[What follows is my talk from last night at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA.]
GOOD EVENING! And welcome to our families and our friends present this evening for the Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction Ceremony. And most importantly, welcome to our honorees—congratulations to each of you! The praise we offer you this evening is well-deserved. The challenges you have faced that led you here are real. And yet, this evening is more to help mark a beginning than an end.
I have been reflecting recently on two quotations from Aldous Huxley, 20th century thinker and novelist:
First, Huxley asserted, “It’s rather embarrassing to have given one’s entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than, ‘Try to be a little kinder.’”
And second: Huxley implored, “Never give children a chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the very beginning that all living is relationship. Show them relationships in the woods, in the fields, in the ponds and streams, in the village and in the country around it. Rub it in.”
For many years I taught a novel by Aldous Huxley entitled, Brave New World. In this dystopian classic, Huxley creates a society that has had relationships and kindness intentionally pulled from its fabric. To make way for a top priority of stability, the world we encounter in the novel is devoid of altruism and philanthropy. The notion of family is as alien to the characters in the novel as the absence of the notion of family would be to us.
In the world that we live in we can feel the forces pulling us away from kindness and away from communion with each other. These forces form a sort of gravity that comes from both inside of us and outside of us. For you Westminster seniors, I am not referring to the tug of independence that challenges the ties that bind us as you redefine relationships with your family in advance of your leaving home. This graduating Senior tug is healthy even though it doesn’t always feel healthy; it is transition to a new kind of relationship with your family rather than an abandonment of it.
There are other forces, however, that are unhealthy and represent a kind of cultural permission to fall from our better selves and into a reductive facsimile of ourselves. We see this in the prepubescent level of debate in government, and we see it in the cruelty we at times allow ourselves in facebook, or twitter, or tumblr posts. We see it in mean-spirited reality television where we feel that we are only spectators when in truth our watching, our reveling in the misfortune of others or in our perceived superiority to those on the screen is its own kind of participation. Our comfort with this is based on an illusion of distance and separation from each other. It is a kind of forgetting of that which Huxley reminds us—that is, that “all living is relationship.”
So, why is tonight an appropriate time to speak on this topic of kindness and relationship? In short, because all the work you have done, all of the sweat and frustration you have endured, as well as all of the adulation and success we recognize this evening only has value in as much as it allows you to live a life of connection and contribution to your family, your neighborhood, your community and city, your nation and your world. Recognizing the primacy of relationship allows us to see the primacy of kindness. I focus on it here because I know…
Kindness is not easy; it is certainly not quaint or trite; kindness is requires courage, it makes us vulnerable, and it requires selfless contribution. It requires thinking of others before we think of ourselves.
Kindness sets a high bar; it is rigorous. It is not simply a hobby. It is not OK to be kind only when it is convenient and to shut kindness out when it is not practical.
Kindness is not seductive but its alternatives are, and they are ubiquitous.
Each profession has benefitted infinitely through the kindness of its practitioners, and each profession has suffered in its absence.
To do unto others as you would have them do unto you requires selflessness, self-awareness, and yes…kindness.
I say all this about kindness knowing how often I have fallen short of its mark, and knowing as well that I will fall short again. And again.
So much that you have learned here and we celebrate tonight has been at its core about discovering the relationships between ideas, content, and notably, people. You have learned things like how history and literature are linked, or how art and science can play well together. Tonight I ask that we remember how we are connected, how we are in a relationship. Like Huxley implores in the second quotation I read, I want to “rub in” this idea. And in this remembering of connection, I hope that we are able to hold kindness a bit more tightly to our thoughts, and our words, and our actions.
We are living in a moment in our history when we have more dynamic and significantly more powerful means of connection than at any other time. If we think it, we can communicate it—globally. If we want to know more, we can find it—immediately. And yet within these truths there is this paradox: at the very moment when we have more means of communication and more efficient means of acquiring knowledge, we somehow face unprecedented risks of feeling disconnected, alienated, and alone. Dangerously, we also risk being people who disconnect, who alienate, or who dismiss others. Our education, certainly the education and achievement we honor this evening, should lead us to be among the people in the world who overcome these challenges, who find ways to create relationships that transcend the smallness of internet chatter and of easy meanness. Our most earnest hope is that the students of Westminster graduate with a desire to serve the greater good and to lead others in making a better world. I believe this work begins with recognition of the centrality of relationships and of the vital role of kindness in achieving these ends of serving and leading. The content and bulk of the education you have acquired here is the most apt partner I can imagine for such a necessary ask and demanding task. And thus in the end I can think of no group of young people whom I would rather send into the world to do this work.
So to the new members of the National Honor Society and of the Cum Laude Society, congratulations on work well-done. We look forward to the rest of the year with you, and even more we look forward to all that you will do in this world.
This growing up happens fast, no doubt. Three summers ago my wife, daughter and I spent a month in Italy, mostly in a small Piedmont town called Vogogna, which backs up into the northern side of the Ossola Valley not too far from Domodossola. Just this evening I found a video my daughter took one morning on our Flip Video camera as we took a hike up the mountain and found ourselves above the ruin of a thirteenth century fortress.
[At Westminster we are in the final stage of preparing a new website. As many readers will already know such work is remarkably demanding and multi-faceted, and among its complex tasks is creating engaging new content for the school's web-presence. Our Communications Team has been doing great work preparing to unveil the web-page, and their efforts have included coaxing new messages out of each Division Head. Below is what I submitted as a message from me. It is a revision and a repurposing of a blog entry entitled, "The Talent Assembly: Evidence of the Ties that Bind Us," I wrote in the Fall of 2011.]
From the Upper School Head:
In the fall of my first year at Westminster, we had what we called the Talent Assembly where students performed music for our upper school community. When I was a student, I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing this. To step up to the microphone to sing or to play the piano, flute, or guitar would have been beyond my imagination. I wouldn’t have risked it. I wouldn’t have been able to abide the idea that I might do it poorly or that others might laugh at me for trying. So when I saw this assembly, I was amazed and deeply moved.
That morning I was proud of the students who stepped up to the microphone. For each of them courage, skill, and hard work was met with generous applause. I know they felt the glow that follows a job done so well.
It takes both the performer and the community to make this kind of event successful. What I saw was not only students displaying remarkable talent, but also audience members cheering the performers as they walked on stage and as they exited. It was a genuine and warm applause that rolled through the crowd. Good things happen in such a school, in such a community. At Westminster we value the power of community, and we focus attention on deepening the connections that tie us together.
I have always loved the potential of school, and I was fortunate enough to land in this one where so much that can be great about a school is great. Westminster pops with energy, with questions,with possibility, with opportunity, and with kindness. The Westminster community—students, faculty, and staff—arrives here each morning from all over the city, and we share the vital conversation of learning. It is an extraordinary intersection of people!
We strive to be the school we would wish for our own children. For me that school is one where my child is challenged, yes, but also one where my child is known and supported.
I hope you will take the opportunity to come see us!
[I posted an early version of a Cum Laude speech last fall. It was a fragment of a speech I abandoned for another. As we have two of these ceremonies each year, I revisited it for the most recent induction ceremony although I changed its original direction completely. I have been thinking recently about how members of a community are connected to each other, and I decided to try to say something about the value of connection in the talk that follows.]
What is the purpose of your education if not for others, for those you love, for the communities in which you will live? Achievement, like that which we recognize and celebrate this evening, is not an end unto itself nor would it be worth celebrating if it was accomplished for yourself alone. Achievement is only truly valuable when it prepares you to give it back somehow through the contributions you make and the life you lead.
Last Fall I went to my twenty-fifth college reunion.
I distinctly remember alumni weekends when I was in college when a bunch of old folks would roll into town and onto campus. To me, most of these people seemed goofy, hyper-nostalgic, and awkward. They walked around campus as if they were getting used to gravity again after a long time spent in space. They seemed uptight, they often laughed too loud, and many talked too much. They were like some strange breed of five-year cicadas that showed up to make everyone uncomfortable for a brief time before disappearing again.
Recognizing that my undergraduate feelings toward this crowd of alumni were far less than generous, I see now that I was in dire need of some sort of attitude adjustment about these good people who cleared their calendars just so they could return to a place, their college, their alma mater, that held such powerful and lasting meaning to them—and time has provided me just such an attitude adjustment, time has likely provided it for your parents, and the smart money says that time will provide it for you. The adjustment is centered in this: given that life is hard, yet endlessly rich with challenge and possibility, we each need passion and humility to endure and to excel. Just as importantly, perhaps even more importantly, however, we need each other…we need connection.
In my Junior English Course we read the play W;t by Atlanta playwright and teacher, Margaret Edson. The protagonist and narrator of the play, Dr. Vivian Bearing, is a literature professor, a world-renowned scholar of John Donne’s poetry, who is faced with a terminal illness. As the illness progresses, she becomes more and more aware of the fact that she has built a life without the sustaining connections necessary to support her in her time of greatest need. While her health deteriorates, she reflects on her past coldness to her students, as well as her lack of any generosity of spirit, and she begins to feel pangs of regret. She has not given support to others, nor has she valued it, and as a result she is not able to receive support (at least until the very end). For me the most powerful moment is when she becomes particularly sick after a treatment, and she has to call a cab to take her to the hospital, as she had no one to call that might drive her. Dr. Bearing is to some degree a Scrooge-like character who faces her own ghosts in a difficult moment of trial though the difference is that, as opposed to Scrooge, her self-recognition comes too late for her to make a redeeming reentry into the community of humankind she has neglected for so long.
Though she finds some peace at the very end, Vivian Bearing’s story is a cautionary tale, and her example warns us of lives lived with high walls built around us. In her professional life she accumulated achievements, and treated them as if they had meaning unto themselves when in fact this approach sells the highest purpose of our achievements and our education far short. We can do better, and we can think bigger…but we need to value connection with others in order to meet that high purpose head-on. Gaining an education, one marked by hard work and challenge, one marked by deep engagement and a love of ideas and learning is not a selfish pursuit, for the beneficiaries of that process are likely to be in our families, or they may sit in our literature class, or they may live in our neighborhoods, perhaps our city, maybe our state. Indeed the fruits of our educations may extend one day to benefit people around the world, people whom we will never meet.
During my college reunion, in addition to feeling old, I found myself renewing my admiration for many of my classmates. I noted how many of them were living lives of engagement and contribution, how many were selfless leaders in their communities. I noted how many were the friends you want to have in the moments of triumph and of defeat that inevitably mark the calendars of our lives. I also noted how the connection we have maintained over the years has a sustaining purpose. Staying in touch, staying connected can seem somewhat trite, but it is indeed anything but trite. Our connection to others makes our lives meaningful, makes our struggles a bit more manageable, and these connections reveal the purposefulness that should underpin our striving for academic achievement. Becoming educated inherently includes the demand that we learn not to see ourselves as living in a vacuum, but rather that we see ourselves as inextricably linked to one another. The high purpose of that education is to make the world within our reach better for our presence. This high purpose includes as well the demand that wherever we bring our minds, we must bring our hearts as well.
So congratulations to our inductees on this admirable achievement. You have done extraordinary work to be here tonight, and we are proud of what you have accomplished so far. And… when you find yourself at Homecoming looking at those goofy, hyper-nostalgic, and awkward long ago graduates of your college or university, please have some patience with them and try not to judge them too harshly. Thank you.
I will be presenting a 20 minute TED Talk-like talk as part of Project Connect in June. For me it will be a homecoming of sorts as I taught at Asheville School for ten years and was the founding chair of the integrated, interdisciplinary Humanities Department. There are some great folks on the faculty there helping to lead the way in discussions about how to think about interdisciplinary work. I will be speaking about the role academic schedules can play in unlocking the potential of interdisciplinary approaches. If you are interested in this topic, I have a feeling that this will be the place to be for these couple of days, and Asheville is a fantastic place to spend some time in the summer! About Project Connect.
“Ross All Over the Map” has been a powerful tool for reinvigorating my writing and for refining much of my thinking about school change, travel, photography, and music. It has pushed me and it has rewarded me. That said, I have felt its limitations more and more over the last six months or so, in particular as I have been pulled toward writing that requires a longer period of fermentation than standard blog entries. In early December I wrote about my goal to reinvigorate the blog, but alas, I have fallen short.
Interestingly, it was the blog that led me to take what felt like the brave step of sharing poetry I had written, and now it is my work with poetry that has kept me away from the blog recently. Over the last couple of months I have been giving the same amount of time I was devoting to the blog to work on a collection of poems. As I have been working on them, it has become clear to me that the pressure of continually posting work creates the potential that I would rush them and that their quality would suffer as a result.
So here is my plan: for the near-term, I will give full priority to my work with poems, and I will be committed to finishing the full collection I have outlined. I will also maintain the blog though I will not maintain the same commitment to posting as often or as regularly. In the blog’s first full year I averaged over two posts a week. For now, I am adjusting my goal for posts to something like one post every two or three weeks.
When after the first couple of months of its existence, I started to refine my vision for it (“Finally, A Name for My Blog”), I already knew that I wanted the blog to be malleable. From the start I have wanted it to meet a personal need far more than it would create an additional obligation—my life like everyone else’s has enough requisite demands already without adding another by choice.
I am excited to continue work on the poems and to see how the blog continues to evolve. Here’s to the new plan!
The poems I have posted on the blog are collected here.
Written by a former student from my days teaching at Asheville School, this will likely be the most memorable piece I read this holiday. We teach them and soon enough they teach us.”I’ve learned that love is bearing witness.” Christmas with my homeless aunt. – Slate Magazine.