A Few Final Words, Several Helpful Numbers, and the Search for a Blessing: May You Be Forever Young

Full text of Jane Crosthwaite Baccalaureate sermon
May 15, 2005

WFU President Thomas K. Hearn, Jr., and Baccalaureate Speaker Jane Crosthwaite
WFU President Thomas K. Hearn, Jr., and Baccalaureate Speaker Jane Crosthwaite

President Hearn, Distinguished Guests and Faculty, Still-nervous Parents, Eager and Reluctant Members of the Class of 2005:

So … what shall we talk about? The truth is, of course, that I should not speak, should not say a word at this moment.

First of all, you probably need a little time to sit quietly, catch your breath, come to terms with the past four years, and enjoy a group panic over the future.

Secondly, what can I tell you? You are now, supposedly, ready to graduate. You have spent at least four years and a couple of dollars, and so you should know it all. If the money and time were well spent, then it should all be wrapped up. And I become the red ribbon of your academic life. Arnold Palmer can add a few more flourishes tomorrow, and you are off.

As a teacher, I know that I should wait patiently for any left-over questions. I can try to “teach,” but we all know that you learn best when you seek information, when you ask questions, when you are driven by the persistent desires of curiosity. Without your hunger and my patience, we are likely to pass in the night.

Since, however, I seem to command the microphone, let me try to entice you to some questions, let me reflect on some common knowledge, and let me tell you several things that I have learned – and that I think you, actually, already know, as well.

I, too, have studied and worked on this campus. I have been fortunate enough to have been student, faculty member, dean, and board member. I have read books, written papers, smoked cigarettes, dated, danced, and been kissed under a magnolia tree. Perhaps my proudest moment was to be given a “call-down” for public display of affection, for a kiss my house mother saw. Since I was one of those people who spent more time in the library than at parties, I thought this reprimand meant I was well-rounded. This claim will be my only moment of self-promotion, however, because false nostalgia has limited benefits and can be filled with self-serving lies.

Life was not idyllic back then in any real way, but when you consider your own four years, you must be stunned by the shape those years has taken.

You, the class of 2005, are a fateful group of college students; those four years of carefree college life and casual learning which you planned for in 2001 have been bound/bookended by tragedies of enormous dimensions. You were barely on campus before your innocence was snatched by the falling towers of the World Trade Center, and you were barely planning for graduation when your emerging confidence was marred by the forces of the tsunami; you are surely a scarred generation, destined to carry what President Hearn has called a painful “burden of memory.” All college generations are marked by their worlds, to be sure, but you will carry particularly tender images and wounds, delivered by human hands and by nature itself. Now we know that the cities and the towers which we have built can signal pride to some and arrogance to others, can invite destructive attacks, and sadly, can capture – in their flames – our own falling bodies and dreams. And we have also learned that the sea shore, the beach, the edge of the built cities of our dreams, the places we rush to for escape, pleasure, abandon, solace, and renewal, that even here we are not safe. Winds and waves are as ruthless as machines and fire.

These are lessons you did not seek, did not pay tuition for, did not want to learn, and all of us are surely uncertain whether the instruction we have given as faculty or received as students begins to be minimally adequate to the realities of our current world. If you graduates are worried about your preparation, imagine the anxiety of your parents and, perhaps worse, the hidden doubts of your professors. Do we have any tools to help us climb out of the rubble, out of the blood and the mud soaked confusion of our failures and of our dreams?

At the least we know that we are longer young … and yet … and yet … in our terror and doubts and need, we are all young, students, parents and teachers. We wanted to grow up but found that no one was grown up. I was on the Wake Forest campus when John F. Kennedy was assassinated; I watched every second of the funeral procession seated in front of a single – rented – TV in Reynolda Hall. When I later read a statement attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan about our loss, I recognized myself in the exchange. Someone had said to him, “We’ll never be happy again.” To which he replied, “Oh, we’ll be happy, but we’ll never be young again.”

So today, I invite you to pick through the rubble with me and to look for some shards, some little pieces of possibility and to consider what can be salvaged and to see what we can begin to build together. IF we have lost the youth of innocence and naiveté, we most certainly cannot lose the youth which fuels courage and hope, lest all be lost. How are we to heed Bob Dylan’s anthem and prayer that we stay forever young? Can we find the fragments which will temper our youth and make it useful and, perhaps, wise?

The fact is, we have always been standing in rubble. We are not and never have been privileged to live in the pristine gardens of purity. This knowledge is what makes the stories of Eden so poignant and so necessary, and, all-too-often, so stupidly mis-used; it is one thing to look critically and seek understanding, but all too often we look for blame and excuses. We take rash and violent action forgetting that there are likely many causes and no single solution. And so we must know that he shards we examine are inevitably partial and that the social, ethical and political responses we make will be equally partial. And we must remember that the arrogance of our self-righteousness and of our best intentions can cut as deeply as the shards of our torn dreams.

Time it is, I think, for an exemplary story or two. Take April 1992 and the riots and burning frustration of South Central Los Angeles following the exoneration of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King. Here was a riot filmed by hovering helicopters. In the middle of an intersection, a young white man was pulled from his tractor trailer and was being beaten by young men out of control. What do most people do when watching such a confusion on television, or on the Web? Turn away, curse, pray, stick glued to watch? Not all people. In two different near-by homes, people got up off their sofas, got into their cars, and drove into the riot to help Reginald Denny. Sometime I think it is my life’s work to name the names of those people over and over. Lest we forget; it was Bobby Green, Terri Barnett, Titus Murphy, and Lei Yuille who ran into danger to help a stranger – in this case a stranger of a different race. To leave the security of one’s own sofa and the virtual reality of the television set is a feat of remarkable courage, fool-hearty and dangerous. But they led the young man with ninety broken bones in his face to safety.

Similarly, a few years later in Los Angeles, under less immediately violent circumstances, but in the muck and mire of a broken educational system, Michael Piscal, who will be honored with you tomorrow, got off his rear end to open a school for minority and under-served children that would challenge their abilities and potential. He left the safe “sofa” of a very posh private school to stumble around in political and economic and educational minefields to establish his school.

Point here is that both rescue and work can be done in rubble. Since that is where we live, we need to get on with it. Another honorary recipient for tomorrow, Oliver Hill, looked around Richmond, Virginia in the late 1940’s and saw the dilapidated conditions of the black schools and filed law suits showing that separate but equal was not equal. Think of taking on those legal challenges in deeply segregated Virginia. Think of joining the legal battle which gave us the successes of Brown v. Board of Education.

When my students and I read the Bhagavad Gita in my introductory Religion class, we are always stunned and amazed by the great Hindu text loved by Mahatma Gandhi and cited as crucial to mature religious understanding everywhere. What is shocking about this text, however, is that the debates over ethical action and the meaning of life actually take place in a young warrior’s chariot as he heads into battle. The young warrior recoils from battle, does not want, as he says, to kill his kinsmen, does not want blood on his hands. This is not a moment that a sweet, idealist liberal like me wants to face. As the superior modern-day reader, I want to pluck the warrior out of his chariot – out of his Humvee – to safety, to that Eden of my dreams. His chariot driver, however, is the God Krishna who is sympathetic, but instructs the warrior that he must adjust everything within his power – attitude toward the so-called enemy, expectation of victory, understanding about death – but he must take action within the situation where he finds himself.

Try as hard as I do, I cannot read this as a text about non-violence. But … it does not recommend violence or war either. It does tell the young warrior that HOW he conducts himself in battle – in the battle of life, that is – is what matters. Avoid violence and battle, if possible, but act with humility and justice and honor when you must move forward. Neither random civilian bombs nor torture chambers like Abu Ghraib would qualify as just or honorable responses.

These are the same lessons Jesus of Nazareth gave in the Sermon on the Mount. The virtues and attitudes he names are recommended within the context of persecution; they are not pieties for the gentle May Day picnic. Mourning, meekness, and mercy are not virtues for gardens; they are for the rubble-fields of war and politics. Meekness is not sweetness; the discipline to be meek requires fierce determination. Even to imagine being a peacemaker stretches the imagination, means leaving the soft comfort of our sofas. Imagine, tomorrow, when you meet another of your fellow degree recipients, Bernard Lown, who organized physicians against nuclear weapons, that he would readily give up his Nobel Peace Prize for the prize of peace itself.

I propose that it takes at least three words to get us off the sofa. The first word is “nevertheless.” “Nevertheless” is a word that I learned from Martin Buber. Buber told of the many times he had spent his mornings in deep spiritual meditation and prayer seeking union with God and a high religious fervor. But one afternoon, a student came to talk with him about the value of life, and Buber found himself too exalted to pay adequate attention to the urgency of the student’s questions. Later, on learning that the student had died, probably a suicide, Buber wondered what he could possibly have done in the midst of such distress. He answered his own questions by saying, “I could have told him “Nevertheless, there is hope.’” At least, he says, he could have tried. All the world falling down, true …”nevertheless” … let my little word reach out like a helping hand … “nevertheless.”

Similarly, Jesus of Nazareth also offers a simple galvanizing word to spur us to action. A lovely little word … “inasmuch.” You can sort of turn it over on your tongue like a peppermint. “Inasmuch” … “inasmuch” … “inasmuch.” Make a small gesture to the homeless … feed the hungry … visit the prisons … “inasmuch” as you do it unto the LEAST of these, you do it unto me. Work to protect the minority, the disadvantaged, the voiceless. This is the work of the educated citizen and the duty of a democratic nation – to safeguard the poor, the elderly, and the under-served minorities. Pick up a small shard and start building.

In this way, the world can be “otherwise.” “Otherwise” … imagine an alternative … think “otherwise” … you know, outside of the box, and all that … develop an “elaborative imagination” where things can change … and just worlds can emerge.

“Nevertheless,” “inasmuch,” and “otherwise” are the words which will keep us young. They are the words of hope. Without hope a woman shrivels, without hope a child starves, without hope a man dries up. Without hope, we age into despair and rot. But hope is NOT something we HAVE, you know. Hope is something we give; it is the attention we pay, the crumb we share, the question we ask, the hand we offer. If you clutch it yourself, it turns into a dry agony. If you offer it, like love, to the neighbor or the stranger, it will come back.

And so, here is the final accounting, the secret number of our time together this morning. Actually I offer my students this commonplace truism at the beginning of my classes because if they grasp it, they do not need to take a class with me. I wanted to keep you in bondage for an hour and so did not let you in on the secret – the ethical secret – which you already know. Guess what, you are not alone in this universe. There is at least one other person. There are two of us. That teeny little number – two – means, sadly, that we could harm one another, or happily, that we could make love. If two, then perhaps three. Not only a child that we might produce, but a larger reality already present that has given us each other. When I met you, I found a world, a universe of potential, a power beyond either of us. Martin Buber says there is an Eternal Thou, only discovered in the encounter with you as a Thou.

This discovery means that we need language, the most fragile bridge possible, but the most necessary tool in the universe. Ask me a question and I bloom. I come to life. Let me ask you something and you feel the stirring of curiosity and potential in yourself. Two people means that we must make all the ethical decisions. Cain chose to kill Abel. Sarah chose to send Hagar into the wilderness. Ammon chose to rape Tamar. In the single best alternative biblical example, Ruth chose to stay with her mother-in-law, Naomi. The young Hindu warrior chose to consult with the wisdom of the ages. Martin Buber chose to listen more closely to his students. Bobby Green chose to get up off his sofa and head into a riot. The Good Samaritan chose to help a stranger. Many of you have already chosen good work; you have gone to Viet Nam, gone to work with Habitat, gone to Latin America, gone to the City of Joy.

You have all the choices. You can develop generous and fair and just public policies or narrow, selfish and punitive ones. You make war or make peace. Or, if you are in the midst of battles you did not make, still you have choices. In the rubble fields of misery and violence and moral confusion, you can, “nevertheless,” choose to imagine and “otherwise” world. “Inasmuch” as you serve another, you also serve God, but there’s more, you make God possible for another person and, perhaps, even for yourself. One plus one equals two – and may equal three. Thus we give and receive hope. And in this exchange, we are young.

And thus we find the blessing I would offer you, this day – in hope:

May you stay forever young.
May God bless you and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you,
May you always be courageous,
Stand upright and be strong,
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your hear always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

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2005 Baccalaureate Service