This is a talk I was asked to give for new student orientation way back in 2005 here at Sewanee.
Two Ways About It
New Student Orientation Talk
Sunday, August 21, 2005
Good afternoon. Let me be among the first of the many in the coming days who will say, Welcome to Sewanee. It will grow tedious hearing that, but don’t doubt the sincerity of all of us who will say it, because we’re really glad you’re here.
Although, I’m going to admit to you, too, that in some ways, I’ve also dreaded your coming. Because it means, I’m back to work, back to the classroom, back to office hours, back to grading. Have to give exams, have to give talks. Have to wear this thing, which I seem to remember is called a tie. Can anybody confirm that for me?
Nope, the sad fact is I can’t keep hitting the snooze bar on it anymore. Summer is over, and there’s just no two ways about it. But even as I say it, I realize that that’s not entirely accurate. Because there are, there really are two ways about it. And this is the title of my talk.
Let me explain. I have always thought of the summer as being much like a long weekend: you know, June is Friday, July is Saturday, and August is Sunday. Friday is great, a release from the routine, a time in which you can do anything but the routine, and Saturday is an entire day dedicated to release from the week, which is all arranged and organized, with everything predictably in its place.
But what makes Friday and Saturday so great is that they’re unstructured, they’re not part of the structure of your week. They are just the opposite, they are anti-structure, characterized by potential. Anything is possible. What’s not to love? And yet, somehow, that extra day, Sunday, doesn’t seem as great, does it? In part, it’s the knowledge that you have to go back to school, back to work, back to the routine the next day. But that’s really only a part of it, I think. The other part is this: in fact, none of us really likes too much release from routine, none of us is really all that comfortable in the anti-structure. The demand of the potential is enormous. It’s the pressure of the blank page, the empty computer screen, of being asked to speak before a group of strangers, of sitting in an unfamiliar room, of arriving to a new place. Do you know what I mean?
One of my favorite books is by George Orwell. Not the novels 1984 or Animal Farm, which many of you may have read in high school perhaps, but rather his memoir of fighting in the Spanish Civil War entitled, Homage to Catalonia. In one chapter, Orwell describes a midnight raid that he and some of his fellow soldiers have to make on a fortified church. They’re crawling slowly across the field between their trenches and the enemy fort, going at a snail’s pace so as not to attract the attention of the enemy. As he writes,
But on the sodden ground it was almost impossible to move quietly. Do what you would your feet stuck to the mud, and every step you took was slop-slop, slop-slop. And the devil of it was that the wind had dropped, and in spite of the rain it was a very quiet night. Sounds would carry a long way. There was a dreadful moment when I kicked against a tin and thought every Fascist within miles must have heard it. But no, not a sound, no answering shot, no movement in the Fascist lines. We crept onwards, always more slowly. I cannot convey to you the depth of my desire to get there. (Homage to Catalonia, chap. 7)
That’s the line I like so much: “I cannot convey to you the depth of my desire to get there.” All of us, I think, know that feeling, the desire to be out of no-man’s land, the indescribable and overwhelming longing to be clearly one side of a thing or another.
Do you know what I mean? So here we are on a Sunday, a Sunday in August, between the release of the summer, and the routine of fall. As I said before, I have dreaded your coming, and my dread is over, because Thank God, you’re here. What took you so long?
Here you are, after a long crawl across a no-man’s land of your own. You hardly need me to point out that you’ve experienced a great many things in the course of the last year or so, from the beginning of your senior year in high school. SATs, ACTs, visting colleges, filling out applications, interviewing, getting rejections, getting acceptances, narrowing down the list, making a final decision. Never mind all the other important stuff, saying goodbye to friends, to to family, to home. It’s all very bitterswett, and it’s nice to be done with, isn’t it? But you’re not quite done. are you? You don’t really know your roommate, you haven’t picked any classes, you haven’t met your advisor, you’re not sure where all the buildings are. Not yet.
I remember the beginning of my freshman year, and realizing in bed the night before classes started that I hadn’t packed any pens, and I didn’t know where to buy any pens, and furthermore, I didn’t know anybody well enough yet to borrow a pen from. So there I was tossing and turning, in a sweat over a pen, and even as I was sweating over it, I knew it was stupid, and the fact that I knew it was stupid was no comfort at all. Like the man says, “I cannot convey to you the depth of my desire to get there.” The only thing that is comforting at such a moment, when even the stupidest little thing can set off the deepest anxiety, is the knowledge that you will get there, that there’s a there to get to. Eventually, I knew where to buy pens, I knew people to bum pens off of, I was well-supplied with pens. But I wasn’t then, not yet.
In the end, that’s what rites of passage are all about, a reminder of both Not and Yet. We move in our lives, from one stage to another, away from the past into the unknowable future. The present, at such times, is overwhelming because it is Not, not the past, but it will eventually be the future. One of the qualities of time is, of course, that it passes. Time just zooms by when you’re having fun. It moves a lot more slowly, though, when you’re not enjoying yourself, as for instance, when you have to listen to some middle-aged coot gassing on on a hot Sunday afternoon.
But it’s funny, you know, because the last rite of passage I took place in at the University was last May, graduation. I said goodbye to so many dear students, who were going away from here into their new futures, and all of them would say of their time at Sewaneee, It passed so quickly. For me, too: it seemed like they just got here. Right now, though, for you and me, poised between what’s coming and what’s been, time is hovering, not moving. Time seems to be at rest. What’s taking it so long?
I think in such times of rest, we are called upon to reflect on the Not and the Yet. I’m a classicist, which means I teach Greek and Latin, and for the ancient Greeks, the concept of the future was figured as “the time behind.” Not time past, mind you, but the time behind you. The Greeks thought of themselves as “backing into the future,” which is the title of a pretty good book on the Greeks by a scholar named Bernard Knox. For the Greeks, the past receded in view and out of grasp. It’s no longer with us, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer ours. It doesn’t mean Not Anymore, or Not Ever Again, just Not Now. A lot of the time, that’s OK. On Saturday night, we’re aware that it ain’t Monday morning, and that fact usually doesn’t displease us. Knowing that we’re backing into Monday morning, back into the routine, makes us less panicky about release.
But here we are on Sunday, and you’re not sure what the routine is that you’re backing into. All you see is the past, and the unseeable future behind your back might be filled with holes or hills. Who knows? But it’s Sunday, like I say, so if I can switch metaphors for a moment, let me talk about the Bible. Now, not to worry, I don’t intend to give a sermon–if I were about to do that, I would be the first one to walk out on me.
So, some of you know the expression, “What Would Jesus Do?” I doubt that, when people use the expression, “What Would Jesus Do?”, that they really expect an answer like, “Well, he’d spit on his finger and rub them in your eye.” But, in fact, not only is this just the sort of thing Jesus would do, but it’s something he actually did, according to the Gospel of Mark.
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. (Mark 8.22-25)
This is one of my favorite miracle-stories, for a variety of reasons, and not just because it features Jesus’ magic spit. If it weren’t Sunday, I’d make a joke about how Jesus’ magic spit restores hair and polishes silver, too, but it’s Sunday, so I’ll resist. But I have to say that I also really like the thought of Jesus sort of adjusting the tracking on this guy’s sight, and fooling with the auto focus in this miracle. “Better this way, or this way?” It just seems so much hands-on, as it were. I hope that my invocation of a story from the Bible hasn’t offended you, or that my facetious tone doesn’t make you angry. I bring it up, because I think the issues of the story have an unusual relevance.
The part of the story which strikes me as having such significance for us here today is the question, Can you see anything? and the man’s answer, that the people look like trees walking. Now, how does he know what trees look like, if he’s been blind? Upon reflection, the answer seems obvious, that he hasn’t always been blind . At some point in the past, he’s been able to see well enough to distinguish between trees and people, and now, although it’s been some time, he still can tell the difference. It’s fascinating to me that Jesus, who, if you accept the terms of the New Testamant, is omniscient, asks him whether he can see. Surely he knows that man’s sight hasn’t been restored one-hundred percent, but still he asks. The question he’s really asking is, I think, Is that good enough? And the answer he gets is, Well, no. Not yet.
It doesn’t come all at once, this transition from blindness to sight. Rather, it strikes me as being true, that instead of happening just like that, boom, we proceed in fits and starts: a big jump, and then the question, Good enough? The answer, Well, it’s better, but No, not good enough yet.
I think sometimes of this man’s situation, and wonder to myself, not What Would Jesus Do, but What Would I Do? Imagine some evening that you’re having a problem of some sort, and then, Bam! Jesus himself arrives in your dorm room.
“Uh, Hi, Jesus. Um. Wasn’t really expecting company. Can I get you something, cup of coffee, maybe?”
“No, my son, I’m good. In fact, I’m here to solve that little problem of yours.” And then Jesus solves it– maybe your iPod’s busted, or that new Dell laptop isn’t working. So now it’s fixed, except that it isn’t working one-hundred percent. And when Jesus asks if everything’s OK, you’re in the very awkward position of having to say, Well, no.
I’m being facetious, I’ll admit, but I’m not being disrespectful. You see, to say at that moment, No, required of the blind man incredible courage. That, to my mind, is the real point of the story from the Gospel of Mark, which is not simply a miraculous story of restoring sight, but is a lesson about courage. The courage to say that something could be better, that it could as good as it has ever been. This courage relies on another important concept, which is the quality we call discernment, and you cultivate it at times like this, when you are moving away from the past and make a point of seeing, as clearly as you can, what was best in it, so that you will know it again when you come across it. Have the courage and discernment to demand the best for yourself and from yourself, and you will take away from Sewanee what you come here to get.
You’re backing into the future, but the University is here to guide you, as best we can. Trust me, we’re not omniscient, and we sometimes disagree amongst ourselves about what’s best for you. We have in the last few months been discussing “curriculum revision,” which is another way of saying that we’ve been looking over our cire requirements, trying to figure out what we think makes for a generally educated person in our day and age. We don’t always agree on the specifics, and you will in your experience at Sewanee take classes with professors who will disagree heartily with one another about what’s important. If you like, you can be discouraged by the lack of consensus at the University, or, better, you can be excited by its richness and variety.
I think the one thing we all agree on, however, and that is that the time we have with you is short, barely enough time to start telling you all the things we want to tell you. A professor of mine once compared college to arriving at a great museum ten minutes before closing time. So much to see, so much worth seeing, and so little time to see it in! How to proceed under such conditions? Do you decide to run through a bunch of rooms in a hurry, or sit in the short time you have in front of the Mona Lisa, say, and get the most of that? Well, I suppose I’d be offering you a deadly combination of mixed metaphors if I told you to hit the ground running as you back into the future. I might also cause you to fall down. But I guess what I’m saying is that we’re painfully aware of how little time we have together, and I’m asking you to let us give you our best.
If you’re here at Sewanee, it’s because you are talented, and part of that talent consists of letting somebody guide you. For all of you, somewhere in the past, there is some teacher of whom you can say, He or she brought out the best in me. If you’re lucky, you’ve had more than one. You’ve had that experience, and so you know what it is to feel that you’re in excellent and capable hands. Now that you’ve had, you can’t expect less. It’s the difference between seeing things well, and seeing people like walking trees.
What that best will consist of, I can’t say for certain, but let me offer some possibilities. A really great teacher might recommend a book to you, and you jot in down in a notebook to go off and read over the weekend. And wow, it turns out to be astounding, life-changing. Or you’re in the woods one day, and someone points out a tree or a bird, and suddenly occurs to you just how beautiful it is, and how the world is so much more beautiful than you ever realized. Or maybe you’ve had to read something really boring for class, and you go to class, and the professor or one of your classmates says something which opens up a new world for you. These are small moments, glimpses of undreamt-of possibilities, sudden realizations of beauty and significance, of the way things are, truly are. This is the sort of education that comes from the presence of teachers. As the great 19th century scholar, John Henry Newman, once put it:
No book can convey the special spirit and delicate peculiarities of its subject with that rapidity and certainty which attend on the sympathy of mind with mind, through the eyes, the look, the accent, and the manner, in casual expressions thrown off at the moment, and the unstudied turns of familiar conversation. (Idea of a University, chap. 1)
It’s happening all aound us, but we must put yourself into a position to witness it. And note that I say “us,” not you. We who teach here learn as much from our students as our students do from us, but only when you challenge us, ask us to be our best, to put it as well as we can, and to be open-minded because you have things worth saying which you have the courage to say. We love that, we look forward to it, we dread it, and what took you so long to get here?
What do we want from you? What is it that the University expects you to become? Unsurprisingly, there’s no single, global answer to that question, and in many ways, it’s not a very intersting question at all. The way I’d put it is this, What do you want from you? WWUD? A great professor of mine was put this challenge to me, and I’m going to put it to you: Imagine the person you truly want to be, and then be him. Simple, isn’t it? And yet, the hardest assignment I’ve ever been given. I’m still working on it, and I hope someday to finish it. The challenge asks us to do an impossible thing, to imagine and to be, that is, to make our potential our routine. To be in constant state of envisioning and expecting the best, not as a special occasion but as a matter of course.
We can’t do it, and to put it more accurately, we can’t do it all at once. As Orwell says, “I cannot convey to you the depth of my desire to get there.” But what’s important is the desire, and the sense that there’s a there to get to. As the blind man says, “I can see … but.” knowing that he has made progress, but knowing enough to demand more. It’s Day Two of the orientation schedule before your freshman year, and before you and I know it, you’ll be walking out of All Saint’s as graduates. Time is hovering, and it’s hurrying, and if you find that confusing, all I can do is to admit to you that I find it confusing also. Or perhaps I should say it rich and exciting, or perhaps I should say we dread it and can hardly wait. What to make of it all, in the end? I don’t know, but let me offer you the enouraging words of the University motto, which you will walk over the last day of your senior year, Ecce quam bonum, Behold how good it is.
Welcome to Sewanee!