Not So Fast, Not So Big
Remarks at Baccalaureate, May 21, 2017
“The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth, and even forevermore.”—Psalm 21:8
I find it significant that your final moments of college life gather us in Gunnison Memorial Chapel and that those remaining hours are not being spent, for the sake of one last time, at other places around the campus that you attended more frequently. We are all here and not at Pub56, ODY, Dana, the Winston Room, or the Munro Climbing Wall. We have good reason for this hour in this place to be different from the community joy and public pageantry of our Commencement tradition, a kind of enchanted academic costume ball. For it is only in the chapel that your fears may be sufficiently, calmly, and reliably framed within the moral and spiritual assurance you truly must need in your departing time.
Here you are reminded of great principles to live by. Here you see the compass points of what the St. Lawrence community values—caring, serving, fairness, curiosity, humor, hard work, and honesty. Here you find the inspiration in sound and sight to reflect on the qualities of life we love the most. Here you also face the contingencies of life that will challenge us and worry us the most. Here you must dream big, but not in such lofty images that you leave confused or ungrounded.
When you come to the chapel by way of the center north door, you may have noticed at eye-level two small stained glass windows featuring both new students and graduating students. There is a caption within the beginning and opening scenes of this picture—Enter to learn, Go forth to serve. Between those two events—of entering and departing—a lot happens, though in each instance there is also a lot of uncertainty.
One of the practiced skills of problem-solving embedded in a liberal arts education is the habit of breaking down an issue into its smaller, more understandable, less complex parts. As we gain mastery over nuts and bolts components, we begin to grasp something closer to the totality of the problem—whether it’s analyzing materials in the science lab or meandering passages of a literary text. In similar terms, the problem of our present, perhaps passing, nervous uncertainty, must be faced in similar incremental pieces.
There was a famous sermon preached by James Martineau in England, around the time St. Lawrence was founded, entitled, “Great Principles and Small Duties.” One of the looming dilemmas for building a life in your 20s is to overlook as inconsequential the doing of something small, which you could easily manage, while waiting for the exact right moment to do something heroic or grand that you just could never do. It’s the small duties that support the great principles, and not the other way around. Large acts driven my small-minded purposes may be possible, but in history they are among the most dangerous and irresponsible events.
Whether intentional or not, from the beginning days of your first year adjustment to college, you have found in these years at St. Lawrence something to believe and to believe in. You have been given examples of doing a life’s work and, more importantly, how to live that life. You have a sense of what and who matters most to you. There are human values acquired or affirmed in this time of your life. You may have discarded some ideas or preconceptions about the world, but now possess the intellectual self-confidence to improve those ideas or replace them. If your mind hasn’t changed about something over the last four years, then this experience has failed you, though, more likely, you never let your ideas get big enough. I am confident, however, that there are mostly high ambitions stirred by great principles now arranged as the furniture of your lives. You may be wondering today, or surely will be doing so in the coming months, how best to live up to all these big ideas we have packed inside your heads.
The important things you learn as you gain maturity in the years after college are deceptively hard and modest; they are not merely about acquiring up-to-date knowledge or specialized skills. Rather, these more important things are basic, near-at-hand, and practical. It may surprise you to discover that while the world will surely celebrate talent and bestow the words “big time” on a few, in so many cumulative, unseen ways, the world ultimately rewards character.
I would be insincere if I discouraged you from enlarged hopes or even extravagant dreams, but in my many years of observing life there is a reliable sequence: get the small duties right in the first place and, then the best chances, the only real chances, for achieving those ambitions will follow. In other words, focus your plans on things you can do something about—such as, yourself, your manners, your impatience, your self-discipline, your small, unremembered acts of kindness to someone who cannot give you any particular advantage. Benjamin Franklin famously said, “it takes many small deeds to build a good reputation, but only one bad one to lose it.”
At St. Lawrence, you enter with exciting promise and you go forth with that promise attached to high resolve. That is the expected sequence of a successful college journey. And yet, I would hastily note that the ancient poet reversed the order when writing, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth, even forevermore.” The exit precedes the entrance. How curious. It signals the wisdom of going forth, going out, perhaps to check on the star in the North Country sky still guiding you, but that you are always coming in, always entering the best success known in life in the unrecorded moments and small deeds. Indeed the Lord will bless each of you.