Thursday, June 7, 2012

Wisdom In These Halls

The following Baccalaureate Address was delivered to the graduating class at Wachusett Regional High School on Thursday, June 7, 2012

My name is Rich Simpson. For the past fifteen years, I have served as the rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Holden. This year my congregation has a dozen young people graduating from high school, eleven of them from Wachusett. That’s a pretty typical-sized graduating class for us, so I am guessing that over the course of the past fifteen years I have seen somewhere in the vicinity of 150-200 kids graduate from here. 

This is the fourth time I’ve been asked to speak at this service and it has been a joyful and humbling experience each time. But these past two times have been particularly special for me: last time I spoke here my oldest son was a member of the graduating class of 2009, and this year my youngest son, James, is a member of this graduating class of 2012. So I am especially grateful to Mr. Beando and to those who planned this event for the invitation to be with you tonight. 

This gathering gives us all an opportunity to pause and reflect on this ending of one chapter of your lives and to look toward the next chapter. Yet even important markers like graduation are not clearly defined endings or beginnings; they are transitions. Life is about how we navigate transitions. Everyone here has a range of emotions tonight: graduates, teachers, parents, grandparents. These same emotions kick up at other times of transition in our lives: big ones like birth and death, and more intermediate ones like the first day of kindergarten or Middle School graduation or the first week of college or getting married or accepting a new job. It’s natural to feel both excited and sad; as humans we are allowed to feel more than one emotion at once and on occasions like this we usually do. 

When one becomes a teacher or a priest or a parent one may mistakenly believe early on that they now have wisdom (as if it were a commodity) to impart to the next generation (as if they were a blank slate.) If that were true then my job would be to stand up here and tell you things you don’t already know, things that I have learned in the past thirty years since I graduated from high school that, if you were to listen and I were to do my job well, would make your lives easier. 

But I think that is silly, and that Plato was right: learning is essentially about remembering what the soul already knows. We discover (or maybe uncover) the truth dialogically, in conversation. In spite of all the books on the subject you discover how to be a parent as you go, by interacting with that singular human being that you bring home from the hospital. You discover, sooner or later, that they have their own personality and their own ideas and even if their genetic makeup is half yours, they are not clones. This is why if you have more than one child you cannot parent them the same way; they are not the same people. Parenting is more like playing improvisational jazz than playing in a chamber orchestra, I think. 

Anyway, as I sat down last week to think about what I might say tonight, I began looking through your yearbook, “In These Halls.” There I read all of those little quotes you shared and I was happy to see words from St. Paul, Gandhi, J.K. Rowling, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, Wayne Gretzky, Winnie the Pooh, Professor Dumbledore, and the always provocative “Anonymous.”  I was glad to see that even Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd) got a shout out for that haunting question asked in The Wall: “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” 

So I want to speak to four themes tonight, using some of your own quotes as a way into this conversation—inviting us to remember together some of what the soul already knows.   

#1. Life is a journey, so enjoy the ride. Here is what I heard from all of you on this topic: 
  •  “The journey is more important than the end or the start.” 
  •  “It makes no difference how many peaks you reach if you have no pleasure in the climb.” 
  • “As one journey ends, another begins.” 
  •  “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” 
  • "Time you enjoy wasting was not wasted.” 
  •  “Let’s take the good times as they come, and I’ll meet you further on up the road.” 
  •  “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” 
  •  “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”
As a class you seem to have a very good sense of this notion. So you don’t need me to stand up here and tell you as some expert on the subject that “life is a journey.” You know this already. 

Yet there is an enormous amount of pressure in our society to forget this wisdom of the soul and to start to live as if life is about the peaks. When that happens to us we do forget to enjoy the climb. We can fall into the trap of thinking that life will begin once we get into the college of our choice, or receive that diploma or get that first job or find that right spouse or have 2.3 children or get that next promotion or when the children move out of the house or when the grandchildren come for a visit. But if we are not careful with our lives, we will always be chasing that next thing, and we will forget the wisdom that goes to the heart of every great religious tradition and to the heart of twelve-step spiritualities as well: life can only ever be lived one day at a time. It can only be lived in the Now.

So I’d like to add just one more quote to your list of insights: a rabbi once said, “consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.” I think he meant to say that we have to build in time in the midst of life regardless of what is happening—good or bad—to stop and consider and to pay attention. To pray or to meditate if that is your inclination; but if not, then at least to slow down long enough to breathe in and breathe out, to see and to hear. In so doing, we begin to worry less about where we are going and more about being fully present where we are. With all due respect to Dr. Seuss (whom I adore) don’t forget to stop and say: “oh, the place where I am!”

#2. Fear paralyzes us. While there may be social pressures from the outside to tempt you into forgetting to listen to your own deep inner wisdom, the wisdom that will lead you to follow your own path, the truth is that the greatest obstacles to fully embracing life one day at a time are always the internal ones. You all grew up on Harry Potter; I refer you to it as you confront your fears—and the biggest ones are not the Lord Voldomorts of this world but the self-doubts that lie within. The biggest and most toxic threat to a life lived well is fear. In my faith tradition, every time an angel shows up, the very first words they always speak are the same: “do not be afraid…”  Once again, though, you all already know this. Here is what I read:

  • “The biggest mistake you can make in life is constantly fearing you’re going to make one.” 
  •  “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” 
  •  And this: “Always a lesson, never a failure.”
Fear keeps us from taking risks. It keeps us from trying the really bold thing that our heart may yearn for. And so we begin to settle for caution. But if we can remember that growth almost always comes more from our failures than our successes, then we will more naturally face our fears and try new things, and not be so worried about always getting it right. It is, in my experience, our failures that teach us the most about why we need family and friends, and why we do not have to go through life being so afraid. So “fear not!” 

#3. Be kind. It literally costs you nothing. And yet it seems to be in such short supply in an increasingly shrill society. Here is what I read in your yearbook:
  • “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” 
  •  “A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.” 
  •  And this: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Kindness is an extension of compassion, which is the antidote to bullying. If you realize that everyone is indeed fighting their own battles, whether obvious to you or not, then it invites gentleness and kindness with one another.

Trust me: schoolyard bullies are not limited to the schoolyard. You can find them at Town Meetings, in Houses of Worship, and on Main Street in Holden. These are the self-important people who have no problem using the right-hand lane at the jug-handle at the other end of Holden to try to pass two or three cars in their desire to get where there are going six seconds faster than the person whom they have just cut off.

Kindness and compassion and decency are the core values that show us how to be better neighbors, and better neighbors make the neighborhood a better place to live for everyone.

I don’t know how many of you read The Landmark or the Telegram and Gazette but if you read the letters to the editor sometime I suspect that you will find them, as I do, rather depressing. They do not, as a general rule, contribute to the building up the neighborhood. So it is up to your generation to try to change the tone of our civic discourse from what you have inherited—which is, far too often, about people shouting at each other until each is red in the face. You can help remind your parents and grandparents that it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable, and without demonizing the other person. I think the first step in that direction is to be mindful that we really are all carrying heavy burdens—some of them obvious and some hidden deep inside. So practice random acts of kindness.

#4. Remember to say “thank you.” I was so moved by how many of you took time in your yearbook to thank friends, teachers, coaches, siblings, and yes…your parents. We parents tried to teach you along the way to say thanks to others, but it really makes our hearts glad when you turn around and say it to us. Nothing will bring a mom or dad to tears more than those two little words.
So now let me give you one more quote, this one from a thirteenth-century German mystic named Meister Eckhart: “if the only prayer you ever say is thank you, it would be enough.”

The myth that anyone is self-made is a dangerous lie, maybe the worst lie our society tells us. We are dependent on others being there for us: on those who love us unconditionally and on those who teach us by example. You have all achieved so much, and you are right to be proud of your many accomplishments. But underneath those accomplishments is a long list of people on whose shoulders you stand: a third-grade teacher, a little league coach, a voice teacher, a dance instructor who made a difference in your lives. May this occasion be an opportunity to go back and say, “thank you.” And it’s never too late to do that, by the way. If that third grade teacher is never going to see your Yearbook then trust me, nothing will confirm her decision to pursue such noble work more than getting a note of thanks from a former student who is now graduating, especially at this time of year when most teachers are as exhausted and worn out as their students are.

Independence is no doubt an important life-lesson, something we parents and teachers have tried to teach you all along the way. We taught you to tie your own shoes and to read and to look both ways when you cross the street. We taught you to ride a bike and to drive a car. We want you to do your own laundry when you leave home, and to remember to go see a doctor when you are sick. Independence is a good thing. But as the poet wrote, “no man is an island unto himself.” Maybe an even harder life lesson is the one about interdependence.

I am sure there were other themes and much more wisdom in that Yearbook that I’ve not mentioned. But I think that is more than enough for now. I hope that these four themes will carry you a bit further on up the road, where there will continue to be so much for you to discover and to rediscover about yourselves and this amazing planet we share.

For now, I have come to the end of my time. In case your mind has wondered along the way and your parents ask you on the way home what I talked about, let me save you from an awkward and embarrassing silence. You can tell them that I simply reminded you of four things you already knew: 
  1. That life is a journey;   
  2.  Be not afraid; 
  3.  Be kind to others; 
  4.  Remember to say “thank you.”
Thank you for the privilege of being among you tonight.

1 comment:

  1. awesome brother. congratulations to james..and to you and hathy. wish i was ther to hear this delivered. and by the way..."thank you".