Editorial: Graduation’s nuggets of wisdom
In culling through some of the graduation speeches heard or read in the past few weeks, I’ve come to appreciate these rites as a community ritual of renewal and inspiration — something to pass on to each successive generation of graduates, but also something from which all of us can benefit.
Most speeches encourage graduates to be grateful for the help they received, urge them to go out on their own and find their way in the world, increasingly with an emphasis on practicing goodness rather than seeking greatness — a message that was heard at this year’s MUHS graduation.
Perhaps more reflective of the times, and with a nod to our Middlebury past and the ever-present sense of community, let’s pick up on a postponed Baccalaureate Address to the University of the South Class of 2020 delivered on May 14, 2022 in Sewanee, Tennessee by Middlebury College Professor Jay Parini. Parini had been invited to deliver the address by former Middlebury College President John McCardell, who left Middlebury to become president there in 2010.
Mr. Parini, who was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the university, charmed his audience with opening remarks before getting to the heart of the matter — reflecting on the past two years of a worldwide pandemic, war, political affairs off the rail, inflation, economic depression, and a crisis in mental health to boot… and yet, sage advice, which we pick up toward the latter part of his address, as he notes to the graduates:
“And yet life goes on.
“Somehow, the world keeps spinning on its axis.
“Spring is fully in bloom in Tennessee, as we can see by the wildflowers everywhere around us, and many in this chapel have a lot to celebrate. There’s a joyous line in a poem by D. H. Lawrence that I’ve always loved, and it seems appropriate here. “Look! We have come through!”
“So here we are on this glorious day in this beautiful and sacred space. And we’ve certainly come through…well, through SOMETHING. Once again, we gather in person with friends and family, even with strangers – but together.
“Let me go back to the idea of community, thinking again about our common lives. We don’t live in a vacuum, alone, but with others. And there’s something wonderful about this fact: as noted in the lovely motto of this university: Ecce Quam Bonum. This is the Latin opening in Jerome’s 4th century translation of the great Hebrew Psalm 133, which is a robust celebration of community: ‘Behold how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in harmony!’
“‘Behold how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in harmony!’
“Sewanee has, of course, its roots in the Christian tradition, so I will look (as I often do) to Jesus for good advice. In the 12th chapter of Mark, a Jewish leader approaches him while he’s in full swing in front of a crowd of disciples, and this person – probably determined to cause some trouble for this upstart teacher who was making waves in Galilee — asks what must have seemed to Jesus like a leading question. Which of the many commandments in the Hebrew bible were the most important?
“Remember that according to traditional Judaic teaching there were 613 laws or mitzvot that you had to observe! That’s, shall we say, a lot of observation.
“Like any great teacher, Jesus was a master of simplicity and compression, and he swept aside the massive Hebraic rulebook with a bold gesture, saying there were only two things to keep in mind. Just two. Not 613.
“You must love God, and you must love your neighbor as yourself.
“Now that word – God – is a vast catch-all. It can mean the traditional Godhead, a commanding spiritual force, part of the Trinity. Or it can simply mean, as one theologian famously suggested, one’s ‘ultimate concern.’ In times of personal distress, or maybe when lying on the grass at night looking up at the stars, I think we know intuitively that we’re not alone in the universe.
“But the journey to God, I would argue, passes necessarily through other people, through our neighbors. Which connects us directly to the second part of the great commandment: to love our neighbors as ourselves.
“I mentioned this to someone on the phone recently, and he said: Jay, my friend, you obviously haven’t met my neighbors!
“I won’t pretend to know exactly what it means to love our neighbors in this deep way. And yet it’s a simple enough idea. We must try to LOVE our neighbors, to hold them in mind, treating them with the same respect we might wish for ourselves. We should be kind to everyone we meet, even when they don’t seem, well… as friendly as you might wish.
“This is an active, not a passive, pursuit: kindness. It’s something you should consciously try to do, every day.
“I’ve always liked what Mother Teresa said about this: “Spread kindness wherever you go. Let nobody ever come to you without leaving happier.”
“When I think about this business of loving our neighbors, memory carries me back to the finest graduation speech I ever heard, bar none. The speaker that day in May of 2001 at Middlebury College was Mr. Rogers – Fred Rogers, the creator and host of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a wonderful old TV program for children. Those in this chapel of a certain age will remember the show. Mr. Rogers came to Middlebury when John McCardell was our president, and Dr. McCardell put it well that day. ‘Mr. Rogers has never wavered in showing love and compassion to our children,’ he said.
“Mr. Rogers spoke in a gentle, modest, and familiar voice to the assembled graduates and their families, ending his talk by saying: ‘I think I may have said enough already. Why don’t we just hold hands and sing a song that I suspect most of you will know?’
“Of course, Fred Rogers and his show are long gone, and most of you under thirty probably don’t know the words or the tune. But the song ends like this – and forgive my attempt to sing:
‘Let’s make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we’re together, we might as well say:
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?’
“Why not really try to do this? We can, if we choose, make the world our neighborhood, taking everyone – whatever their political orientation or racial or religious or sexual orientation – seriously, treating them with real compassion. I know this is how I’d like to be treated. And I’m sure you’re all the same.”
This past weekend’s graduations had their own nuggets of wisdom, along with the sincerity of deeply felt emotions that rise to the fore when the comfortable past yields to the uncertain future.
Graduation, true enough, is a celebration of each student’s accomplishments (and parents are there to snap photos for the family album), but it’s also an annual ritual that speaks to a thirst for knowledge, progress, exploration and understanding. To that end, it’s also a time to listen, reflect and be renewed.
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