The Heartbeat Benediction

By Alena Amato Ruggerio (with Heidi Hess)

Rainbow Heart“Leave-taking behavior” is the scholarly term for that ritual we all go through when we are about to part from each other. On the telephone, it sounds something like, “Uh huh, okay, give my love to little Smedley and Ozelle. I’ll talk to you later. Love you, bye.” In the classroom, it sounds like the rustling of papers, the crunching of donned jackets, the dragging of chairs across the floor, the chatter of students as they get up to leave, and the rising voice of the professor trying to shout her last words over all the racket.

As a college instructor for the past fifteen years, I’ve never liked that feeling of the students departing loudly as I was still talking. Eventually I hit upon a solution, a counter-ritual to leave-taking behavior I refer to as the “Ruggerio Benediction.” On the first day of class, I explain that the students are not permitted to pack up and go until they have been formally dismissed with the sentence I use to close every class session: “Go forth and use wisely every heartbeat.”

I use these words to dismiss the class because at a state-sponsored public university, it is the closest I can get to delivering a blessing. Call it macabre, but I’m always aware that we have been allotted only a finite number of heartbeats, and none of us knows how many we have left. Every heartbeat is therefore precious.

Although it hasn’t prevented me from wasting hours in front of the television or Facebook, I do make better decisions when I ask myself, is this truly a wise use of my limited heartbeats? I wish the same for my students. I’ve been teaching long enough to have watched young women and men walk out the door of my classroom never to return—sometimes because they made reckless decisions that led them to drop out of college, and some that led them to lose their lives. Reminding them at the end of every class that their heartbeats are precious is the only protection in my power to provide.

I don’t know if the lessons in my communication courses about transitive syllogisms or Bormannian fantasy theme analysis will stick in the students’ minds after the quiz or the end of the term. I sincerely hope that throughout their lives, they will be able to pull communication tools out of a mental toolbox I helped to develop in them while they were in college, even if they never remember the technical names of those tools. But I do know that for some students, it is the spiritual lesson of the Benediction that persists.

A few weeks ago, Travis Caldwell, a former student I haven’t seen in years, posted to my Facebook wall, “Sometimes I think the only thing I really learned in undergrad was to ‘go forth and use every heartbeat wisely.’ I’ve not always succeeded at that, but it has stuck with me through thick and thin.” I read his words at my computer with tears rolling down my face.

I want to give the last word on this topic to another former student, Heidi Hess, who had taken five courses with me in Oregon before we went together to Greece for a semester of study abroad.
Heidi wrote in her blog:

When I was in Greece, I had the pleasure to take a class from one of my most favorite professors, who was teaching in the program that I had signed up for. At the end of every class, she would say “Go forth, use wisely every heartbeat.” A benediction that I admittedly had not paid that much attention to. Why? I never really felt the need to. I never thought there would be a day when I would be hearing it for the last time.

The last time came on the last night of our Athens program. Alena stood up before her students and implored us to really listen to the statement. For it would be the last time most of us (including myself) would hear it. “Go forth,” she said, “and use wisely every heartbeat.”

This time, it made me think. Everything we do ends. Our lives, and the lives of those we love. End. Our hearts stop and we don’t have the luxury of heartbeats anymore.

So what can we do about it? Short of investing in a bionic heart, and organs that never fail. We make choices. We make choices on how we spend our heartbeats.

If you are stuck in an activity that you don’t have a passion for, I implore you to conclude if it is the best use of the heartbeats that you have been given. Now, I am not suggesting that we all go out and quit our jobs, or in any way give up on anything. But make decisions that make you happy. Make decisions that will lead you to opportunities for growth or learning.

Take the handful of heartbeats you have been given and DO something with them. Do something with them so that when your time comes, and you are face to face with the great giver of heartbeats, you won’t be on your knees begging for more.

Do something with your heartbeats so you can look back and know that you led the best life you could. You “invested” your heartbeats into worthwhile opportunities. Become the people that our kids will write the books about.

When you are faced with one of the thousands of brick walls that you will face in your life, find your pulse. Ask yourself, are these heartbeats being spent in the right way for me?

So, in closing, I want you all to find your pulse.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Feel your heartbeat, take a deep breath, and listen.

Go forth, and use wisely every heartbeat.

(Quoted with permission from Heidi Hess, “It’s All Greek to Me”)

Alena Amato Ruggerio is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. She was voted “Most Warm and Welcoming Professor” by the Associated Students of Southern Oregon University in 2011, and received the AHA International Outstanding Visiting Professor of the Year award in 2009 for her teaching in Greece. She is the editor of the anthology Media Depictions of Brides, Wives, and Mothers, available from Lexington Books. Her website is


Heidi Hess graduated from Southern Oregon University in 2009, after which she moved to Portland, Oregon, where she now works as a business developer for a job placement staffing and consulting agency. In her spare time, she races dragon boats across the Pacific Northwest and volunteers with the American Red Cross.

(The beautiful digital heart image was created by Marg Herder to accompany this article.  Her website is )

Copyright 2012 by Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published in the Fall (September-December), 2012 issue of Christian Feminism Today, Volume 36, No. 3, pp.1-2.

Alena Amato Ruggerio
Alena Amato Ruggerio, Ph.D. is Professor of Communication in the Department of Communication, Media, and Cinema at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. She is a longtime member of SOU’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Council, including serving as the Interim Coordinator of Women's Studies for one year. She also served for eleven years on the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today Council, and has delivered plenary addresses and workshops at several CFT conferences. Dr. Ruggerio is the editor of Media Depictions of Brides, Wives, and Mothers (Lexington Books), and the coauthor of Feminism in Practice: Communication Strategies for Making Change (Waveland Press). She lives in the southwestern corner of Oregon with her husband Bradley and their astonishingly adorable cats.