Campus News

Chad Olcott, Baccalaureate Address,
Friday, May 28, 1999 "A word or two on a Roman emperor and moldy love letters"

Story posted May 28, 1999

Mr. Albach, President Edwards, Dean Bradley, members of the college, and guests:

May is a remarkable and often breathtaking month. A roaming eye finds life asserting itself everywhere in lusty abundance. Trees, as full of gratitude as their human counterparts that winter is finally over, show off wild colors and exotic perfumes that seemed impossible two months ago. The birds have returned, the grass is once again radiant with the sun's heat, even the squirrels seem happier. This spring like every spring before it seems to renew and rejuvenate the earth; infusing the land, the creatures, and even the people with a vitality and delicious zeal for life in an even more brilliant fashion than the year before. And in Maine, we feel that we have a right to revel in this seasonal carnival of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes more than our southern counterparts for we have earned it in a way that most others certainly have not. The magnolia was blooming in Atlanta, Washington and even New York when our March blizzards had just begun to gather some steam and the ice was taking on a truly institutional appearance of permanence. And when the dogwoods and lilacs do finally burst forth across campus, across town, and across the entire state.....? My God, is there a cathedral the world over that would not be shaken to rubble with the songs from this one summer hungry northern state?

And so it has been for millennia, and so we hope it will be for many more. While our venerable institution has yet to contemplate its own millennium, two hundred odd years of Bowdoin students have sat as we do today, bathing in the riches of the spring and in the excitement of the day. Of course, today is a "complicated" day, to put it mildly. Although we are celebrating the completion of one set of endeavors, we look with trepidation at the endeavors to come. Many of us arrived at Bowdoin unsure of where we were headed in the months, years, and decades to come; and many, perhaps more, will leave wondering. And what will we leave with? In our time here, what have we gained and lost?

More directly, what is it that Bowdoin has given? Out of the rich and thick series of images that appear to me when I contemplate the question, out of the February sunsets over Hubbard Hall, over memories, of lectures and lecturers, over the crowded Union hallways, over art attempted and art observed, over long conversations with good friends, over more colorful conversations after a beer or five at the Pub, over the first, fading memories of arriving here as a meek little transfer student, over and above all of this comes a powerful feeling. That feeling? A healthy dissatisfaction with the way of the world. Like most graduates of this or any institution, I leave here unsure of what life holds, or even what the next year holds. I am still uncertain of what it is in life that I want to associate myself with.

There are days when I am profoundly sorry to be an American, for I do not agree with many of those in power and their policies. There are days when I cringe at the condition of the world I am inheriting, the leaders I am to emulate and the professionals I am soon expected to be. For I am not at all sure that theirs is a legacy I want. I reject their obsessive financial planning, their next car, and their dental plans. And I reject their vapid words and sound bite morals. But I know that I would not have it any other way at age twenty-two. I imagine that some of these "rejections" will soften or even disappear with time; but for now, I embrace them and the restless energy that is their source. If the knowledge that you have gained studying at this school has not shaken you to the core and left you more than a little dissatisfied I think you have missed out on the best that Bowdoin has to offer. A liberal arts education at its best will produce those who effect change. Not because they are overly altruistic, necessarily want to effect change, or even believe that their efforts will have any tangible and lasting effect but simply because they have to.

Bowdoin's history is rich with those who have effected great changes in their time. By and large, we do not know much of anything about them, or even that they lived, much less what they did with their lives. Most are known and remembered only in those small circles where they loved and were loved in return. For the last year and a half, I have had the privilege to work in the Special Collections section of our library. Special Collections is a veritable warehouse of alumni memorabilia. MacMillan's expeditions to the Arctic are catalogued there; Thomas Brackett Reed, considered to have been the most powerful Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (with perhaps one recent exception...), Jonathan Cilley, a young Congressman killed in a duel in the 1830's is eulogized there along with thousands of finished and unfinished novels, love letters, sermons, ancient commencement speeches, and all of the seemingly random documentable detritus that a college picks up over the centuries. Amidst all of the pomp associated with Bowdoin's illustrious alumni, I have been most struck not by the awards, distinctions and careers all now reduced to card catalogue numbers, barcodes and slim letter but by the incalculable richness of the actual lives recorded there.

In this world that is only our own for a brief and poignant moment, saturated as it is with beauty and tragedy alike what do we do with our allotted episode? What will we, as members of Bowdoin's class of 1999, do? Well, in all likelihood most of us will do the same things that the class of 1899 sought to do, and the things that the first graduating class of 1806 sought to do. Namely, to live Justly and legitimately. We will seek to do so by refusing to take the world as it is given, by loving entirely and respectfully, and quite simply, by doing the right thing. These are open-ended words that smack of vagueness. But the fact of the matter is, I don't know how to answer with a greater degree of specificity. I don't know exactly what it means to go beyond the way things seem, how to love respectfully and entirely, and I surely cannot often discern the right thing to do.

But these things are becoming clearer. And the point, I believe, is the process itself. Perhaps as long as we are seeking and fighting to live in legitimacy, we've headed in the right direction. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman philosopher king, was apparently concerned with the same dilemma of what a mortal is to do with his or her short life. He says in his Meditations "...the good man's only singularity lies in his approving welcome to every experience the looms of fate may weave for him, his refusal to soil the divinity seated in his breast OT perturb it with disorderly impression, and his resolve to keep it in serenity and decorous obedience to God, admitting no disloyalty to truth in his speech OT to justice in his actions." Even a Roman emperor, those paragons of megalomania, recognized that it is better to earnestly live and love in obscurity than to seek a fame that is sure to be futile and fleeting.

In this shared time of loosely controlled chaos, there are two thoughts recurring incessantly in my head, the first is a little poem by Langston Hughes, entitled "Advice:"

I'm telling you
birthing is hard
and dying is mean
so get yourself
a little loving
in between.

The second is a sort of prayer. Voiced roughly, it asks that amid all else that will come and go in the years to come we do not lose this sense of earnest legitimacy and thus soil the divine spark within that Marcus Aurelius recognized. This legitimacy is easy on a day like this; when the natural world confirms our lofty intentions at the outset of a wondrous Maine summer. But there are many Novembers yet to weather. And if we do chase after this legitimacy with a dogged tenaciousness, what is it we will have gained? Simply, a life well lived. And perhaps everything else, including the loving, will follow.

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