Comfort and Courage

Remarks at Baccalaureate - May 19, 2013

I thank the Class of 2013 for the privilege of speaking at its Baccalaureate Service. Your invitation means a great deal to me. This is an important and distinctive St. Lawrence tradition, like no other in the index of ceremonies, because it only occurs once in the four years we have known together. While the intentions of Moving Up Day and Commencement are to celebrate your intellectual accomplishments and your civic contributions, the design of our Baccalaureate hour departs from the measures and success stories of academic life. Rather, we pause to give special attention to the qualities of the human spirit that have quietly flowed beneath the surface of the St. Lawrence stream of experiences.

I do not presume that this is the first moment for the larger and abiding questions to be contemplated by any of you. I can happily bear witness to your development of deep attachments while living here as a student, whether in forming lasting friendships with each other, being awakened profoundly by the fragile beauty of nature, or gaining the anchor hold of inspiration from great teachers and exemplary mentors. But I would not have us avoid mention of a formative aspect of your time here that has to do with other ways I hope St. Lawrence has made you stronger and better.

In his extensive travels, Emerson always carried with him on the lecture circuit a selection of old books. He called it his “knapsack of custom.” I hope as you pack up and get ready to move on, there is room in your own knapsack for some reference ideas able to serve you in terms that are different from how an academic major has prepared the way for work or study. Until now, as your president for four years, I have not revealed many of my worries about you. I have, instead, remained buoyantly confident in your abilities, promise, and values. But on our last day together when you are still students under my watch, I wonder out loud, how will you handle yourselves when trouble comes? How will you manage the tough times; and did St. Lawrence prepare you for that eventuality?

The fullness of an answer cannot be known today; only you will be able to determine this measure of St. Lawrence’s influence, and not until you have been tested by the winds and waves of outer turbulence. While we are all confident that you have grown in knowledge and understanding during your course of study, I think one purpose of this occasion is to ask, have you also grown in courage and inner resilience? You will need to give some advance thought to this important personal question; because, no matter how smart you are, no matter how financially secure you may be, no matter how much pleasure continues in a vital social experience with friends, you will also need a strength of spirit to face the issues of life.

How can I help frame your approach and assessment? And how can I offer a word of comfort for such a difficult pondering? Here, I am briefly charged to make a couple of suggestions for you to consider.

When I was a boy, there was an older woman in our community whose presence in our family life was effectively that of a traditional godmother. Her name was Ruth Anna Fisher, an Oberlin graduate of 1906. She had become well acquainted personally with both W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. And then, perhaps to escape the pressures of bigotry and the difficulty of race in America, she took a job at the British Museum in London. She was there during the famous bombing of the city in the first treacherous days of the Second World War. There was an unrelenting period when 3,000 people a day were killed. Her own apartment was blown up, yet she had managed to get into an air raid shelter in the nick of time. The only personal object that survived the bombing was a little book of wise sayings. Years later, at some special family occasion, she gave me that book and I have kept it with me for more than 40 years. Miss Fisher taught me a Latin sentence that became our own kind of secret code: hic est gravis orbis terrarum—this is a hard world.

Have you grown in courage and inner strength? You will only know if you have when you first concede that in life, it won’t be easy. You will know adversity. And some of you already have known, sooner than seems fair, a portion of stressful turmoil. Certainly, as a generation, you have seen a world that is hard. You were children on September 11 and have observed human conflict, failure, and despair in vivid reports. Expressed differently, the troubled world gives none of us an exemption anymore; the hard things of life were perhaps never meant to be dismissed as a fate that happens only to others. We understand with a powerful immediacy that the finish line of the Boston Marathon makes Boylston Street only a block around the corner from wherever we may live.

The wisdom of an ancient writer says, “Set a straight course and keep to it, and do not be dismayed in the face of adversity” (Sirach 2:2). It’s a brave statement, certainly a potential source of encouragement. But I would add that to reach that point when dismay can be relaxed, one must admit a reality both of time and scale. We have declared ourselves to be living in hard times, a courageous admission, but it may actually be worse. The actual scale of this challenge to be courageous has a certain existential dimension, too.

Again, if I may call on another boyhood memory: my mother’s favorite prayer, one that she placed in several corners of our home, was the lovely old sentence of the Breton fishermen: “O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.” That’s the whole prayer. And some may argue it’s not much of a prayer—it doesn’t ask for anything, it makes no petition for intercession, and it offers no special thanks for anything. It’s a seemingly neutral statement. And yet, it’s the premise of a single person discovering the presence of something larger than a human being. It makes us conscious of our own smallness while set in a vast event, but in that fact lies the truth and the secret of one’s inner greatness. That honesty and sincerity will, more often than not, become the deeper well of courage, releasing us from the arrogance of self-possession.

In this realization, there is comfort. Personal moments of courage are not really solo acts; for some other, larger heroic example of another person or even the small habit of selfless reasoning have developed the courageous response in you. There is a bridge, as you will discover, from the zone of adversity to the comfort zone of better feelings. Incidentally, do you know the meaning and derivation of the word comfort? It comes down to us from an original definition to give courage, to fortify, to strengthen, and to hearten. Only later did comfort become associated with making life easy or giving satisfactory repose in a worry-free moment. In other words, I am saying, more than financial security and a stellar résumé, it takes courage to be comfortable.

Of course, this is a day that must include music. I, for one, have always found strength, comfort, and inspiration in song and lyric. Let me give you one famous example. It’s the final scene of the great classic from American musical theater, the 1945 show, “Carousel.” It reminds me of today, because on that grand stage, young people are also gathered at commencement, when Louise, the daughter of Julie and Billy, graduates from high school. You know this chorus because it’s still sung all over a hard world:

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark

At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of the lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on walk on with hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone
You'll never walk alone

My hope for you in remembering this song: that in your years at St. Lawrence, you have found a lifelong, vital source of comfort and courage.