Walking Among Friends | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Walking Among Friends

Matriculation 2018

Arriving at St. Lawrence begins a new life and that first day has a necessary order of delivery, but not without a loving touch in the transaction.

This is clearly a personal moment for all of us, which demands great respect and good faith. For parents to put their children into and through college, to inspire their learning and ambition, turns out to be one of life’s greatest joys. The list of such joys will naturally begin with the instant of birth or arrival, but other occasions will sometimes approximate, even for a passing second, unforgettable and sublime moments.

So, matriculation, while a little playful in music and costume, has powerful associations. We will not deny or escape these feelings, but we also must take a moment to think about what to expect and how best to enter this world of college life. Personally, it was less awkward for me as a student than it was as a father. I must have been a little “dad nervous” in carrying boxes to my daughter’s room—losing my grip, maybe a little unsteady in my balance, I dropped at least two on the staircase. My record of causing mild, ill-timed embarrassment remained unbroken.

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I’ve never quoted the pop rock artist David Bowie before. I won’t even pretend to know much about his music or career. His intelligent wit produced some confounding impressions, such as his statement that to many people Mick Jagger was never a sex symbol, but a mother image. That one still puzzles me.

The sentence I give you this afternoon from David Bowie is more to the point of your beginning college life. It’s a lyric from a cover he recorded of a Nat King Cole classic, so the words are twice borrowed: “The greatest thing/ You'll ever learn/ Is just to love.../ And be loved in return.” I toss out that verse to float over our assembly for a while, perhaps as a song in the air for the class of 2022. I will come back to it in a few minutes as my remarks conclude.

Meanwhile, let me break down the essence of success at St. Lawrence as one achieved by taking a walk and making a friend. There comes from ancient philosophy a kind of riddle, both eastern and western, of what was sometimes called the unresolved problem of the paradox. The nature of the question was that holding two contradictory thoughts in your mind at the same time is logically impossible to do.

One example that makes the point is understanding time—we know that nothing stands still and yet, what we call the present must exist, even as we know it has already ceased to exist in the act of naming it—as part of it is now past and the other part has gone into the future. So, how do you figure out if the present is real in the face of its paradox?

It took about a thousand years for a Latin scholar, perhaps Augustine, to suggest the simplest answer possible—solvitur ambulando, that is, “it is solved by walking.” The present is valid, that is proved, in the gap between your strides and in the instant between your heart beats. You are most present to your circumstances not in stillness, but by walking.

The architectural magnificence of the St. Lawrence campus starts right at your feet. There are over ten miles of walks, trails, and paths on 1,000 acres of land. Some of you may use Fitbits or an App that measures your daily steps. I promise that you will walk countless miles and steps in your college careers. But let it not be mindless, aimless walking about. There are several kinds of walks at St. Lawrence that you need to consider even on your first day.

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First, there is the walk of contemplation. Henry David Thoreau is best known for writing about his life in a hand-built cabin beside Walden Pond. He kept three chairs inside his tiny abode in which he described one for solitude, one for friendship, and one for society. And yet, Thoreau was never sedentary and was more a walker than a sitter in his development as a young man. He found immense necessity and pleasure in solitude, and though he reserved a chair for that reason, he mostly discovered his best thoughts and judgments in long walks of contemplation.

Walking has been understood as a stimulus of imagination and a focus of thought for a very long time. If you visit centuries-old cathedrals, there is often embedded in the marble floor a mysterious labyrinth that invites mental concentration while walking. As a runner in college and then for several decades later, what I first learned about myself at St. Lawrence was that my mind worked best with my legs moving.

In a fascinating letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge there is a vivid description of his friend William Wordsworth “walking by moonlight in his fur gown…as walking and reciting was always his preferred method of conversation.” Wordsworth’s sister noted frequently that he could often be seen walking alone muttering to himself.

At St. Lawrence it’s perfectly normal to take a walk and talk to yourself—we view that as commonplace here. No one will think you foolish, though they may just assume you’re on a blue-tooth cell phone call. I would advise all while walking: Ditch the phone, but make the call to yourself. You may someday catch me muttering as I stroll across the Quad: it’s only a meeting going on in my head, not a sign of distress.

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You must also consider the walk of comradery. Thoreau had a chair set aside for friends, but he much preferred going for a walk to discuss events of the world. If you’re willing to go for a walk with someone, you’re also open to making a friend. It’s important here that we walk together, because in friendship you will need the assurance that someone else can walk in your steps or can eventually walk in your shoes. An understanding friend is beyond calculation in the ultimate value of the St. Lawrence experience.

The art of friendship draws a fresh picture for every one of us entering here for the first time in these most impressionable days. Not every friendship formed in this energetic moment and place of many paths will last forever, which should give you peace of mind against overloading your emotions. And yet, if your St. Lawrence experience becomes like mine or like most, you will have and hold close friends for life. Let me suggest how it may feel to you.

A few years ago sitting at an airport gate, my flight was delayed and I had extra time to read a couple of newspapers, including the Toronto Globe and Mail. I even had time to read the obituaries of people I never knew and whose family members I would never meet. Among these short biographies, one in particular I would never forget—it was the condensed life story of a woman who at the time of her death had been married for 73 years. Her husband of all those years lived with a severe, crippling, and permanent spine injury from being wounded in war. I don’t recall that they ever had children, but the last line of this newspaper tribute simply said, “She used her talents to make their lives beautiful.” That is the nature of friendship as so many of us have witnessed it at St. Lawrence.

Vera Brittain’s extraordinary memoir, Testament of Youth, tells of her years as a frontline nurse in the First World War, a catastrophic experience for countless millions that ended exactly a hundred years ago this fall. Upon reflection she writes, “[In] a college, more than anywhere else, one was likely to make the friendships that supported one through life.”

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As you walk with your own thoughts and contemplations, as you walk among companions who become friends, you may also have occasion to take the walk of conviction. On this path you may measure your first principles and the courage to act upon them. This is a walk that will develop self-confidence, will enlarge your capacity for discerning a good argument from a bad one, and will strengthen, perhaps adjust, your belief and value system. Along the way, as those steps become steadier, you must also remember in humbleness and trepidation, sometimes fear and trembling, there exists the peril of over-striding, of going too far.

There may be moments in college when speaking up and doing something will compel you to take the walk that tells you and your community who you are. Unable to hold certain private thoughts to yourself any longer, conviction initiates the first step. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel left his quiet study and his books in 1965 to join Martin Luther King in the walk from Selma to Montgomery. He’s right there at the front of the march, arms interlocked with others, in a very famous picture. Heschel wrote later, “Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs.”

This summer while traveling in the English countryside, I stumbled into an old Anglican church in a tiny village called Painswick. During the English Civil War of the early 1640s, the sanctuary was occupied by soldiers and today there are still bullet holes and grenade dents on its bell tower. But inside, scratched on a pillar, a trapped or imprisoned soldier had crudely carved into the stone, “Be bolde, be bolde, but not too bolde.” It’s so important that you consider the walk of conviction and conscience, but just remember that righteousness in the extreme can make us the equal of the hate or the enemy we abhor. Hold that thought, but be bold.

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Just as your parents will remember, like it was last week, the moment you first learned to walk, we welcome you to a campus that will teach you new things about walking—in contemplation, in comradery, and in conviction. As you enter to learn and take the next brave steps, you may hear again the refrain of matriculation: “The greatest thing/ You'll ever learn/ Is just to love.../ And be loved in return.”

William L. Fox