Alpha Chi Induction Address from Professor Paul E. Oakley
October 9, 2008
September 19, 2008
Madame President, Dr. Sinnott, distinguished members and inductees of the Alpha Chi Honor Society, faculty sponsors, family members and guests, it is indeed an honor to share in celebrating the academic achievements of these gifted young women and men, who represent the "brightest and best" of our students at Catawba College. I am humbled to represent my distinguished colleagues on the faculty, staff and administration of Catawba College in offering you our hearty congratulations on your induction into the Alpha Chi Honor Society.
Words are powerful, and those of us who spend our lives in academic pursuit are often those who are captivated by words. One of the goals of higher education is to increase one’s desire to understand the deeper meanings of words by placing them in a variety of contexts. For instance, the words "thank you very much" mean something different when uttered by an overworked cashier at a retail store than when spoken by a parent thanking a doctor for saving the life of a child. And the same words take on a very different meaning when used sarcastically to taunt someone who has done something that is displeasing to you. Four words ... three contexts ... very different meanings.
Today we have gathered in this beautiful Chapel to celebrate your pursuit of academic excellence, and that word "excellence" is one that has been used carelessly in our society. Every institution of higher learning advertises their unique excellence as the reason students should choose one school over another. However, it cannot be possible that every college and university is actually consistently "excellent."
In fact, the standard of "excellence" has been diluted by those of us who parented students your age. We told you that you could "be whatever you wanted to be," which, of course, is not true. (My earliest desire was to be a ballet dancer, but my body type was certainly not in line with my desire. Now, there are those who would say there is a quality of ballet in conducting, so hopefully my earlier goal was simply modified.) We encouraged you to do "whatever makes you happy," while speaking to you as adolescents. Nothing that makes adolescents happy is the best thing for them to do. Anyone ought to know that. We gave you a trophy for just showing up to play on the team, you didn’t have to win. And we arranged team tournaments so that no team (no matter how little vision, leadership, skill or discipline they possessed) got eliminated. We declared to your generation that "everyone is a winner," and now we complain because of the high levels of entitlement we see in our students and our children. The result is confusion of intent and more frequently, it is actually a misprision when we see the word "excellence" used in most contexts.
Today, you are here because you have proven yourselves within the community of scholars. You are here because you have combined your God-given talents with the other qualities and skills that are necessary to "stand out" as real examples of excellence. It is life-giving for us as faculty to work with students who intend to maximize their talents, when the all-too-frequent reality of our work is the pain of watching so many who have no clue what real giftedness and talent they are wasting. One needs look no further than the ridiculous "reality" television shows, the travesty of Wall Street, or the seeming ineptitude of our current government to understand that we live in a culture that John Maxwell so aptly says, "overvalues talent and undervalues responsibility."
You are excellent students. And we applaud your excellence. Aristotle wrote, "Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."
Please notice carefully that Aristotle says that excellence is "what we are," and not "who we are." And the ability to know the difference between what you are and who you are may be every bit as important to your present and your future as the excellence you have habituated into your academic reality.
I began playing the piano at the age of three, for no apparent reason. I just sat down and began to play the piano. I don’t know how I knew what to do, or why I knew what to do. I just knew what to do. People are amazed by anything they cannot explain, so for most of my life people have come up to me after a concert or recital and remarked "you are a wonderful talent." (They used to say a "wonderful young talent...but so be it.") I heard it so often that I actually came to believe that is what I was, "a wonderful talent." Can you think of anything less personable, impressionable, teachable, or self-lovable than thinking of yourself as a thing? I am not a wonderful talent. I am a man. I am a man, who like all of you, is a bundle of giftedness and challenges. I am a man who has had to work hard to define my sense of self apart from my "talent." So, if excellence is what you are, then who are you?
That this question may be difficult to answer comes in the way you have largely been educated. You have developed the skill to retain information, to process that information, and to recall the information at the appropriate time for an appropriate purpose. You have been trained to look for and find answers to questions and for many of you ... alright ... us, being the first one to find the answer is also important.
In the year 1903 the great, odd, and brilliant German poet Rainer Marie Rilke began a five-year correspondence with as aspiring young poet. Twenty years later, Rilke published his side of the correspondence in the book Letters to a Young Poet. In that volume, Rilke turns this concept of "academic pursuit as seeking for answers" on its ear. Rilke writes that you should "be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." Loving the questions, embracing the unknown is in fact the most difficult, most frustrating and the most rewarding part of academic pursuit. Emily Dickinson wrote, "The unknown is the mind’s greatest need, and for it no one thinks to thank God."
Learning to live into the questions, beyond searching for answers, is not just an exercise of the mind. It becomes a journey of the soul that cultivates courage, develops vision, and creates character. It is not simply a matter of the intellect, but rather it becomes a pursuit and passion of the soul. Pascal wrote, "The heart has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing."
So today I want to give you one question to live with for awhile. I wish I could claim responsibility for its authorship, but I cannot. The late, great William Sloan Coffin, perhaps one of the most significant liberation theologians of the Twentieth Century, a former chaplain at Yale University and the former Senior Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, is its author. The question may seem simple, but it most certainly is not. Here it is ... "who tells you who you are?" Not "what" but "who" tells you who you are?
For immensely gifted and dedicated students like each of you, you can easily think that you will find your "sense of identity" in what you do as a scholar, an athlete, an actor, a painter, a musician, a teacher, or whatever giftedness drives you. But if it is any of these "things" that actually defines you, then those things have become what ancient civilizations described as "idols." Idols are those finite things that block our pathway and keep us from looking for that which is infinite.
If "you" are defined by any "thing" then you have participated in the cheapening of both "who you are" and "whose you are." You are the sum total of every experience you have ever had, be it good or bad. You are the reflection of every person you have ever met, relationship you have ever had, and the culture in which you have been bred. But you are so much more than that and you can be driven to look for so much more than any "thing" that can be used to define you.
"Who tells you who you are?" Do other people, do your grades, do auditions, do your parents, your siblings, your peers? Does the church, synagogue or mosque, does the current culture, does your nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or your standing on this campus really tell you who you are? If so, you are reaching too low.
Learning to know and love "who you are" means that you must learn to embrace your triumphs and your defeats. Learning to love "who you are" means looking out beyond your self, your accomplishments, your giftedness, your weaknesses, your challenges, and your pettiness, to see something infinite. "Who you are" is the person who will uniquely fill a void on this earth that only you can fill. "Who you are" is the person who can choose to take your generation into a new era of systemic health, much better than the one our generation will have left to you.
Learning to know and love "who you are" means that no one, and no thing can identify you. Learning to love "who you are" becomes a fuel that burns passionately in you to care for others and to attempt to leave the world better than you found it.
Mother Theresa once said that Americans have problems with relationships because we "give away our things" but we do not "give away our selves." You cannot offer the world a "self" you do not know. And you cannot know "yourself" if you are willing to be defined by any finite thing. Look further, dig deeper, uncover the "you" that you spend most of your time trying to hide. Then that very authentic "you" can really make a difference in our world.
In the poem "Choose Something Like a Star" written in 1947 by the great poet Robert Frost, we find the poet gazing at the sky and wondering what it is about a star that so amazes him. (In your generation, Frost was imitated by a singing frog who asked, "Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what’s on the other side?" But it is essentially the same question. Frost uses his powers of scientific knowledge and scholarly analysis in hopes of finding what is so amazing about star gazing, and he comes up empty.
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says "I burn."
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
Our quest to know who we really are is one that allows us to look further for our self-definition than the things we can amass, the honors we can collect, the people we can influence, or the situations we can control. Rather, it challenges us to look beyond our circumstances, our highly confused culture, and our small sense of reality to see something infinite ... something better ... something bigger ... something other ... something more important. Being inducted into the Alpha Chi Honor Society tells us a great deal about what you are. And we celebrate that today. Now, I encourage you to spend the rest of your life seeking to define "who you are" and "whose you are." Don't try to find the answer, rather, keep the question alive and from it learn to live, love, and be loved.
I leave you with a prayer composed by the Apostle Paul and written for the community he loved at Philippi. He prays ... "I thank my God on every remembrance of you, always, in every prayer of mine for you, with joy I have you in my heart. And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge, and in all judgment that you may approve things that are excellent. That you may be sincere, being filled with the fruits of righteousness unto the glory and praise of God." This is my prayer for each of you today and everyday.