PLUS ÇA CHANGE1
2003 WFU Commencement
May 19, 2003
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University
Remember that once notorious Y2K problem?
Because older computing systems would not distinguish between 1900 and 2000, there were predictions of a kind of technological apocalypse — the failure of the power grid, the ruin of the financial system, and the collapse of the airline transportation network.
People stocked up on water, food, and money — perhaps some of you did. Millions of dollars were spent on new software. On the fateful New Year’s Eve, as midnight approached, every patient at our medical center who relied on monitors or mechanical support had a staff person at the bedside lest the systems fail.
Laura and I were on a coastal North Carolina island on the big night, wondering out loud how we would get home if the swing bridge to the mainland lost power. Many of us held our breath to see if the world as we knew it would be at work on January 1, 2000.
As it turned out, the world seemed quite as before — but was it in fact?
It seems, on reflection, as if things have been amiss in this new century, compared to the concluding years of the old one. Perhaps the Y2K predictors had a correct premonition that things would fail, but were mistaken about which particular failures to anticipate.
In the flush economic times of the 90’s, talk was heard of a “new economy ” — an economic system in which the business cycles of growth and recession would be transcended. The new economy — if there was such a thing — is already a casualty of the new millennium.
Wealth grew naturally in the capital markets of the 90’s. I once owned a technology mutual fund that rose 400% in one year. I had only a few hundred dollars in it, but the idea was that wealth came as naturally as listening to the right guru. Well, the markets have collapsed — not to mention my high-flying fund — and not a few of the gurus are out of a job or resting in jail.
At the end of the twentieth century, our nation seemed powerful and secure. The Cold War had ended peacefully — after decades of anxiety — without a shot being fired, leaving us as the world’s superpower and guardian. Yet, the attacks of 9/11 shattered the illusion of our security and safety. The world is not, after all, safe for democracy. America’s force does not a fortress make.
Technology equalizes the gap between the mighty and the weak. There is a frontier saying: “God made man, but Colonel Colt ” — he of revolver fame — “made men equal. ” In a world of weapons of mass destruction, there are no castles or walls or oceans as sanctuary. We felt more secure in our homes, offices, and airports before the calendars turned to zeros. Our sense of safety has been a casualty of the new era.
Now in your graduation year, the nation has been to war in Iraq — war being the clearest evidence that the national and international equilibrium is out of balance, a state of barely controlled chaos, imposing risks of every sort to the combatants and the diplomatic order.
That armed conflict has freed the world from the menace of one inhumane dictator, but we must hope that a larger reconciliation with the Arab world — in Israel and elsewhere — can be achieved. But we do not yet know whether that broader peace will be possible, and a war that does not yield peace is often the seed of still more war.
So the world might seem to us out of joint — in contrast to the halcyon days of the old century — as we celebrate today the achievements of your minds and hearts. This new century promises stern obstacles as you assume your stations and your duties.
The economy is shaky. Jobs are scarce. Graduate programs are flooded with applications. The national and global order is precarious. As if that were not enough, a new and deadly virus is on the loose.
Why have things gone haywire? What’s wrong?
Well, maybe nothing — nothing, that is, except our expectations.
The fact is that human history is a drama in which our lives — as individuals, as families, as citizens of nations — are fraught with uncertainties. We see through a glass, darkly. We do not yet know what we shall be. Success and security — let alone peace among nations — have never been guaranteed or achieved in the natural course of things. Ask your grandparents who survived the Depression and fought World War II.
The idea that individuals, let alone societies, make plans and achieve them in an orderly, progressive, and linear fashion is the way we often prefer to think, but it is never the way we live.
Nothing is so certain as change. Nothing is so predictable as the unpredictable. Surprises — big and small, wonderful and tragic — are around each bend in the road. You are graduating to the world that is, as it has been always, a domain of challenge and test.
This lesson of the contingent nature of things came to our home a few weeks ago in the person of our grandson, Will Joerling — a blonde, curly-headed, exuberant hunk of a twenty month old — an all-truck-and-tractor kind of boy who rules the kingdoms of our hearts utterly.
His pediatrician had seen something in his eye. A referral brought him to specialists at the Wake Forest Medical School with the frightful discovery that he was blind in one eye and, more frightening yet, that his condition might be symptomatic of something terribly grave.
You can imagine, or perhaps you cannot, the reaction of his parents and his extended family — bone-chilling fear and the certainty that our lives, not just his, were at stake in these awful hours of uncertainty. Our dreams for him and his future — we are already saving for his Wake Forest education — were in jeopardy. Life had offered up a menacing challenge.
After what seemed an eternity, we received the news we prayed for. His sight in the affected eye was lost, but other diagnoses we feared to hear were not spoken. He was otherwise fine. Quickly we moved from grief over his lost sight to relief at his pardon, and ours, from a worse sentence, and a future we dared not contemplate.
My daughter said the other day that she and her husband had been waiting to feel normal again after this ordeal — to recover their own equilibrium. But she had come to understand that there would be no return, no recovery of that normal. There would be a new normal instead — a new state of being or well being that now incorporates this experience into their lives and into the baby’s life.2
My daughter is profoundly wise. Upon reflection, there is no normal state of being — intellectual, emotional, or spiritual — that having been achieved gives us the perspective from which our experiences can be interpreted and our lives ordered and organized. We live each day as part of the evolving flux which is the world.
The lives we would wish for you, and the lives your parents have sought for you, are those in which blessings and rewards are bestowed upon you as your labor and your merit would deserve.
But there is no life that does not cross those places Robert Frost describes as:
… [L]ike a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open. 3
You must encounter the mysteries of good and evil, achievement and despair, faith and doubt. The world’s story is told in comedy and tragedy, in laughter and in tears. Not all our endings are happy, but some are wonderful indeed.
As we live in awareness of the contingency which attends our days, our capacity to appreciate our blessings and benefits is deepened, as is our strength to face adversity through courage. We may come to know, indeed, that we live by grace.
My father loved to quote these familiar lines:
Do not pray for easy lives.
Pray to be stronger men!
Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers.
Pray for powers equal to your tasks. 4
I offer that benediction to you as you leave these halls to enter your varied fields of service.
The seal of Wake Forest, containing our motto Pro Humanitate, is at the center of the diploma you are to be given. We send you forth to lives where your endeavors must reflect your commitment — Pro Humanitate — to the equal regard for each human being God has made. With that faith — and with God’s favor — you can serve to build a world more hospitable to our dreams and safer for our children and our children’s children.
1. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. “The more things change, the more they remain the same. ” A popular French adage. Several people read and commented on early drafts: Russell Brantley, Sandra Boyette, Reid Morgan, Michael Strysick, and Laura Walter Hearn. I appreciate their help and advice.
2. Will Joerling’s diagnosis is Coates’ Disease, a rare condition resulting from a breakdown of the blood vessels in the eye. It will require monitoring for several years, but it is not bilateral and should not affect his general health.
3. “Birches, ” The Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Modern Library, 1946), 127.
4. “Going Up to Jerusalem, ” in Phillips Brooks: Selected Sermons, ed. William Scarlett (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1950), 352.