The Indelible Incomplete
Remarks at Baccalaureate Services - May 22, 2016
Some things do not get better or easier with practice. One instance of this personal regression for many of us with long service of teaching and working at St. Lawrence is the last dawn of the academic year. I need to admit that in the midst of this beautiful hour in your lives, surrounded by family members and classmates, all of us astonished by your promise and your achievement, I have a hard time knowing what to say. We will send you forth in decency and order this morning, tracing a well-known path as we have done for all the years St. Lawrence has gathered the senior class for its traditional parting ceremonies. That section of today’s agenda, a short walk and a handshake, is easy.
My difficulty in knowing what more to say is undoubtedly a compliment to you, perhaps an indication of how personally attached I am in all the countless ways of caring. You have gained our admiration and trust, so ready or not, we are confident you are mostly ready. And yet, I struggle with degrees of wonder and worry that if I have somehow been inadequate in my work over the last four years, but have only one thing left to say, what should it be?
By now, you have absorbed all the admonitions and examples of St. Lawrence’s particular way of inhabiting liberal arts study. The windows of Gunnison Memorial Chapel give visual form and lines of scope to our ambition, but they also speak, for all the pictures are overwritten with words. The voices of human genius, intellectual curiosity, and moral courage are heard in the stained glass, transcribed to your best work in class or magically speaking to you while alone at evening-time in quiet study. There is a song from those voices you will always recognize, always playing softly underneath the other music in your head, the voices in the stained glass.
You have sometimes been prodded, sometimes inspired, by the demands of educational necessity to know how to think, analyze, write, speak, and comprehend. In addition, you have learned something about how to make a friend, make a plan, and make a living. You have proven your ability, imagination, intelligence, humor, and hopes many times. We are all convinced by all the evidence. You are well educated and St. Lawrence has generally succeeded in its job to help you face pressure, and finish in style.
What is left to say, however, is a singular final consideration: it’s not what you know…or whom, but how do you live? How to live is the unfinished course, the indelible “incomplete” you leave on your college transcript, the one topic the curriculum at best only implies, but never specifically or fully examines. You may be relieved that the baccalaureate occasion does not customarily warrant a discussion about what you will do or where you will live, but it should give pause to the ultimate concern of how to live.
When I was in my 20s, my line of work at the time required me to spend many afternoons driving around my home city to visit older people in their homes; sometimes I met them in hospital rooms. They were always indulgent and forgiving of my clumsy attempts to bring cheer and comfort; I was very self-conscious that I had so little to give them, that I was perceived as either too serious or too callow. Sometimes I resented how many hours those house calls consumed. They were people for whom the reality of death was never far away, while for me, life was highly charged and carefree, a green field, set against a clear sky, a persistent condition of readiness for a night out.
After several years of mostly small-talk afternoons with older people, I observed a consistent pattern. When they talked about their memories and lives, they never bragged about acquiring wealth or complained that riches had escaped them; they rarely mentioned an impressive job title or regretted a heart-breaking career disappointment. Personal sadness was often apparent, but rarely tearful, and their stories bringing back laughter were always reliable.
If they expressed particular pride about their lives, then the absolutely consistent thread of conversation was what they did in life for someone else. Their greatest joy, the summa of lived happiness, was in the moment they had helped another person with support extended, advice given, or kindness performed. I see the equivalent pleasure in my work today whenever a gift comes to St. Lawrence for the sake of our good purpose. The signature on the check is really a simple sentence saying that happiness is incomplete unless it is all about others.
How to live is the only liberal arts course you have yet to complete. It will take you more than another semester to earn the missing credit, even if we were to offer you one. In fact, it is ultimately a self-graded class with all the extensions negotiated in advance to get the work submitted.
Bernie Lammers was a much loved professor of government at St. Lawrence who served on our faculty for nearly forty years. Before he died, he usually wrote me an annual note, always on the blank side of an old exam that he had once given years ago. Bernie recycled paper long before we had blue bins. Even though he lived around the corner from my office, the note always came by post right before the arrival of the new class, as it did when you also entered St. Lawrence four years ago. His message: “tell the students and their parents that money is not life’s report card.” There, I’ve told you. But I should warn you, especially if you agree right now with the premises, the argument is a messy one, and will be difficult to settle, though you may never entirely put it to rest.
So, you leave St. Lawrence today with an “incomplete.” There is no time now to change the record. Sorry, if you thought you were all done. Every one of you still has one more course to finish, but, for now, the mark in the registrar’s book is indelible; it can’t be changed or erased for a long while.
How to live is an open question or, more accurately, an open-book exam, which should be reassuring if you are still anxious about how to pass. But it is a trick question, because its full measure is how to live for others.
What I wish to say as my last word will perhaps count as a review session before the final: “the demand of doing and living well is to act upon what we’ve always known.” If you remember only that from your time at St. Lawrence, you will ace the course.