Thanks, Claire. That
was pretty swell; you should have invited that guy.
Seniors! I know what you're thinking: "What's this? Another
teacher to sit through before I graduate?" I feel your pain.
But here we are, so let's see what we can say about...graduation day.
I taught mythology for years, and mythology says today you
are at a crossroads on the magic journey. And always at a crosswords,
in mythology, there's a death to undergo. Today you die! Today you die
to your childhood and adolescence, and today you are resurrected as fully
responsible adults. That's the hope, anyway. But what were those first
eighteen years all about? We know the business of childhood is to explore
the tangibles. For eighteen years we grow to physical maturity and learn
all about the physical world and how it works. And here you are. The keys
to the physical kingdom are now yours. You know all about sex. You know
all about computers. You know all about the electric guitar and the hockey
stick. Congratulations. But don't start singing, "What a good boy
am I," just yet, "or good girl" either. There's more journey
left, and now comes the tricky bit. Now, mythology says, you enter The
Realm of Soul Building. The rest of the journey is more spiritual than
physical, whether you believe it or not, because you are more a spiritual
being than a physical one, whether you believe that or not. And the quest
and the question is: can you enter the darkest regions of your soul, meet
the trials the gods have put there, find the sacred character which is
your destiny, negotiate the deaths and resurrections you will surly have
to before the final one, and effect your own apotheosis?
"Oh, God, Mr. Schuster, that sounds like a load!"
In both senses. But that's the journey. And my fear today is that popular
culture does not prepare young people well to undertake this journey.
Not, at least, if you are like I was at eighteen. So let me tell you briefly
my pathetic story.
I grew up in a family of high energy, no-nonsense types and
never heard the name of God mentioned once. No religious training whatsoever...which
was fine with me. Just enough Sunday School to scoff at, perhaps, and
I was good at scoffing. And off to college I went. In college the literature
professors seemed pretty smooth, and I decided to study with them. And
they too were good, skeptical Humanists. This was the 50's, remember,
and the great literary movement of the 50's was existential Humanism.
"GOD IS DEAD," said the cover of Time magazine in big letters.
Empirical science had come of age, and looking at the universe, empirical
science had to conclude the highest form of being anywhere was the human
brain, man himself, hence Humanism.
We were on our own in a godless universe, which, when you
came right down to it, couldn't be said to have any meaning at all. "Meaninglessness"
was the big catch word of existentialism. And we all just had to admit
that, yes, there were some beautiful moments in life, but it was essentially
a train wreck at the end, and you just had to accept that finally they'd
put you in the ground and throw dirt in your face, and that was the end
of you. But that, at least, was being mature and clear-headed and realistic.
And we all had to read the popular French Existentialists,
Camus and Sartre, and the rest, who wrote these terribly gloomy stories
really: The Plague, for instance, by Albert Camus, a story about a walled
city, quarantined and ravaged by plague brought in by rats. And nobody
was allowed to leave or enter, and they all began to die horribly, and
they all knew they were doomed. Which was, of course, a metaphor for the
world at large: little hope here and absolutely none hereafter.
But the seductive thing was supposed to be the nobility of
the hero, a doctor in this case, who went about trying to help the dying
and soothe the suffering, though he knew full well it was hopeless. And
he wasn't even very effective at helping the sick, because, of course,
he was the new existential anti-hero, one who tried and tried his best,
but was facing insurmountable odds. And the message was supposed to be:
Well, yes, we're doomed, but isn't it, really, even more noble to try
to do right, without hope of reward or fear of punishment: to do the right
thing, just because it's right to do. Doomed, of course, but free at last
from the tyranny of the great Bible of behavior modification, which worked
us, like little children, in a system of cosmic rewards and punishments.
Doomed, but facing our fate like clear-eyed adults, at last.
And because these swell professors I had seemed to believe
all this, I graduated a good little Humanist myself and marched off bravely
chanting, "Free at last, free at last." Trying, of course, not
to think too hard about the doomed part. But you can't NOT think about
the doomed part very long, because you're supposed to think about it.
Literature keeps rubbing your nose in the theme of Death. And so finally
I just had to ask myself, "Do people really act as nobly as these
fictional anti-heroes?" And I had to put myself back on that doomed
train speeding faster and faster toward NOTHINGNESS, and say, "Slade,
if you know the train wreck is near, and believe it, as the Humanists
say you must, are you really going to wander the aisles of that doomed
train, among your doomed companions...What? Passing out jelly beans, maybe,
and soothing words: 'There,There,' and 'Try not to fret,' and, 'Oh, Look
at the pretty cow out there.' Or will you be screaming your guts out like
a little kid?" Well, you know the answer I got. So there I was, left
with a big load of shame and disillusionment. Here I couldn't even be
trusted to behave decently like the heroes I'd been taught to admire.
And if I couldn't trust myself, I was certainly not going to trust you
either. And that was the low point. The Humanist world was bleak enough,
but a world full of failed, cowardly Humanists was really the pits.
Well, the poets can help here, I found. And in this case it
was Shakespeare who finally set me straight on the Humanists, when I came
to teach Hamlet. In Hamlet we meet this wonderful character named Polonius,
who appears at the beginning of the play, you recall, doing what all good
fathers should do, passing moral wisdom on to his son Laertes who's going
off to college. All fathers must do this. I know you're going to do it,
dads, this summer.
"And these few precepts in thy memory look though character,"
says Polonius to his son. "Precepts," little rules to live by,
to avoid trouble in the nasty world of college. And it's a wonderfully
poetic list, as only Shakespeare can do it. Many of these precepts we
quote today without remembering where they came from:
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be."
Dress well, "for the apparel oft proclaims the man."
"Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy." You know,
live within your budget.
Pick your friends carefully, then, "Grapple them unto
thy soul with hoops of steel," etc. etc. And then the big, marvelous
zinger at the end, often quoted as the height of wisdom, "This above
all, to thine own SELF be true, and it must follow, as the night the day,
thou canst not then be false to any man."
"Pretty good list of rules is it, kids? Good practical
"Oh, yes sir, Mr. Schuster."
"Nothing missing here?"
"No, sir. Looks pretty good." Until you just about
want to scream at them, "I hope...I hope to God...you don't really
believe that life is so simple that a few rules about balancing your check
book and keeping a crease in your pants and your drinking buddies lined
up is going to get you through. Life is more complicated then that.
"Now, look again! What's wrong with this list!?"
And, of course, it's always the girls that see it first.
"Well, sir, he doesn't say anything about women."
"No, that's right, he doesn't." And, dads, can you
think of anything your sons need more as they go off to college than a
little moral guidance on how to value and honor women? I've seen your
sons for 37 years, and mine too. They need this lecture! I had four sons
of my own, and I only taught them two things: respect women, and patricide
is a terrible crime, and off they went. Well, I hope this is not beyond
the fathers here, but it was beyond Polonius. Although, as it turns out,
he has all sorts of harsh advice for his daughter Ophelia about boys in
the next scene. Which begins to look like standard male chauvinism: it's
all the girls' fault.
"Well, what about 'To thine own self be true,' Mr. Schuster.
That's pretty good, isn't it?"
"Well, I don't know. Tell me what it means." And
finally you get everyone to agree it means something like: "If you
just follow your own best moral principles, you'll be a good guy."
"And will that work for you, kids, do you think?"
"Sure. Why not, Mr. Schuster?"
"Well, why not? Because what if your own best moral principles
SUCK! That's why not? What if the great superego we're given to police
ourselves is only used to justify our greedy, lecherous, avaricious, selfish
desires, which is a good description of most of us, most of the time?
Well, I'm sure you can see where this is going, because Polonius has nothing
to tell his son about women, or God either. And what Shakespeare is giving
us here is a nice snapshot of our old friend the Humanist. He may not
have called him that, but he knew the type, the man who finds nothing
higher to call upon for guidance than SELF, "to thine own self be
true." And as final proof, after his son goes off to college, we
see Polonius, acting fully on his own best moral principles, sending agents
to spy on his son, stealing his daughter's love letters to read to the
evil king, and generally setting in motion events that end in the death
of both his children! So much for, "our own best moral principles."
And Polonius turns out to be a senile, old busybody. So the next time
someone advises, "to thine own self be true," remind him he's
quoting one of the great fools of the Western stage.
So anyway, if Shakespeare was going to mock Humanism, that
was good enough for me. But the corollary is: we now have to find something
other than SELF to guide us. And what's that going to be?
I've always liked Sophocles on this point. At the end of one
of his great tragedies, he boils it down to this: life's journey, he says,
is really about, "Man's encounter with More-Than-Man." That's
what the Humanists seem to have lost somewhere. There must be something
more than faulty SELF to call on in the universe. Sophocles wrote 400
years before Christ, but we know he meant the gods. So where do we hear
God in Christian times, if we're going to get beyond the voice of SELF
We know Jesus came 2000 years ago and left the great command
to love our neighbor. And he taught us how to heal each other with miracles
of compassion and forgiveness, resurrecting powers that run deep in our
personal relationships ... powers that run deep, but apparently, not wide.
These are personal miracles, and they do not seem to collectivize well.
Whole churches that rise up chanting, "Follow us, let's heal the
world," begin to look more like social movements, and these can be
politicized and then demagogued. So it must be a very personal trinity
between you, God, and your neighbor. Jesus did not say, for example, join
together and build Communism, or Capitalism, or grand theocracies of any
kind. He said, "Love you neighbor." It's a local miracle if
it happens, or it doesn't happen, which is probably best because it empowers
But where do we hear God's voice today?
We're warned to beware of false prophets, so let's be sure
first where not to listen for God. God does not speak to us over the radio
or on the Television. God is older than TV; He must be using some other
medium. When the radio says, "Send $1000 and we'll build a water
slide for Jesus in Tennessee," that is not God. That is snake oil.
But you knew that. Further, God does not speak to us through national
leaders, not through ayatollahs, not through mullahs, not through congressmen,
not even through presidents. When you hear politicians and men of power
telling you what God wants, that is not God speaking. That is Caesar!
That is Caesar. And render unto Caesar as you will. So where do we hear
Jesus spoke to this: He said His Father does not dwell in
churches of brick and mortar, but only in the hearts of men and women.
So listen for Him there. And we all hear this Voice, but we may misidentify
it, and that's a serious mistake. It is, of course, the voice we commonly
call compassion, the voice that calls us away from self toward our neighbor
when he's hurting in body or soul. We hear it when our hearts are touched
by the suffering of others, but even when we act upon it, we must not
claim this voice as ours. The one thing it cannot be is the voice of SELF,
because it's not a selfish voice. It is totally antipathetic to self.
It says, turn away from your own needs, and tend to the needs of someone
else. And if you claim this impulse as your own, it's like saying, "What
a good boy am I," and that never works. So whose voice is it then?
Well, of course, I'm suggesting it's the Father reminding us of the rule
of His Son, because compassion always does seem to speak the same message,
"Go. Help your neighbor." And the amusing thing is, if you hear
it long enough, the voice begins to sound like the voice of what mythology
calls a "familiar." In other words, God uses a voice appropriate
God: "Slade, you great lump! Have you forgot the rule?
Push away from the dinner table! Get off your fat butt, and go to your
friend! He's hurting, and he needs you now!"
Slade: "Yeah, OK, I hear you, Lord. I'll get right on
it. In a minute. Maybe tomorrow. Pass the gravy." OK, we're all works
in progress, so are you.
Now if you ask students what they want most in life, the answer
you get most often is a vague one: "I just want to be happy,"
which is fine. We all want that, but how to get it? Well, we have a wonderful
phenomenon here at Shattuck-St. Mary's, that I think is unique to our
school. If you ask this question at any other school, you'd get many answers,
but when you ask it here: "Who's the happiest person you know in
our little community?" there's never a hesitation. It's always Mr.
Whistle-While-You-Work, Henry Doyle, whom we all know has made an art
and career of serving his neighbor. All students here know that if Father
Doyle is not bringing them pizza in the evening or driving them to the
mall in his personal vehicle or writing his daily fifty birthday cards
or preparing Sunday service, he's out in Rice County stocking food shelves
or visiting poor families and nursing homes. We're commanded to feed the
hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless and comfort the widows and
children, but surely that's just an ideal. Nobody could do all that. And
then you look around, and here's a guy doing it. It just makes the rest
of our tiny efforts look pathetic. It's a very annoying thing you do,
Henry, but I don't suppose you're going to quit now. And yet he's the
happiest man we know.
Can it be that Father Doyle has found the secret path to Happiness
and isn't telling us? Well, of course, he can't tell us because that would
be saying, "What a good boy am I." I've never heard him say
And we're told if we give ourselves away, the gift will be
returned tenfold, but it's absolutely counterintuitive. To enlarge our
own lives by turning away from our own lives? In a materialistic world,
who can be sure of that? One thing we can be sure of, however, is: we
die, the final cancellation of SELF. But what is it that happens to SELF
when we turn to help our neighbor. You can't focus on both, so SELF, which
is just a thought anyway, is consigned, briefly, to NOTHINGNESS. SELF
undergoes a momentary cancellation, a momentary death.
Can it be that if we play by the rules here in the great practice
field of life, we will find that death is not a fearful thing at all,
but a wonder and a glory returned a 100-fold perhaps? Is that Father Doyle's
big secret? I think maybe so.
Victory over SELF is well understood in mythology anyway.
The medieval stories of knights riding forth to slay monsters and dragons
turn out to be stories by wise old poets for the instruction of the young,
who understand perfectly, in time, that the dragon to be slain is the
dragon of SELF.
Thomas a Kempis, medieval theologian, says,"Know that
the love of self doth hurt thee more than anything in the world. If you
seek your own will and pleasure, you shall never be free of care. If you
would have inward peace, you must lay the axe to the root, pluck up and
destroy that hidden inordinate inclination to self. On this sin, that
a man inordinately loveth himself, almost all depends."
In Hebrew mythology, Leviathan, the great sea monster, when
pressed as to his true identity, finally announces he is: KING OF THE
PROUD. And that's you and I. And these are the monsters that swim up from
our psyches, chew us to bits, and gulp us into darkness. And there we
have two choices: we can stay dead, if we can't figure it out, or we can
struggle to be resurrected and have another go at the beast, which, if
we've learned nothing, will just chew us up again. But when we finally
slay the monster, the dark sea holds no further fear, and we rise up and
walk upon the waters unharmed. And that's the meaning of that story. But
you don't get an infinite number of tries. Heroic action, mythology teaches,
must be timely action. You don't get forever. And whether you die tomorrow
or live to be a hundred, life is short enough. So start now.
Happiness, salvation, and glory through the death of SELF,
which we can practice here? Let's hope so, anyway.
And that's another miraculous organ we find in the Realm of
Soul Building: Hope. "Keep hope alive," says Jesse, who can
be a little busy at times, but the thought is a good one. Sam Johnson
who saved the English language with its first dictionary in 1755, said,
"We are creatures of hope and strong enough to survive its many frustrations,
but never its extinction." So keep hope alive, by all means.
And there are other godlike capacities in the Realm of Soul
Building, and one is the ability to dream. All things begin as dreams.
Your whole future is just a dream when you're young. If you're going to
be a doctor, you must first be able to dream of yourself as one, or you
will never be a doctor. How could you? But these are just career dreams.
They're important when you're young, but we can dream far beyond career
dreams. Dreaming is a sacred gift Shakespeare says God did not give, "to
fust in us unused." We can dream of things that never were in this
world and never will be, like the New Jerusalem we sang about in chapel,
the righteous city of God on the golden hill. We may never realize it
here, but we can conceive it and dream it, and then, as they say, we can
tend toward the light. But we can dream even higher than that. We can
dream of perfect Being itself, which is never seen on earth. And what
is perfect Being? It is Being without the possibility of NOT being, and
that's our definition of God.
So dream those dreams too. Dream the dreams of the gods. Why?
Because you can! And mythology says that the dreams of men are often just
dreams, but the dreams of the gods are real. The dreams of the gods are
"The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide," says Edna Millay.
"Above the world is stretched the sky,
No higher than the soul is high."
Heart and Soul, for Edna, are coextensive with the whole world.
But Hamlet does her one better than that. Hamlet says, "I could be
bounded in a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space."
The nutshell he means, of course, is this nut shell (his head), where
he locates more than just the universe. That's only finite space, but
he says "infinite space," and that includes all the gods and
heaven and hell too. Right in here. And he can be "king" of
it, which makes him one with god, a dream all religions have of the hereafter.
But you must dream the dreams of the gods while you're here. It all begins
A good course in poetry would help science and the Humanists
and the religious fundamentalists too, it seems to me. A basic device
of poetry is the metaphor, a simple comparison which invokes a concrete
image to help clarify an abstraction. "SAIL ON, OH SHIP OF STATE",
says the poet. So what is a nation/state like? Well like a great ship,
perhaps, with an authority figure like a captain in command (be it a president
or God, if you wish) and a crew to man the rigging and obey orders. It
has charted a course it hopes to follow and sails on perilous seas, etc.
etc. You fill in the details. Concrete images are a nice shorthand way
of clarifying more difficult concepts. Well, the universe is a very concrete
thing; it only took you eighteen years to master it. Can it be that it
too is a metaphor for something beyond itself, something far more abstract
and wonderful if we could only read it correctly? I think maybe so.
Finally, Shakespeare puts this in stark terms for us in the
person of his evil hero Macbeth, who leads a totally greedy life of SELF
and SELF promotion, murdering and murdering his way to power. And when
it all collapses, as such lives always do, Macbeth, with only minutes
to live, concludes that life is just, "A tale told by an idiot...signifying
nothing." Clearly Shakespeare is warning us away from such a life
and such a conclusion. You must not come the end of your journey saying
it signified nothing. So write it down! LIFE MUST SIGNIFY. LIFE MUST SIGNIFY.
It must signify something more than dirt thrown in your face at the end.
Life is more glorious than that.
My advice, however, is not to argue with science or the Humanists
on this. It's seldom productive. If Science insists the universe is just
a meaningless, random flux of groping energies, go ahead and grant the
point. But the universe has groped mightily for a million eons to give
us birth. So perhaps it's our destiny, as the creature that lives by meanings,
to thank the "meaningless" universe that gave us birth, by turning
back and giving it a meaning after all, one it never had, perhaps, but
was groping for. And if that's our job, make sure you give it a good meaning,
a glorious one, because it's a pretty fancy random flux, at least...as
random fluxes go. End of lesson. Time to graduate.
Some of my colleagues would be disappointed, however, and
I would be remiss, if I did not finally pass on what my own mother told
me at graduation many, many years ago, Humanist though she was.
"Slade," she said, "As you travel down life's
great highway, always carry a litter bag in your car, because it doesn't
cost much, it keeps your car nice and neat, and when it gets full, you
can just throw it out the window."
But we don't want you to do that. What we want is for you
to come back and see us. We have swell reunions here every June, and we'd
like to see you there too, every year if you can. But if you can't do
that, come every five years, and if you can't do that, come every ten.
And if you can't do that, send a check. And when you do come back, we
will sit down together as old friends and remember the good times we had
in these grand old buildings. And then we will test conclusions and dream
together the dreams of the Gods. And then happily, perhaps, we may anticipate
the Last Grand Reunion when we cross to the Golden Shore.
"Do you really believe that, Mr. Schuster?"
Hey, kids! It beats a train wreck. Peace.