Charge to Graduates Class of 2001
By Thomas K. Hearn Jr.
May 21, 2001
The people we loved.
The people who loved us.
The people who, for good or ill, taught us things.
Dead and gone though they may be,
as we come to understand them in new ways – and through them
we come to understand ourselves – in new ways too.
— Frederick Buechner, “Sacred Journey”
Today we celebrate the achievements of character and intellect. The path to this moment started years hence, and you have required persistence and intelligence in equal measure to reach this moment of academic recognition. It is a day for proud celebration, and it honors me to be given this time to reflect on the way you have come, and more importantly, the way ahead.
On this day of endings and beginnings, is there a remaining lesson required if you are to live complete lives-lives in which professional achievement is matched by personal well being?
There is certainly one topic, central to your life, about which your academic preparation has been likely limited, perhaps non-existent. That subject is love. How things stand between you and the objects of your affection will determine your happiness and well being as much as any other single matter.
But love is rarely a subject of academic study. I spoke with a philosopher friend about a contemporary guide for my thinking for this occasion, and he had no recommendation. Another writer reported that an anthropological database covering 300 world cultures, with topics on every human concern, had no separate category for love.
But, I have a fortunate history from which to remedy Wake Forest’s deficiency about this topic so central to human well being. I was blessed to have a mother gifted, remarkably gifted, in the art of loving. Since her death, I have been attempting to appropriate the lessons of my mother’s life, lessons in loving. She was, as much as anyone I have ever known, a kind of emotional genius. Thus, on this day of your adult beginnings, I offer these lessons in loving to you as a tribute to her.
There is first a sober and unwelcome truth. There is some fundamental connection between suffering and the capacity to love. It is a fact that we moderns resist. The parents here have spent themselves to see that every stone which might cause you to stumble has been removed. But you will learn in time, if you have not already, that to suffer is human. Moreover, despite pain and loss, suffering can be redemptive and strengthening.
The lesson of the great religions is that those whom God most loves – from Job to Jesus – he first allows to suffer. The first of the Buddha’s Noble Truths is suffering. There is no resurrection that is not preceded by a painful trek up some mountain of loss.
My mother belonged to what we now call “the greatest generation.” They endured the Great Depression, fought and won World War II, and built this great modern nation.
Her generation knew suffering, not just of deprivation and war. My mother experienced an unbearable childhood loss. As the result of an appalling physical problem, then incurable, her mother committed suicide when mother was ten. They lived in a world not free of childhood infectious diseases, and mother recalled vividly that her aunt lost three children in a single week. She graduated from high school into the teeth of the Depression. She had no chance to go to college.
In suffering are sown seeds both of bitterness and compassion. What is it that suffering, when it is redemptive, teaches? For mother it was a profound sense of gratitude. The blessings which came to her, particularly her children and grandchildren, were precious beyond measure because she knew that life offers blessings, gifts-not promised or guaranteed outcomes. Mother somehow knew the lesson of love that renders our experience precious precisely because it is contingent and uncertain. As blessings-uncertain and undeserved-the rewards of our lives are rendered sacred. Suffering can teach us, if we are wise, that we live by grace. Most of us live in the confident expectation of life’s benefits. Mother lived in gratitude and thus in a state of grace.
My father liked to tell me, not in jest, “It’s the things you do not have that make you what you are.” He was wiser than I supposed. What mother did not have in her childhood and young life somehow prepared her to reach others with a constancy and resolve that arises from an intimate understanding of grace.
Second, the capacity for love is not part of our natural emotional equipment. Certain feelings and urges are, of course, natural to our biological system. From what we learn of love in popular culture, you would suppose that love is as natural as hunger or thirst. But if you consider the enormous social system which love must conspire to navigate – ranging over years and complex interpersonal networks – it is clear that no natural instinct is at work. Romantic attraction is perhaps natural, but love is not romantic attraction.
The most certain evidence that there is no natural endowment to love is that most of us manage the intimate attachments of our lives so imperfectly. We do not love as we would if love were a gift of our nature.
My mother chanced to meet an impecunious Alabama school teacher in Nashville, her home, while he was there for a summer job. Romance blossomed, and they eloped at summer’s end. There was no money for a wedding, and, indeed, no money for a honeymoon of even a single night.
She had never met her new husband’s family, save for one brother. Her father and a maternal uncle had been mother’s caregivers after her own mother’s death. She had never heard either of these men raise their voices in anger. She left for Alabama to meet a life for which she could not have been less prepared.
The Hearn clan was large. My father was one of eight children, six of them boys. The Hearns were close-knit, competitive and quarrelsome. The emotional volume was high. Anger was often the order of the day. Their sibling rivalries were acted out in every game of skill or chance. Her father-in-law, my grandfather, had a fierce temper, and some of his sons, including my father, had inherited or imitated it.
But mother was not diminished, let alone defeated, by the emotional maelstrom into which she had been thrust. Indeed, she mastered that maelstrom and became one of that large and volatile family’s islands of strength and sanctuary.
She made enduring friendships across that extended family. She became a mother-aunt to a wide network of cousins. She had the talent, a gift, to meet and match an extraordinary emotional challenge for which nothing in her life could have prepared her-save the capacity to love.
She lived to be the last survivor of that entire generation. Her graceful influences gave her generation and the next, my siblings and cousins, an emotional sanctuary which was our secure salvation. She transformed the emotional tenor of my generation.
Mother did not have some human instinct capable of leading her through the emotional maze that was her adult life. There is some talent of a rare sort-like having perfect musical pitch-that enables leaders in the art of loving to steer themselves and others in the perfect storms which are the human heart. Love is art. It is not a gift of nature. It requires talent and practice.
Third, love is a paradoxical union of both vulnerability and weakness and extraordinary strength. We know most, of course, about the vulnerabilities of love. In loving, we place our welfare in the hands of others. We are subservient to those we love, and most of us have known the pain and victimhood love brings. In that sense too, to love is to suffer.
At the other end of the emotional continuum, however, those gifted in love possess extraordinary strength and emotional security. Only those who love can themselves fully receive the strengthening gifts of love in return. Those gifts are powerful. When we describe God as love, we attach ultimate power to love as governing the world.
Mother lived, and lived fully, both these paradoxical characteristics of love. My father was an insecure, sometimes volatile man. Like his generation, my father volunteered when the war came, and the war rescued him from the Depression. Mother was his professional partner as he built a new and better post-war life, but his new career and ultimately his health were lost to his various demons. She bore the scars of loving him, but her love was rooted in loyalty and fidelity. She nursed him faithfully through his declining years and failing health.
But in an equal and opposite way, mother was a bastion. I would describe her as charismatic. She was secure in herself and in her place in the world, especially in the hearts of others. She had friends of all ages, and all her family derived from her wisdom in the management of our own often complicated lives. She formed around herself an extraordinary circle of affection, and that circle was powerful and unbroken.
She communicated strength and resolve and set high expectations for herself and for us. Her love came from something fundamental, and neither she nor that love could be broken. She told my daughter, who interviewed her shortly before she died, that she was often crushed, but never destroyed. Love is strong and gives strength to those who are gifted in its practice. Love gives power to secure your well being and to nurture and give strength to others.
A fourth lesson concerns the continuity between loving persons and loving things. There is a long philosophical tradition that sharply separates the human domain from the rest of creation. Immanuel Kant famously defined morality as placing persons and things into separate and separated spheres. The Jewish mystic, Martin Buber, taught that only personal things were capable of those experiences through which God is revealed in the world.
But reflecting on my mother’s life and outlook convinces me that her love of persons and her capacity to nurture were inseparably bound up in the devotion she had for flowers, trees, plants, animals, and the extraordinary interest she took in all things beautiful. She loved all creation-human and nonhuman-with a similar passion.
That love made lovely every domain of her habitation. Her trees and flowers were as children and, yes, she talked to them in personal terms. When I once teased her about this habit, she replied that if I had spoken with the magnificent elms that once crowned this quadrangle, they might not have died. If you loved those trees, she said, you should have told them so.
My brother, Joel, gave a majestic eulogy at mother’s funeral, and where he found and gave comfort was in the recognition that the work of mother’s love lives on-not just in us-but in all the environments that she created and sustained.
Those who love best embrace all that God has made. Plato’s Symposium describes love’s path as a quest for beauty originating in the love of worldly things and culminating in the love of beauty itself as an absolute ideal. Love is a passion for all things lovely.
How may my mother’s lessons in loving be given you on this day of your adult commencings? Mother knew that love is not a feeling, not an emotion, but a way of living. Feelings, all feelings, come and go, but those who practice love know that its requirement is that we live in compassionate regard for every life we contact. To love is to live in active goodwill.
In so living, my mother drew others to her, and she thereby assisted others to live according to their best and highest instincts. As active goodwill, love transforms others in the image and expectations of that love. Therein is love’s power shown.
When asked the supreme requirement of life, Jesus said that we must love God and also our neighbors as ourselves. To the question “Who is my neighbor?” the answer was the remarkable parable of the Good Samaritan. You will recall that the righteous and the religious failed to help this victim of theft and violence. But the despised Samaritan gave rescue. Your neighbor is anyone who, on your life’s way, needs your compassion and care. Each person is your neighbor in the neighborhood that is the world.
The Good Samaritan is not a story about love as an emotion. It is a story about love as compassionate living. My mother lived this parable, and this lesson was the basis of her capacity to reach and teach others.
Wake Forest today charges you to live Pro Humanitate, in service of humanity. By this requirement, you are not being called to adopt some lesser affection, some feeling, toward humanity at large. Rather you are being given a summons to action, a call to arms, to do battle in your varied fields of conquest against those ancient enemies that prevent men and women, anywhere and everywhere, from achieving their rightful place in the commonwealth of love.
To love is to be, as Louise Patton Hearn was, a Good Samaritan along every path you walk-from this day forth and forevermore. In so living and in so loving, you will be blessed, and you will be a blessing.