactions with them and through our memories of those interactions. While we may no longer be able to interact with Liz, we have our memories of those interactions. And as long as we do, her soul and her spirit live on.

I knew Liz as her professor and as her academic adviser. When asked to describe Puget Sound students, I often say that they come here as naïve optimists who want to change the world, and leave as critical optimists, who still want to change the world but now understand how difficult that will be. I can think of few students who better fit this description than Liz Breysse. I first met Liz on her second day on campus in my role as her academic adviser; I was immediately struck by her confidence and her smile and her energy and her enthusiasm. Her soul and her spirit were almost literally bursting forth from her at all times.

When we met to discuss her first semester classes, I asked her why she signed up for Introduction to International Relations as her advising seminar. She responded by saying “Because I want to help bring world peace.” I hear that a lot from students, most of whom have no idea what “bringing peace” involved, how complicated the world is, or why war occurs in the first place. After all, that’s what I’m here to teach them.  But something in her voice made me believe that she meant it in a way that few students do.

Still, I responded as I generally do, by smiling and nodding and telling her that I looked forward to helping her come to understand the world better. But, I warned her, I expected her views to change as she learned and grew as a student of international relations.

I’ll never forget her response. “Maybe,” she said, “but I’ll never stop trying to bring peace.”

Over the course of our classes together, Liz learned how difficult it is to end conflict between states or even between people. But that never diminished her desire to work towards peace. Just last semester, Liz was in Global Security with me and I remember her growing dismay as she came to realize that she was a realist: Someone who believes in the inevitability of conflict and in the folly of acting according to “good intentions” instead of according to the realities of power. Liz’s soul didn’t want to be a realist, but her brain told her that she was.

Her final paper for Global Security argued that the United Nations was ill-suited to manage the security problems of the modern era. As she discussed her argument with me, it clearly bothered her that a global, idealistic institution like the UN wasn’t the appropriate vehicle for pursuing peace. But that didn’t dim her enthusiasm…she just needed to find a different way to pursue peace.

Unfortunately, Liz won’t get that chance to find other, better ways to make the world a better place…to bring peace.

A quote on a remembrance of Liz handed out at an earlier memorial read: “Use your smile to change the world but don’t let the world change your smile.” Liz learned that a smile won’t be enough to change the world, but she never let herself become cynical and jaded (as I am!). She never stopped smiling. Even as we discussed problems of war, genocide, and other miseries that torment people all over the world, Liz always remained optimistic that we—that SHE!—could and would eventually fix those problems. Liz would have been a powerful force in the world and it breaks my heart that we won’t have the benefit of her soul and her spirit working for the good of all of us.

Like all of the professors at the University of Puget Sound, I came here because I love teaching…because I love my students. Liz was the kind of student who made me love teaching. She had a passion and excitement for learning that I wish every student had.

But don’t just take my word on it. Here’s David Sousa, who teaches American politics and had Liz in two classes: "Liz was a wonderful student in class, thoughtful, prepared, and eager to share her ideas and to listen to others. But she was an even better student before class, always there early, chatting people up as they came in, making my class feel like a community." And here's Chris Kendall, who teaches international law and taught Liz in his first semester here." "Liz was one of six students in my class on international law. She was always enthusiastic in class. But while working on a draft of her seminar paper on International Criminal Court prosecution for war crimes committed during the Syrian civil war, Liz came to office hours to discuss revisions. As we worked through arcane legal questions of mens rea and criminal jurisdiction, Liz would punctuate the conversation with an occasional "That's so cool!" or "Awesome!"—not the type of response you usually get from a student when talking about jurisdiction, and definitely not what I expect when giving them paper revisions. Liz's enthusiasm absolutely colored my introduction to Puget Sound that first semester.”

The tragedy of this life cut short is that we never got to see what Liz would go on to do, what she would have become. But I have no doubt about what she would have become. She would have been a powerful force for peace…for good in this world. I hope that her spirit will continue to do just that. I can promise that I will draw inspiration from my memories of Liz for the rest of my career and I hope that those that knew Live Like Liz.

The physical body may decay and disintegrate—after all, as they say, ashes to ashes, dust to dust—but so long as we remember what makes Liz Liz and what Liz means to us, her soul is indeed immortal.

Jews have a saying to comfort those who are in mourning: May her memory be a blessing. To me, this reflects this very belief in the immortality of the soul. Our memories of Liz can serve to comfort us, to inspire us, to make us laugh, to make us celebrate life. We are indeed blessed for having known her.

And so to Liz's parents, Sheila and Matt, to her sister, to her family, friends, and loved ones... to her sisters in Pi Beta Phi, to her professors, to her colleagues in the politics and government department, and to those with whom she worked in the Cellar and during Orientation the entire Puget Sound community, may Liz's memory be a blessing to us all.