May 12, 2007
For the Classes of 2007, this is a liminal time, a threshold time, as you exit one stage of life and enter another. I imagine it’s unsettling for you to pack up an entire college life, to have every relationship be in flux, to trade the familiar routines of campus for the new adventures of jobs, grad school, the Peace Corps, travel or even going back home.
You may not realize, however, that your shift in status also affects your families and us, your faculty and administrative colleagues. In your family you are still your parents’ child, your siblings’ sibling, yet with graduation family roles and expectations are shifting on every side. One mom said to me, “now my nest will really be empty.” Another parent lamented the return of a soon-to-be graduate who wants all the independence accorded an adult, but all the support given a child. A little sister said, “I hope she doesn’t want her room back!”
Your commencement is also a transition for those of us who will stay at HWS. Your presence here has changed everything, and your leaving will change everything again. Your participation and leadership changed Chorale, Women’s Collective, LAO, Hillel, Newman, all the athletic teams, William Smith Congress, Hobart Student Government, even the board of trustees. You founded the Debate team. None of these organizations will ever be the same without you and neither will we.
The question for all of us at this liminal time is how will we cope? How will we cope with such profound change and transition?
Of course what we often do is try to downplay it.
“Oh,” we say at HWS, “it won’t really be that different. New students will come to replace the graduates.”
“Oh,” say the parents, “it won’t be that different. He’s still my son. She’ll always be my daughter.”
“Oh,” say the graduates, “we’ll always be friends. It won’t be that different to be living across the country from one another and communicating on Facebook.”
Or sometimes rather than downplaying it, we cope with the transition by just not thinking about it at all. We fill our days (and nights) with activities, our bodies with numbing substances, and let everything recede into a comfortable blur.
Or sometimes we dramatize the situation. Emoting one extreme or the other, rather than living in the complexity of our emotions, we collapse weeping into every set of open arms or chatter wildly about how happy we are to have the whole thing over.
What I try to say to myself and what I really want to say to others is “Be real!” Puh-lease.
One of the reasons I love being chaplain in an academic institution is that I am surrounded by folks who share my longing for reality. I expect that all human beings have a longing for meaning, truth and beauty, but in a college, we are allowed to pursue those passions openly.
Children, like the most highly trained art historians, can detect a fake a mile away. And very often college students still have excellent B.S. detectors when they get here. Even though as a society we generally try to dull or repress their ability to discern reality by bombarding with them with false messages – "‘Shopping will make you happy," "A buff and hairless chest is the route to success" – most college students still have some ability to discern what’s real. Most of you came here with a longing for honesty, a desire for integrity, a skepticism of easy answers and an absolute allergy to the disingenuous.
I imagine you were delighted to come to Hobart and William Smith and find a faculty full of fellow skeptics: faculty whose passion lies in uncovering the truth about Media and Society or International Relations; faculty intent on dissecting everything from bat’s eyes to epic poetry; faculty who analyze the data and find out what’s really going on in the economy, in our schools, in these beautiful Finger Lakes.
It’s been a delight for me to watch your curiosity and desire to know the facts ignite into a passion for learning, for finding out what’s real. And then to see that passion lived out in the making of art, in activism and in service aimed at making positive change in the world. I love being part of this community of learning because I see the potential this process of critical thinking – exploration, experiment, analysis, action, reflection – has for spiritual growth.
Of course, not everyone understands that there is or even could be any relationship between critical thinking and spiritual practice, between the aims of the academy and the aims of religious education. For many, higher education is about facts and truth, while religion is about fantasy and denial. Like anthropologist Scott Atran, quoted in a New York Times Magazine article “Darwin’s God” this past March, many academic types look at religious practice and say,
Imagine another animal that took injury for health or big for small or fast for slow or dead for alive. It’s unlikely that such a species could survive. (New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2007)
And I say, ‘Imagine a faculty member who took metaphor for scientific description, poetry for history, myth for tabloid. It’s unlikely that such a person could ever get tenure.” Religious or Spiritual practice is not just for the pre-modern or the uneducated.
The way I see it, religious people, at least mystics, are as intensely interested in discerning and living in reality as are scientists. Just as scientists use terms like “black holes” and “dark matter” to speak about realities that we cannot perceive directly; just as poets, like Jamie here, use metaphors to name the deepest and most complex realities of our lives; so religious traditions use the metaphors of story and song to discern and communicate what is real.
My hope for you in the Classes of 2007 is that in the next days and months you will take the ability to reflect critically you have learned here and use it to live fully into the reality of this transition. The desire to discern and live in reality will put you on a path of spiritual—as well as intellectual—discovery.
In some religious traditions, “reality” is a name for God. The Sufi mystics in Islam for instance, speak of God as “the real” or “the real one.” The Hebrew God identifies the divine self as Jahweh, or “I am who I am,” “I am who I am becoming.” Religious traditions also tell us that as much as we long for reality, long for God, that Reality/God is a frightening thing. “Who can look at the face of God and live?” Take a look at the images of Siva/Sakti or Kali in the Hindu tradition. Even as they are an attractive source of life, power, sexuality, they wear the repellant skulls and ashes of the cremation grounds. Jesus in the Christian tradition is the one who lives because he died, the one who calls his followers to die in order to live. This reality stuff is not for the faint of heart!
Our being real, especially in transition or crisis, requires no less courage. We want to be real, to be honest with self and other, but that requires that we look critically at ourselves, that we discern our own motivations, evaluate our actions, know the longings and satisfactions of our own hearts.
Some of us fear to approach that sacred ground. We worry that if we look within, look with a critical eye at who we are, at who we are becoming, we will not see Rumi’s ruby twinkling brightly, will not find the root, or grounding essence, but instead will find darkness, emptiness, nothing. We fear we will not be able to bear what we see and so sometimes, we do not look at all. My hope for you is that you will find the courage of a Buddhist monk, the courage of a bikkhu or “fear seer” one who, as Mark Epstein put it, can “tolerate” your “own terror.”
Some of us worry that we will be too powerful. We worry that taking the bushel basket off our lamp might just cause a forest fire. Or we worry that others will think we are immodest, show-offs. My hope for you is that you will find the courage to find the “fiery sun” “giving light inside” your “heart” and to “shine” both for yourself and for others.
One final word. At Hobart and William Smith, you have been part of a living learning community. It may be possible to be an autodidact, to teach yourself, but it is impossible to "be real" alone.
Being real requires an acceptance that our reality, the reality of our little communities, is never the whole picture. President Gearan puts it this way at Senior Staff meetings, “It’s dangerous to believe your own spin.” It takes a global village to be real. Our ability to discern reality is limited to what we know from our experience, listening, reflection, reading and thinking. “Now we seek through a glass darkly.” If we want to “be real," we must gather around ourselves communities of discernment, communities committed to seeking after the truth, communities that are open and welcoming of the challenging presence and interpretations of the other. My hope for you as you leave this place is that you will not retreat into small groups of like-minded individuals, but that you will instead seek out those who will widen your perceptions and challenge you in the midst of your anxieties and your confidence to “be real.”