Campus News

Text of Baccalaureate address delivered by The Rev. F.W. (Tony) Jarvis to Bowdoin's Class of 1998 May 22, 1998

Story posted May 22, 1998

"To March in that Proud Company"

I have the good fortune of knowing several members of the illustrious Bowdoin Class of 1998. One of them put it to me the other day: "You'd better have something to say about the next step in my life. Suddenly I feel very insecure. When I was in elementary school I knew high school would automatically follow. When I was in high school I knew college would automatically follow. And now--suddenly--I'm faced with real life. Until recently I was looking forward to real life, but I've also just begun to realize that my parents won't be paying for it!" In some ways, graduation is a happier day for your parents than it is for you!

As you launch yourselves on the great voyage of real life, let me tell you about an encounter I had with a former student of mine at Roxbury Latin who is exactly a decade older than you are. I was returning on the last train from downtown Boston, the 10:30 p.m. from South Station. Seconds after I sat down, this young man noticed me and came to join me. He'd been out of college ten years. In his triumphal progress through school and college and graduate school, he had won all the glittering prizes. To his contemporaries, his meteoric rise in business defines the word "success."

Our conversation began with superficial chitchat--he lamenting that the train--the 10:30 p.m.!--"left so early," since he still had more work to finish at the office. Then his tone changed and he added, in a different voice, "You know, ever since I was in school, almost all my days have been like today--never enough time to do everything I need to do. I worked incredibly hard in school. I worked incredibly hard in college. I worked incredibly hard in business school. I work incredibly hard at my job. Through school, college, and graduate school I never really asked, 'Why am I doing this?' I was always just focused on getting the crucial next credential. Every now and then, however, over the last few years--for a few frightening moments--I have actually stopped and asked myself, 'Why am I doing this? Why have I chosen this life? Why am I working so hard?' As hard as I try to repress these questions, they keep popping back up."

By the time he finished this confession, the train was nearing my stop and I was ever-so- slightly daunted by the task of disclosing the entire meaning and purpose of human existence in 70 seconds. For some reason James Thurber flashed through my mind and I asked if he had ever read Thurber's short story, "The Sea and the Shore." He hadn't, so I faxed it to him the next morning and it became the focus of our next conversation.

Thurber writes about the lemmings, the small rodents that live in Scandinavia and are best known for their inexplicable periodic tendency to rush from the land into the sea--to certain death. In Thurber's story, one "single excited lemming" looks at the setting sun on the ocean and cries out, "Fire! The world is coming to an end!" as he rushes precipitously into the sea. Mass hysteria grips the other lemmings and, in tumultuous flight--midst rumors and panic--the other lemmings follow him headlong into the sea. As they drown, some shout, "We are saved!" while others cry out, "We are lost!"

In case we miss it, Thurber tells us the moral of his story: "All men [and women] should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why."

I read recently about a 17-year-old high school senior in Fremont, California, who received double 800s on her SATs and a perfect 8000 on the University of California acceptance index, something, I believe, no one had ever achieved before. She was apparently known to her high school friends as "Wonder Woman." A reporter interviewed her for the inevitable story and in the course of the interview asked her, "What is the meaning of life?" She replied, "I have no idea."

Knowledge--which she had perfectly acquired--and wisdom are not the same. The possession of knowledge does not guarantee the possession of wisdom. You can accumulate vast stores of knowledge and still not be able to answer the question, "What am I running from and to and why?"

Of the many senior classes around the world gathering this season for their final rites, very, very few are as able as you who are gathered here today. Because you are among the most intelligent and because you have received here a truly liberal education--which promotes the asking of life's great questions--many of you are already asking, "What am I running from and to and why?" Even the most brilliant among you already recognize that the possession of knowledge is quite a different thing from the possession of wisdom.

A couple of weeks ago I shared the story of the double-800 girl from California with a college senior who will graduate summa cum laude from his college in about two weeks. He said, "I don't want to reach the age of 60 or even 40 and have someone ask me what the meaning of life is and have to reply, 'I have no idea.' I see so many people just going through the motions: get into a good school so you can get into a good college so you can get a good job so you can get a better job so you can get rich and die. I want more than knowledge; I want wisdom. I don't want to exist; I want to live."

Each of us is engaged in a lifelong search for wisdom and for a life worth living. I cannot stand before you and claim to have achieved either wisdom or the perfectly fulfilling life, but I can say to you--from my personal experience--that what little wisdom I have attained comes from two insights--both given to me by others:

The first is this: Remember to be modest. That is the principal insight of both the Judeo-Christian tradition and of classical literature. You are mortal, you have but a comparatively short time on the planet and then you are gone. Much in the universe is vastly beyond either your understanding or your control. To the Hebrews, the principal error of human beings is their pride: we forget that we're human--we think we're the brightest and best and that we can act as if we're God. And when humans think they're God, tragedy ensues--for all concerned. After Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, their lives cease to be a paradise garden and unhappiness ensues.

The Greeks reached essentially the same conclusion. Sophocles, for example, saw that hubris (pride, human presumption) was the path to ruin. Listen to what his Chorus says at the end of Oedipus Rex:

[People] of Thebes: look upon Oedipus.

This is the king who solved the famous riddle
And towered up, most powerful of men.
No mortal eyes but looked upon him with envy,
Yet in the end ruin swept over him.

Let all of us in our human frailty
Consider life's last days; and let none
Presume on our good fortune until we find
Life, at our death, a memory without pain.
"Presume" is exactly what Oedipus does: his life defines hubris because he forgets he is a mere man, forgets that he is not in control of the universe, forgets that he is mortal, subject to forces beyond his control (whether you call such forces chance or fate or divine providence is immaterial).

To both the Hebrews and the Greeks, modesty was the gateway to wisdom. "The fear of the Lord," said the Hebrews, "is the beginning of wisdom." The acknowledgment of our temporary humanity in the presence of the Eternal God is the starting point. To the Greeks also, modesty (humility) was the greatest virtue. Not so much modesty as an ethical virtue (though they admired that), but modesty as an existential virtue. Sophocles portrays Theseus, King of Athens, as the incarnation of this existential modesty in Oedipus at Colonus. Theseus says to Oedipus:

I know I am only a man, I have no more
To hope for in the end than you have.
Albert Einstein possessed this existential modesty; arguably it is what made him the greatest scientist of his time:
The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience [is the awareness] of the mystical. It is the source of all true art and science....this insight into the mystery of life..., [this knowledge] that what is impenetrable to us really at the center of true religiousness....My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit, who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds.
Sir Isaac Newton also possessed this modesty, this existential awareness of the brevity of our human lives and the limits of our human minds:

I do not know [how] I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.... The first truth, then, that I would leave with you is this: modesty--the realization that you know very little and that life is very short--is the beginning of wisdom. Vita nostra brevis est, brevis finietor.

The second insight about wisdom and life I can put even more concisely: Greed or even enlightened self-interest does not bring happiness. Real happiness comes only to those who are able to grow beyond self-interest.

As children, we all love receiving things: I want this for my birthday. What will my father and mother bring me home from their travels? What game or toy will I get if I'm good? It is more blessed to receive than to give is the belief of children.

As we mature, we come to enjoy giving as much as or more than getting. We see a child's face light up when she receives a gift, we enjoy the gratitude that comes from doing a favor for a friend. We discover that "It's more blessed to give than to receive. " We are happier giving than receiving. And, in the great mystery of things, we discover that the more we give of ourselves the happier we are.

A survey was recently made of residents of a retirement home. "Do you have any regrets?" they were asked. Here's what they said:

First, they wished they'd spent more time loving people.
Second, they wished they'd taken more risks.
Third, they wished they'd done some good that would remain after they were gone.
These three regrets encapsulate the second insight I want to suggest to you about the meaning of life: if you want to be happy you have to go beyond self-interest. You have to take the risk of reaching out to others. You have to pay the price in time, talent, and treasure now in order to do something that will endure after you're dead. This is part of what Willa Cather meant when she said, "Happiness is to be dissolved into something complete and great." Happiness comes when you get beyond self-interest: when you dare to risk loving people and when you involve yourself in some costly cause that benefits others more than it benefits you. I am aware that it is fashionable to be cynical, and I could reel off most of the aphorisms attributed to Vince Lombardi. Cynicism is nothing new. It has always been fashionable to be cynical. Frances Cornford cynically described the emerging poet Rupert Brooke this way when he was about your age:
A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.
The too-little-recognized 18th century poet and playwright Edward Young plaintively lamented: "Born originals, how comes it to pass that we die copies?" We might ask, with the same sadness, "Given the opportunity to live, how comes it to pass that so many choose only to exist?"

The tired and the worldly-wise view "the long littleness of life" with cynicism and despair. And the way most people choose to live--in every generation--seems to corroborate this cynical and despairing outlook. If your generation is like those that have gone before it--and it is--the majority of people will choose unreflective, shallow, comfortable, self-indulgent existences. They will die "copies." T. S. Eliot memorialized this majority in these words:

A Cry from the North, from the West and from the South
Whence thousands travel daily to the timekept City;
Where My Word is unspoken,
In the land of lobelias and tennis flannels
The rabbit shall burrow and the thorn revisit,
The nettle shall flourish in the gravel court,
And the wind shall say: "Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls."
That will be the epitaph of most people in your generation as it is the epitaph of most people in my generation. It is the epitaph of the dull, of the copies, in every generation.

There is another way. It is the way chosen by the few in every generation who are courageous enough to face the existential reality of their own mortality, of their own modest place in the universe. It is the way of the few who--fully aware of the smallness of their own lives--are somehow, nevertheless, empowered to use what little they have for causes and concerns beyond- -and greater than--themselves. The way of the few is the harder, more costly, more lonely way. Someone asked Mother Teresa of Calcutta shortly before she died, "Why did you choose to give up family and money and security to go and live among the destitute and hopeless?" In a flash, she replied, "I wanted a very hard life."

I am not cynical or despairing about you because I believe that most of you will dare to choose the hard life, will dare to be among the few in your generation who will make a difference. Most of you already know that the only life worth living is the hard life. For 200 years graduates of Bowdoin College have more often than not chosen the way of the few, have chosen to be originals and not copies, have chosen to do something great with their lives.

At his 50th reunion at Bowdoin, America's great poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Bowdoin Class of 1825, paused to consider, as he put it, the "volumes" he and his classmates had by then written with their lives. Longfellow noted that, since his classmates were now in their 70s, most of the volume of their lives had already been written: they had completed 72 years which they could neither change nor live over again. As he reflected on the reality that the "volumes" of his classmates' lives were now nearing completion, he penned these haunting lines:

Whose hand shall dare to open and explore
These volumes, closed and clasped forevermore?
Not mine. With reverential feet I pass;
I hear a voice that cries, "Alas! alas!
Whatever hath been written shall remain,
Nor be erased or written o'er again;
The unwritten only still belongs to thee:
Take heed, and ponder well what it shall be."
Members of the Bowdoin Class of 1998: You have but one life. This is the only one you get, and the clock is ticking. Despite all the advances of modern science, the death rate is still very high: 100% to be exact. This is the one and only life you get. It's not a rehearsal. It's not even a dress rehearsal. And you can't rewind the tape. You can't say "Oops, I'll take that part back and do it over again."

If you are like most of your predecessors here at Bowdoin, you will choose to do something with your one and only life. You sing, after all, in your college alma mater:

Oh may we full worthy be
To march is that proud company
Of poets, leaders, and each one
Who brings thee fame by deeds well done.
If you are like most of your predecessors here at Bowdoin, you will choose to be not a copy but an original, to be counted among the few in your generation who will make a difference. You will dare to be among the few in your generation who risk doing something great with your lives.

How I envy you your youth. Don't squander the years that time has so generously left you. Remember the advice of your fellow alumnus, Longfellow, as you write what remains of the volume of your life:

The unwritten part only still belongs to thee:
Take heed, and ponder well what it shall be.

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