One of the unexpected blessings of going back to visit your college professors after you’ve been out of school for awhile is that they become peers, colleagues, even friends versus persons of authority with a red pen that you presume have already figured out the great mysteries of life.
After speaking at my college last week, I’ve been in communication with many of my professors. Associate Professor of Political Science Marc Belanger graciously sent me his speech that he delivered the year after (that’s how they do it … so you have 365 days to put together some thoughts) he was awarded a prestigious teaching award, The Maria Pieta Award, established in 1976 at Saint Mary’s to recognize the quality of teaching done in courses for freshmen and sophomores. His speech contained some similar themes to my Commencement address, so I thought I would share parts of it with you, since he so effectively articulates a topic we often discuss here on Beyond Blue: the pains and pleasures of the examined life.
Over the past several weeks I have had the great pleasure of rereading the incomparable Autobiography of Malcolm X, in the company of some of you. Socrates tells us that the unexamined life is not worth living, but Malcolm’s story shows us that the examined life is painful. I want to share a few thoughts on the pains and pleasures of the examined life.
I sat where you are all, figuratively speaking, 25 years ago this June. To those who we have honored today I want to say feel proud of what you have accomplished. To those who have not had the opportunity to walk across this stage today, I would tell you that I have lived most of my life in your seat. I was a decent student, but no one’s shining star. I didn’t win awards or get told I should go to grad school. I was afraid of most of my professors, and found the adult world daunting. The text which spoke to me most forcefully as an undergrad was Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Some of my students will remember the underground man’s opening words.
” I am a wicked man, an unattractive man. I think my livers hurts.”
I left college viewing myself as rather clueless about many things. I was once on a search committee in which my colleagues speculated on “the missing years” on a candidate’s resume. Well, 1977-1980 are the missing years on my own vita. During that time, I went looking for clues in a lot of weird places. Some I would never return to-ever. I was once or twice uncertain where the next day’s meal would come from. I learned to get from one day to the next, but many things about the world seemed beyond me.
But several good things came out of this condition. I met a lot of people I’d have never known if I’d had a clearer picture of who and what I was. Some of those people did not share my class or race, nor my sexual preference or nationality. A couple of them broke my heart. It made it very hard for me to speak comfortably about “the people,” “the masses,” “them,” “people like that,” or any other broad social conglomerate. I heard too many stories, and one way or another they are often present in my classroom. I also learned lessons about the privileges of being white, male, and educated in this country. However negatively I viewed myself on the inside, doors still opened more often than not solely because of what was on the outside. I went in the doors when I needed to, but tried to see things as they were, not as I might like them to be. Paradoxically, these lessons made me a happier person.
What kept me on my particular path was the stubborn hold of an idea that I guess I learned from reading Karl Marx as an undergraduate. This was the idea that work should not simply allow me to pile up things–it should connect me fully to myself and those around me, what Marx called “the authentic expression of a genuine human need.” The challenge you will face after May 18, or whenever you finally leave school won’t be to get A’s or the praise of your teachers. It will be to build a life which nourishes your body and your soul as well as your capacity to love the world and the people who live in it. Believe that you were born to that kind of work. And if you find that kind of work, nurture it. Never take it for granted. The glow of the dream job will fade as does the romance of a new love. Learning you can love a job is far easier than learning to keep your love for it alive. In this way, it matches the challenge of loving another human being over time. Adults aren’t always honest about what is inside the shiny goals young people are taught to pursue. Standing before you as the recipient of a great honor, I have been made to reflect on all the years it took to see that teaching could be my vocation and many more years to develop whatever skills and abilities I do have. And as some of my students this past year could tell you, winning an award hasn’t kept me from being terrible on occasion. The pursuit of the “keen self-knowledge” which Saint Mary’s Mission Statement identifies at the heart of a liberal arts education must be never ending.
I began describing the affinity I once felt for Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. His pursuit of the examined life led him to finally choose books over life. But the first great novel I ever read offered another possibility. I don’t think a novel can ever again astonish me the way E.B White’s Stuart Little did when I was 12. It was the shock of an ending that left Stuart’s future so uncertain. After a heart-breaking personal encounter, Stuart heads off in search of his friend Margalo. This conclusion was an early glimpse into the terror and mystery of the search for meaning. The novel ends thus:
As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.
How did Stuart ever imagine he would find a little bird in that vast world? I can tell you that when I sat in your seat 25 years ago, it was beyond my imagining that I could find a job that gives me the pleasure of working with you all as my students each day. In reflecting on the grace that has brought me to that point, I offer you the words of the philosopher Nietzsche. “My thoughts should show me where I stand, but they should not betray to me where I am going. I love my ignorance of the future, and I’ve no wish to perish of impatience and of tasting promised things ahead of time.” Nietzsche words call us to accept the inescapable uncertainty that is life’s blessing and curse. In the words of the greatest hero of my youth, Bob Dylan, “if my thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine, but its alright, ma….it’s life and life only.”
To those who have been my students I say thank you and too all of you my heart-felt congratulations.