Campus News

Commencement Address: Gloria Shen '03

Story posted May 24, 2003

In Search of Pencil Sharpeners: Living the Efficient Life
by Gloria Shen '03
May 24, 2003

President Mills, Members of the College, and Guests:

There is something very satisfying about sharpening pencils. When I was younger, I loved sauntering across the classroom to the pencil sharpener, turning the crank at just the right speed, and watching the shavings fall to the floor. Then, after catching a whiff of that woodsy scent and inspecting the tip to make sure it is at a perfect sharpness, returning to your desk to start anew with a freshly sharpened pencil.

Pretty soon, there came an end to this activity: the mechanical pencil sharpener. And, soon, after that, the mechanical pencil. No sharpening involved! Did you press down a little too hard and break the tip? No problem! Click, click, and you're back in business. Thank goodness for the mechanical pencil. It's a real time saver. But I sure do miss that woodsy scent and the stroll across the classroom.

This past Spring Break, I went on a community service trip to Peru. Before I left, I did not realize the skepticism that others would have about the good that would come from this trip. How much does building a playground really do? Perhaps it would give the kids a place to play, but it won't help their families rise out of poverty.

When they found out how much the trip would cost, they asked: Why don’t we just send the money to Peru? Why did we need to waste money to travel down there and do it ourselves? Since we were not skilled in manual labor, it would be more efficient for actual construction workers to do the job.

What, you may ask, do sharpening pencils and my trip to Peru have to do with each other? They both have to do with the concept of efficiency. As an economics minor, the "classic" definition of efficiency has been drilled into me since the first day of Economics 101 - that is, a symbol of productivity based on the ratio of output to labor. We live by this definition of efficiency - we use it to analyze how well our economy is doing; how "valuable" certain people are; and how high our standard of living is. Regarding increased efficiency as the "absolute goal" has gone beyond economics and has permeated into every facet of our lives, in which we constantly judge our actions based on whether we think they are a "waste" of time or an "efficient use" of time.

While efficiency as a measurement does have its merits, it lacks valuation of many things that transcend the material world. The quest for efficiency can whet our appetites for "more" and "better" things, which can often manifest into greed. I saw this played out explicitly in my experience in Peru, during which dozens of poor children ran to greet us every day we worked at the site. Each day they were so satisfied and excited, simply with our presence. To them, our actual construction work meant little compared to our attention. They expected nothing of us except for our consideration and a few rides in the wheelbarrow.

On the last day, however, we decided to bring bags of candy to hand out to the children. The second they set their eyes on it, they went wild, as they pushed, they trampled one other, they lied to us to get more, they turned in their friends who had also lied. They didn't care who they had to step over just for one more piece of candy.

This incident greatly affected me, not only because it demonstrated to me how little they had and how little it would take to make them happy. It also made me realize the nature of desire, greed, and desperation; how they consume us to the point where they make us solely out for ourselves and little more.

More generally speaking, efficiency as a measurement is lacking because it hardly speaks to the well-being of people, let alone to their satisfaction with their lives. We are constantly taught to "make the most" of our time, to be more "efficient" in everything that we do. When it comes to leisure, we must always "take time out" of our day for it. This implies that leisure is somehow taking away from a more valuable usage of time. Accordingly, sharpening pencils and traveling to Peru are enormous wastes of time and money, and an "inefficient" way of living.

I am well aware of the objections that may follow this analysis of what it means to spend time efficiently. There is the fear that, if you don't work hard enough, if you stop too long to enjoy life, then somehow you will fail, and end up in destitution. I, too, recognize the fear of failure and a lifetime of misery. But I also think that nothing is more miserable than a life of desperation, when money becomes the ultimate end instead of a means to the end of achieving happiness.

I fully appreciate that much good can come from development, advancement, and that "more, better, and faster" things can promote increased well-being for all. What I am suggesting is that, perhaps, this standard may not always apply in measuring everything in our lives. Yes, it is necessary to work because it allows us to materially support our existence. But you do not have to let your engagement in work disengage you from finding satisfaction in your life. To quote from the film Dead Poets Society, "We are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering - these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love - these are what we stay alive for."

As we have recently heard many times, we do, indeed, live in "troubled times." Therefore, it is easy to label many things as insignificant compared to the "big picture" of world issues. And while we obsess over defending our "way of life" as the goal of this "big picture," we tend to forget that this "way of life" is defined by all of the "insignificant" things. We can, then, "make the most" of our time by helping each other appreciate the beauty of the simple things for which we stay alive. We find these in ourselves and in each other - our gentleness, compassion, generosity, spirituality; our love, conflict, resolution, restoration.

Indeed, we take great risks when we allow something to change us. "Life" is not something each of us owns, but a force that exerts itself on us indiscriminately, giving us the opportunity for both pleasure and pain; it bestows on us the ability to create beauty, and not "beauty" in the superficial sense, but beauty that transcends our conventional definition. It is that which we discover when we have the courage to seek and accept change. This is the transformation from a life of desire, apathy, and desperation, to one of satisfaction, awareness, and conviction.

And this is no simple task. There have been times when I have seriously doubted my own beliefs regarding the value of life. I once had a close friend who, by all appearances, seemed to be living a full, efficient life - smart, rich, witty , successful. However, he was never able to find satisfaction or passion, an emptiness that plagued him. Eventually, desperation consumed his life, and so he chose to leave it. Though I cannot yet comprehend the full effect this has had on my life, I do know that it has forced me to question everything: why are we here? What is it all about? Where did all the beauty go? And what I have realized is that, perhaps we are not necessarily lacking beauty or poetry in our lives, but that, blinded by our desires, and often our apathy, we lose sight of it. As that absence grows deeper, so, too, does our desperation.

In the darkest hours of my own desperation, at my most apathetic, I found the key to reclaiming the beauty, and it was so simple: to stop. Stop trying to live the standard efficient life and redefine for yourself what it is to live "efficiently" so that you allow life into your being and let it transform you and show you where your heart and your satisfaction lie. Let it inspire us to work, to do more, but to do it with conviction. Finding one's conviction requires, not only knowing how to be satisfied, but also how to be dissatisfied - to break out of apathy and to truly want to change yourself and the surrounding world. In this age, it becomes increasingly difficult and risky to act on our convictions - it seems that it would just be easier to be apathetic and, thus, conflict-free.

As our lives and locales become more globalized, we feel as if our voices are less heard and we are less powerful to control our own destinies. We feel the urge to resign from our positions as influential human beings and to shut life out. Inspiration is hard to come by as each of us struggles with finding poetry, and not just "poetry" in the literal sense, but poetry as any force that motivates or inspires you to continue developing your honesty and conviction. In my search, what has inspired me are words and ideas that compel me to seek out change and, thus, to confront life. The following poem by Pablo Neruda, I feel, best captures this moment of transition from desperation to conviction. It is entitled "La poesía" ("Poetry"):

And it was at that age...Poetry arrived in search of me.
I don't know,
I don't know where it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices,
they were not words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

I did not know what to say,
my mouth had no way with names
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
deciphering that fire
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure nonsense,
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw the heavens unfastened
and open planets, palpitating plantation,
shadow perforated, riddled with arrows,
fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry void,
likeness, image of mystery,
I felt myself a pure part of the abyss.
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the open sky.

So move on from here, and do what you love. Find people to love who remind you of why you are here and how much influence you can really have. Be honest with yourself in that you are doing what you think is right. Do yourself a favor, and sharpen some pencils while you're at it. By all means, be successful, make money, make a good living. But never forget what it is you are living for.

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