Dean of Hobart College Eugen Baer
May 12, 2018
Dear graduating seniors and families, friends of Hobart and William Smith Colleges,
It is an extraordinary honor for me to share my thoughts with you as you are preparing to leave the Colleges. To be sure, one can never leave this place in an absolute sense. Too many formative experiences have been taking shape here. Not for nothing is it called “Alma Mater”, “Nourishing Mother”, since for many of us it has been a place of a true birth for life.
I welcome all of you, students and families, to this solemn hour. Baccalaureate exercises are a time of joyous celebration. The transition taking place for our graduates is both a closing and an opening, and I will focus my thoughts today on the opening, on the future that lies at your door, on the excitement that you must feel in your heart.
All my life I have been fascinated by languages. Born and raised in Switzerland, home to four official languages, I grew up and acquired a few more. And the more languages I spoke, the more I became aware of them as being alive, even so-called dead languages like biblical Hebrew, or classical Greek and Latin. Even dead languages come alive for whoever speaks and studies them. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that “to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life”. People do things with words and without knowing what people do with them, you cannot really understand their language. A good example for this are the so-called idioms, where the meaning is often not literal, as when we say “I need some milk” and mean “I need some help” or “he is thirsty” to convey the meaning “he is trying too hard”. Idioms come and go, but they are often very powerful. Last year, I learned an idiom that really stuck with me. I love it so much that I will use it as the title of my talk today. You may have heard it, but if you have not, the idiom speaks for itself. It says: “Stay woke!”
I am going to send you off with this message: “stay woke”. There are many things we need to be watchful about as we step into the future. I will share with you four of those things and then add a fifth. The first one that comes to mind is the self.
What is the self? If we are watchful, it is something we give birth to every day. But we need to know what we are talking about. The philosopher Immanuel Kant distinguished two aspects of the self. One is the self of everyday life with all its challenges. And the challenges can be so absorbing that we forget about the other half of the self. It is the reflective self, the self that observes the first one and is able to point it in the right direction. Unless we practice reflection, we tend to get lost in daily chores. This was known thousands of years ago. One of the oldest wisdom texts, the Mundaka Upanishad, introduces the two aspects of the self in a famous allegory of two birds. Here is how it goes:
Two identical birds that are eternal companions perch in the very same tree. One eats many fruits of various tastes. The other only witnesses without eating. (3.3.1. Mundaka Upanishad)
For Kant, the first of these birds is the empirical self, the second one is the intellectual self. The first one is visible, it is part of nature, it stands under the laws of nature, it is heteronomous, and in the end, nature always wins. The second one is invisible, it is a law to itself, which means, it is autonomous. It gives laws to itself, moral laws. As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre reminds us, that part of the self “chooses” itself. We all know about making good choices, but choosing yourself is something else. It is so powerful, that even in oppression and sickness it makes itself felt. Deeply rooted in our unconscious it needs careful attention. Therefore, I say, let’s stay woke, and we may wake up. The following excerpts from the poem “Call Me by My True Names” by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh show how he chose himself to be everything under the wide open sky:
Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone…
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
Stay woke to compassion, stay woke to the self.
But the self is just a point of departure. Its ultimate destiny is our dependency from and service to the Other. Who is this Other? It is collectively all those factors we have no control over but that make us who we are. We can never catch up with the Other. Like a strange dream out of infinite darkness we are conceived and born and pushed into this world. You cannot figure out the Other. He is the Stranger with many faces. But one face sticks out and that is the face of another living being. According to the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, this face is the basis of our solidarity with all sentient beings. It is the basis of a responsibility which precedes everything else in life. It is the basis of an all-inclusive community, and therefore the basis of justice, human rights and animal rights. We have to keep our mind open for that face. Stay woke for the face of the Other!
The philosopher Okada Takehito was once asked about the central doctrine of Confucian ethics. He said that it was the concept of reciprocity. The Chinese word for this is shu. In the Analects (15:23) we read:
Tzu-kung asked Confucius: “is there a word that is a guiding basis for human conduct?” Confucius answered: It is the word reciprocity (shu). Do not do onto others what you don’t want done to you.”
Reciprocity, respect, listening, are the three words for watchful ethical practice. Stay woke! What kind of listening leads to reciprocity? Have you noticed that when you listen very carefully to somebody else, you sometimes will find yourself saying “Oh?” “Oh” marks a moment of surprise, of a new insight. The psychoanalyst Wilfrid Bion held that when he listens, he is focusing on “O”, meaning his listening adopts a consciousness of total openness, radical emptiness, where anything can happen, which often triggers in us a spontaneous Oh-reaction. Oh, I never thought of that. I call this state “O-consciousness”, it is totally open consciousness in the act of listening, which makes an all-inclusive reciprocity possible. But this opennesss is not automatic; it requires effort, we have to stay woke.
A third issue to be watchful about are the urgent needs of the environment. We live in a world of climate change. Stay woke! Maria Popova, the author of the BrainPickings blog, reminds us that Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, wrote in 1953 the following: “The real wealth of a Nation lies in the resources of the earth – soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife. . . Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.” (BrainPickings 3/17/18). This was written over 60 years ago. Popova points out that “Carson’s legacy inspired the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose hard-won environmental regulations are now being undone in the hands of the current political administration.” (ibid.). In 1962 Rachel Carson published an acclaimed book, Silent Spring, against the dangers of the pesticide DDT, in which she broke the silence about the indiscriminate use of chemical spraying. She was inspired, writes Popova, by a line from a 1914 poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.” Silence, when we should speak out, is a deadly part of the problem we are trying to solve. Therefore, stay woke, wherever you will be on this magnificent earth. We are wedded to the earth, our mother, and we need to be watchful what is happening to her. We cannot stay silent.
And then, the last of the four things I want to share with you, there is the deepest core of our being, the Sacred. Gazing at the stars above and at the moral law within awakens in many people, not only Immanuel Kant, a desire for the Sacred. I am one of those people. The theologian Rudolf Otto wrote a whole book, a classic, about the experience of the Sacred. Part of this experience is an all-enveloping feeling of the incomprehensibility of everything. Ultimately, we do not understand anything about the mystery of the universe or God. St. Augustine said it best: “Si enim comprehenderis, non est Deus”. “If you were to comprehend, He would not be God.” (Sermo 117,3 quoted in Jean-Luc Marion, Believing in Order to See, Fordham University (2017) p.158, ft. 12). God is incomprehensible because he is infinite. And this ultimate incomprehensibility also trickles down to us. We are and will always be incomprehensible to ourselves for the same reason as God is incomprehensible, because we serve as “a dwelling place for the infinite.” (Jean-Luc Marion, ibid., p. 37). And this mystery, believe it or not, the mystery that we are to ourselves incomprehensible, is the most inclusive bond of our solidarity with all sentient beings. It is the “The Cloud of Unknowing” that holds us all together.
You may ask, then why do we ask questions, we cannot answer? The answer is simple: because we have them. These questions are intrinsically good, because they give us the gift of the ultimate mystery of reality. The acknowledgement of the incomprehensibility of reality gives us a mind-set of infinite openness. But it is not automatic; you have to ask these questions that you cannot answer. You have to remain in these questions. You have to stay woke.
One last word: there is nothing more discouraging than closed-mindedness. It is the ultimate prison. We tend to be closed minded because we like security, or we have become resigned, or we have made up our mind for the rest of our life, or we may have yielded to cynicism, or even despair. I have tried to show today that we need to stay woke. And I selected four concepts: our ability to choose who we want to be, to espouse the Other, to take care of the environment, and to be faithful to the incomprehensibility of the sacred in our life.
To stay woke, we have to keep the windows of our mind wide open. To that end, I add a fifth element that we need to pay attention to. It is in many ways the quintessence of the preceding four. I am talking about the Child. I mean the archetype of the Child, the Eternal Child in us who lives every day as if it were for the first time. I will therefore close with an anecdote about the Child from the Jewish tradition called “the kabbala”.
Children like to play, and the authors of many books of the kabbala like to play, too. They mostly play with letters and words. In the Hebrew alphabet, there is a letter, which represents the window to the wide open sky of the mind. This letter is the letter Hei. The letter appears twice in the Tetragram, the four-letter word for Hashem, the unpronounceable name for God. When you have a quiet moment, I invite you to look up this amazing letter.
It circumscribes a holy space that has a nice little window in the upper left corner. This window represents an infinitely open mind. And as many of you may know, Hebrew letters also represent numbers. Hei represents the number 5. And 5 is the number of the Child.
As someone who believes that language was and is at the beginning of everything, I offer you today this letter Hei as a sign for your life’s journey. It’s my way of saying “hey”. It will remind you of your inner Child. It will remind you of the window of your mind that always needs to be wide open to infinity. Hey, take it with you, and never lose that Child. Stay woke!