Congratulations to students, parents, significant others. Few honors are more exemplary.
My remarks this afternoon are in part inspired by a sign in front of a Patients First clinic here inTallahassee . It reads: “Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.” Growing up, boys and girls becoming human beings, becoming a Mensch is a perilous journey, a pilgrimage never completed. Too often along the way adults (from twenties to nineties) settle for the childish.
So? First a little autobiography: I always, at least since the first grade with Miss Andrews, wanted to be a teacher. Even in college, in graduate school and holding positions at Williams College and at Florida State, I liked being a teacher rather than being “a professor.” The latter was too stilted. A year in Germanyreinforced my preference. There the students rose to honor the professor as he entered the classroom. There my wife was frequently referred to as Frau Professor -- above it all – Frau Professor. For me, teaching is a kind of universal vocation – one engaged in by parents and shopkeepers and journalists, and so on.
If I had and have a motto it is the phrase out of Chaucer’s 13th century Canterbury Tales “Gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” 60 years ago in a sunlit April classroom at Duke, I along with 20 other students was reciting the opening lines of Chaucer’s great poem: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.” Then and there was my bending toward growing up, becoming a teacher for myself and others.
I suppose one could title my remarks as notes on leadership; after all, isn’t that something of what “growing up” entails – developing the qualities that enable “being inspired,” “getting along” and “learning to keep company”?
Here then are three such qualities that make sense to me – characteristics of growing up (not stagnating, not being bored, not simply going through the motions).
First, vision. Admittedly, most of us, even including Phi Beta Kappa members, “see in a mirror dimly”; yet we do dream and imagine and follow our visions toward the better. To be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed is to reject the mediocre, refuse to settle for less than our best, not to prize one’s self at the expense of others.
At the same time, vision or dream cannot be easily identified with a particular goal or passion. Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th century influential theologian/social critic and my former teacher, reminds us, “Nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished in a lifetime.” In a world seemingly spiraling out of control, divided into haves and have-nots, bad as well as good religion, extremism is a constant companion. Vision points the way but not to the use of any means for no-matter-how-desirable ends. Extremism in the defense of liberty, of faith, or of nation is the enemy of growing up.
Vision, unaccompanied by patience, my second grownup characteristic, leads too often away from justice to dictatorship or anarchy. Here is ancient wisdom from the prophet Isaiah (40:31):
They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.
They shall mount up with wings like eagles.
They shall run and not be weary
They shall walk and not faint.
They who wait. . . .
The third (and most important?) grown up characteristic is the cultivation of listening – in conversation, in reading, in thinking, in observing, in seeing, in noticing, in wondering, even in speaking.
One huge sign of our inability to listen is the omnipresent “you know” which peppers ordinary conversation as a sign of our unconscious awareness that we do know that no one is listening. We talk but no one hears.
But of course we don’t stop speaking. Most of us associated with Phi Beta Kappa are pretty verbal. Some even dare to give speeches. The trick of how to combine speaking and listening is what Martin Buber, the great 20th century Jewish thinker, called a “delicate balance” between listening and speaking, between the aural and oral, between receiving and sending.
Listen to this passage from Garth Stein’s 2008 best-seller novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, in whichthe narrator is a wonderfully wise dog, named Enzo, who plans to reincarnate as a human being:
Here’s why I will be a good person. Because I listen. I cannot speak, so I listen very well. I never interrupt, I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own. People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another’s conversations constantly. It’s like having a passenger in your car who suddenly grabs the steering wheel and turns you down a side street. For instance, if we met at a party and I wanted to tell you a story about the time I needed to get a soccer ball in my neighbor’s yard but his dog chased me and I had to jump into a swimming pool to escape, and I began telling the story, you, hearing the words ”soccer” and “neighbor” in the same sentence, might interrupt and mention that your childhood neighbor was Pele, the famous soccer player, and I might be courteous and say, Didn’t he play for the Cosmos of New York? Did you grow up inNew York ? And you might reply that, no, you grew up in Brazil on the streets of Tres Coracoes with Pele and I might say, I thought you were from Tennessee, and you might say not originally, and then go on to outline your genealogy at length. So my initial conversational gambit – that I had a funny story about being chased by my neighbor’s dog – would be totally lost, and only because you had to tell me all about Pele. Learn to listen! I beg of you. Pretend you are a dog like me and listen to other people rather than steal their stories. -- The Art of Racing in the Rain, pages 101,102
To borrow a turn of phrase from another ancient whom you will recognize:
So vision, patience, listening abide, these three, but the greatest of these is listening.
And I leave you, at last, with a line from the poet e. e. cummings which modifies most of what I have said: “It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.”
Thank you for listening and blessings on our singular journeys of growing up.