Carl Benton Straub
It is unspeakably difficult to know what to say on this occasion. We are a richly diverse community in our memories and in our hopes. No one of us can strike chords of memory which sound sweet for us all; no one can fathom the hopes which are breaking forth in the rush of our leaving one another.
But our College is a place of memory and of hope. And since we are participants in it, we have found ourselves from time to time being enlivened by traditions which sit in this place. Ceremonies of place make audible the otherwise silent memories and hopes which hold things together and give some continuity to the common life. Tonight we are a conclave of memory and of hope. And I risk speaking briefly of our entanglements in them.
Place stores memory. It is the power of memory which helps forge our sense of place. When we leave a place or when the place changes because of who leaves, acts of remembering come into play.
Perhaps for the moment the field of memory in which we most easily find ourselves is marked by experiences which make college so diffuse in its enriching powers. For seniors these might include the “white rhetoric” of the first snow in the first year, the close victories over the girls and boys of Bowdoin, the first glimpse of the Serengeti’s light or of Bangkok’s neon in the junior year, the completion of Cell Hell or the slow entry into Jane Austen’s world of meaning. These occasions of place mark the timetable of collegiate years.
But I suggest another field of memory which marks our lives. And as you begin to measure the worth of your stay here, these memories also need to be brought forth. We remember moments — sudden, unexpected, transitory — when we experienced liberation from illusions, false authorities, old ways of looking at things. These liberating moments may have been in reading a sentence or looking through a scope, in listening to a concerto or in dancing with the drums, in an evening with another or in a solitary walk across campus. The moments themselves did not give the content of truths to live by. But they were windows through which we glimpsed what matters. Erich Heller described them as “when the tiniest shred of experience…unexpectedly becomes a conductor of infinity.”
These breaks beyond the regimes of academic expectations and of campus culture may even have de-centered us, for a while de-stabilized us. For they may have unveiled the depth of life, the discovery that deeper than our individuality is our solidarity, and deeper than human meanings and the languages which articulate them is the structure of life shrouded in silence, beyond speech. It’s as if they were dreamtimes of the neolithic night. These moments we remember because they reveal, mercifully, the possibility of receiving wisdom in spite of ourselves. When we begin to forget so much from this place, let us remember these gifts.
Our College is also a place enlivened by hope. By hope I do not mean “careful…calculation of probabilities.” Rather I speak of hope as trusting anticipation of what is possible despite our calculations to the contrary. Hopes sown and nourished in our collegiate place are not cautious ones; they are bold ones. They arise out of our teaching and learning. They justify those endeavors. Three deserve celebration tonight.
When we are at our best, we have joy in learning about the otherness of life. To learn is to be embarked on journeys of paying attention to the Other. The first hope is that these journeys continue. My teacher wrote, “We dwell in our world according to the way in which we imagine our world [and we imagine our world by faithfully attending to it].” The wellspring of learning is astonishment that things are the way they are. Astonishment is rooted in mindful engagement of the otherness of things: the galaxies beyond the planets, the beautiful integrity of mathematics, the melancholy faces of wild animals, the complexity of the human wink. We celebrate our hope for patient deference toward that which shows itself to us. For in such openness comes confirmation of the inexhaustible reciprocity of ourselves and the encircling strangeness.
The second hope enlivened by this place is companion to the first. It is the hope that our kindlings of self-discovery felt here will burn ever brighter through all our days. If we continue to learn about our worlds, we will learn some things about our selves. For we are in and of the world. We are entangled in its skein, shaped by its contours. Learning about the Other enriches the efforts of self-reflection.
But there is knowledge of self which cannot be taught, which cannot be learned from others. The majesty of our academic disciplines has its limits. Kierkegaard insisted, “However much one generation learns from another, it can never learn from its predecessor the genuinely human factor. In this respect every generation begins afresh, has no task other than that of any previous generation, and comes no further.” The “genuinely human factor,” for Kierkegaard, is the courage to discern and accept the unique configuration of life which is one’s self, a configuration beyond the templates for heroism or the ideologies of social roles. We hope, for all of us, this solitary dimension of becoming ourselves.
Finally, we are enlivened by the hope for gratitude, gratitude expressed by service to others. Make no mistake, dear friends: Everyone in this room, despite secret hurts and unexpected burdens, is blessed beyond our accomplishments with gifts of mind and circumstance. Whether through civility and kindness in the little niches where we will live, or through courage to judge harshly when pernicious politics ordain what the poet called “the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells,” it is the fellowship of educated women and men who must bear down the haughty and lift up the downtrodden. Let us hope our present gratitude for what we have received here will sustain us with grace to care for life which comes across our future horizons.
Strong memories; high hopes. So be of good cheer. Keep on rockin’.